Missoula County Recognizes Place Names, Mullan Area and the Higgins Avenue Bridge

Horses graze in a field in the Sx͏ʷtpqyen area.

Missoula County and the City of Missoula acknowledge Missoula County is the homeland and aboriginal territories of the Salish and Kalispel people.

In recent years, we’ve made efforts to recognize and bring awareness to the history ingrained deep within Missoula County, memorializing past traditions, leaders and events that laid the foundational components of life as we know it today. This authentic honoring of an established friendship reconciling the impact of settler colonialism and elevating contemporary collaboration between Missoula County and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), is intended to inspire a lifelong relationship of respectful partnership.  

Missoula is expanding and developing, which presents an opportunity to recognize place names and honor the deep cultural landscape of this place. Two central projects are under construction: the Mullan Area and the bridge on Higgins Avenue. Led by Commissioner Dave Strohmaier, Missoula County met with the CSKT leadership and asked if they would be willing to provide appropriate place names for the locations being repaired and developed.  

After much research and thoughtful review, the Séliš-Ql̓ispé Culture Committee submitted Sx͏ʷtpqyen (pronounced S-wh-tip-KAYN) as a place name for the Mullan Area development. Missoula County has been working with the City of Missoula on a joint master plan and form-based code to promote consistent and orderly development in this area. The result of this effort is the Sx͏ʷtpqyen Neighborhoods Master Plan and Traditional Neighborhood Development Form Based Code. A $13 million federal BUILD grant, secured in 2019, incentivized development of this cherished area, located on the western edge of the city limits, between Mullan Road and West Broadway, west of Reserve Street and east of the Missoula International Airport, which will help fund expansion and improve connectivity throughout Missoula.

Sx͏ʷtpqyen means a Place Where Something is Cut Off and Comes to a Point. “The area is located amid a rich cultural landscape for the Séliš and Ql̓ispé people,” the Culture Committee shared in their renaming proposal. “Before its recent transformation, most of the Missoula Valley was open prairie, rich in Speƛ̓m (bitterroots), and other food and medicinal plants, and maintained with the careful, regular application of fire by tribal people. The Missoula Valley as a whole was the most important and abundant bitterroot digging grounds in all the Séliš and Ql̓ispé people’s territories. This sacred plant is honored each year in the bitterroot ceremony, when tribal people gather to welcome the return of the ‘visitor’ — to pray for its well-being and abundance, and to express their gratitude for speƛ̓m and all the other plants that they will harvest through the coming months.” 

“Looking south of the planning area one can see a line of trees in the distance along the north side of Nmesulétk͏ʷ (the “middle” Clark Fork River). Prior to development, this riparian forest stood in sharp contrast to the surrounding grasslands. It was wedge-shaped, wider in the west and gradually tapering to a point in the east, somewhere in the vicinity of present-day Reserve Street.”

Four miles across the Missoula Valley, traffic is moving a bit slower through downtown as the bridge crossing the Clark Fork River on Higgins Avenue is under complete reconstruction. Missoula County and the City of Missoula recognized this reconstruction project as a meaningful time to name the bridge.

The Cultural Committee shared Beartracks Bridge as the appropriate name to honor the agonizing journey the Salish experienced as they crossed the river on their journey to the Jocko Valley after being exiled from their home in the Bitterroot Valley. The name honors “both the Vanderburg family and the Salish people as a whole,” as stated in the committee’s proposal.

“Beartracks is a name steeped in Salish history and culture,” the proposal states. “It is also of direct relevance to the site of the bridge itself, which figured prominently in one of the saddest episodes in our history – what is often called the Salish ‘Trail of Tears.’ In October 1891, the U.S. government forced some 300 Salish people to leave our Bitterroot Valley homeland and move north to the Flathead Reservation. To this day, that time is remembered with a deep sense of grief by our elders.”

During this arduous journey, Chief Charlo delegated sub-chief Louis Vanderburg, married to Mary Beartrack, to lead a group of the Salish tribe across the Clark Fork River, near or at the location of where Higgins Avenue now crosses. The name Beartracks Bridge was suggested as a tribute to the Vanderburg-Beartracks family legacy.

The Vanderburg-Beartracks family have continued to be prominent leaders, and their influence is respected by many. As shared by the Cultural Committee, “Louis’s son, Čicnmtú (Passing Someone on the Trail — Victor Vanderburg), was a prominent leader among the Salish who served on numerous delegations to Washington- D.C. under head chief Martin Charlo. In later life, Victor was married to prominent Salish cultural leader Čɫx͏ʷm̓x͏ʷm̓šn̓á (Sophie Moiese) for whom the Missoula County Commissioners named the public hearing room in the Missoula County Courthouse in 2018.”

Missoula County would like to thank the CSKT Tribal Council and the Séliš-Ql̓ispé Culture Committee for their in-depth research and thoughtful selection of place names for these treasured landmarks in the Missoula Valley. The county recognizes Missoula is the homeland of the Confederated, Salish and Kootenai Tribes and will continue to acknowledge it as such.

To learn about ways Missoula County and CSKT are shaping tomorrow together, visit the links below:

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