On May 25, 2020, our nation witnessed the horror of George Floyd dying with a police officer’s knee pressed into his neck. Mothers everywhere, from Minneapolis to Maine to Missoula, winced hearing a dying man call to his own.
This act is but a snapshot of hundreds of years of oppression. Much of the United States was built on stolen land with stolen labor, and these centuries old crimes still echo today, across generations. As your Missoula County elected officials, we share a vision of a just future, yet do not pretend to know the exact path forward. Though some of us have faced discrimination, we have all benefited from structural racism. Much of our knowledge of racial injustice comes from shared stories rather than personal experiences. Nonetheless, we are committed to amplifying and including the voices of those who do understand.
We embrace the right to peacefully protest, encourage our citizens to exercise their right to peacefully assemble and speak their minds, without violence. Across the country people from every walk of life are saying — loud and clear — ENOUGH. We hear you and agree with you.
We are willing to listen and to take further action. Some of the steps we’ve made to examine and address inequality in our local criminal justice system include rolling out our comprehensive jail diversion plan, launching our prosecution-led diversion program and reforming our pre-trial system. We’ve invited the National Native Children’s Trauma Center to inform criminal justice employees of the devastating impacts of historical trauma of Native people and teach us the practice of cultural humility. As a county government, we’re proud of our relationship with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. We are committed to understanding why American Indians are disproportionately represented in detention and what additional steps we can take to address historical injustices.
We have people working exclusively on equity issues in our public health department and at the Partnership Health Center clinic. And we understand all our work must be considered through an equity lens. Even so, inequality persists and we must address it now.
There is a lot of work to be done and, as your elected officials, we shoulder the burden of change. This work must be perpetual, so we are making a sustained commitment. We expect that you will hold us to account and appreciate your involvement. Please join us in this effort.
Over the course of the past two weeks, in the midst of violence and devastation, we also saw unlikely alliances and witnessed acts of unprecedented solidarity and kindness: the organizer of a conservative rally invited a Black Lives Matter activist to the stage; law enforcement professionals denounced the actions of racist officers; a sheriff and his deputies responding to a call for security, instead joined the march with protesters; a stalwart row of blue uniforms in Texas took a knee in honor of those who’ve been slain and those who marched.
Robert Kennedy said each time a person “stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Let’s keep working together — starting with ripple — so that the tragic events of last month mark the end of the long night of injustice for people of color in our community and signal a new day, one that honors the legacy of George Floyd, and all who came before him, by implementing — not just promising — justice for all.
Alex Beal, Missoula County Justice of the Peace Dave Strohmaier, Missoula County Commissioner David Wall, Missoula County Auditor Erin Lipkind, Missoula County Superintendent of Schools Josh Slotnick, Missoula County Commissioner Juanita Vero, Missoula County Commissioner Kirsten Pabst, Missoula County Attorney Landee Holloway, Missoula County Justice of the Peace Shirley Faust, Missoula County Clerk of Court TJ McDermott, Missoula County Sheriff Tyler Gernant, Missoula County Clerk and Treasurer
*A version of this post was also submitted to several area news organizations
Missoula County commissioners and members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Tribal Council will hold a flag and artwork dedication ceremony at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 19, in the Sophie Moiese Room at the Missoula County Courthouse.
The ceremony, which is open to the public, will recognize the county and tribes’ longstanding relationship and honor that present-day Missoula County is located on the aboriginal lands that the Salish people inhabited until the U.S. government forcibly removed them to the Flathead Reservation in 1891. The southeastern edge of the reservation also overlaps with Missoula County.
Following opening remarks from Commissioner Dave Strohmaier and CSKT Tribal Council Chairwoman Shelly Fyant, Séliš-Ql̓ispé Culture Committee Director Tony Incashola will lead the dedication. Tribal drum group Yamncut will perform, and the CSKT Veterans Warrior Society will present the flag, which the tribal council gifted to the county. It will stand alongside the U.S. and Montana flags at the head of the room.
“Missoula County respects the sovereignty of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and feel it is long overdue that we honor our government-to-government relations with the tribes by displaying the Flathead Nation’s flag in the commissioners’ public hearing room,” Strohmaier said.
“This dedication is an important moment in our history,” Fyant said. “Our Tribal Council relishes the support and friendship offered by Missoula County and hopes it serves as a model statewide for improved relations between tribal governments and counties. We thrive as a community when we find ways to work together.”
The ceremony also will include dedication of the artwork by Salish artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith currently on display in the room. The two pieces, “Nature/Medicine” and “Tribe/Community,” are on loan through the Missoula Art Museum’s Art in Public Places program. MAM Executive Director Laura Millin will share insights about Smith and her work. Smith, who was born in St. Ignatius and is an enrolled CSKT member, now resides in New Mexico.
Commissioners have made it a priority in recent years to honor and foster the relationship the county has with CSKT. Leaders from the two governments meet at least once a year, and in November 2018, commissioners named their public meeting room in honor of Sophie Moiese, one of the most highly respected Salish cultural leaders of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Today, anyone who visits Fort Missoula along the city’s western edge is treated to expansive views of the mountains surrounding our vibrant community. Some visitors, though, may not realize that this idyllic setting also harbors a dark history.
From 1941 to 1944, the U.S. government interned more than 2,200 Japanese resident aliens, Italian nationals and a small number of German nationals following the country’s entry into World War II. The Italian men were held at the Fort Missoula Alien Detention Center until Italy’s surrender in 1944. For the Japanese, Fort Missoula served as a way station while they were subjected to an enemy alien hearing board that decided whether the men were likely to be disloyal to the United States. Though none of the Japanese men were found to be disloyal, the majority were still sent from Fort Missoula to one of several War Relocation Camps across the country that held over 120,000 Japanese Americans. At Fort Missoula, both the Japanese and Italians were held in one of the 29 barracks that once occupied the fort’s eastern side.
According to its website, a Site of Conscience is “a place of memory – a museum, historic site, memorial or memory initiative – that confronts both the history of what happened there and its contemporary legacies.” Membership as a Site of Conscience connects HMFM to more than 250 worldwide sites that interpret tragedies and atrocities, such as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., detention under dictators in Latin America, life in a Russian Gulag, and transiting to death camps during the Holocaust. The coalition’s mission is to not only impart the story of what happened at each site, but to promote civil action to prevent history from repeating itself.
“By joining the Sites of Conscience, we’ll be able to network with these sites and learn additional ways to interpret difficult histories, which will be helpful as we continue to raise awareness of the story of the Fort Missoula internment camp,” says Matt Lautzenheiser, HMFM executive director.
Lautzenheiser predicts HMFM’s designation as a Site of Conscience – the first in Montana − will help with several projects, including the museum’s continued work to fully restore two additional detention barracks. The museum also is partnering with the Missoula Art Museum to create two complementary exhibits: one at MAM featuring artwork reflecting on Japanese internment and incarceration, and another at HMFM elaborating on the history that inspired the art and the story of Fort Missoula and the other Department of Justice camps. Museum staff envision four to six public programs that will accompany the exhibits, which are on track to open in fall 2020. And while it doesn’t include funding up front, membership does open the door to grant opportunities that could help finance some of these initiatives.
In addition to telling the site’s internment story, HMFM features fascinating permanent and rotating exhibits documenting the history of Missoula County. But don’t just take our word for it – head over and see for yourself. The museum is located at 3400 Captain Rawn Way, at the heart of the Fort Missoula National Historic District. It’s currently open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. And, thanks to a 2002 voter-approved levy, admission is free for all Missoula County residents. You can learn more about the museum and its current exhibits at www.fortmissoulamuseum.org.
Nicole “Cola” Rowley, the current chair of the Missoula Board of County Commissioners, updated local stakeholders on four key county initiatives at the April 15 State of the Community. Rowley covered a lot of ground in her 10-minute speech, providing details on the county’s updated land use map, sustainability goals, fairground renovation plans and criminal justice initiatives.
Thank you all for coming today, and thank you to City Club for putting this on. To keep things interesting, I’m going to put slides up as I go. The County does incredibly diverse and interesting work, but since I can’t talk about it all in 10 minutes, I thought I’d update you on three things that focus on shared values and that I’m passionate about: land use planning for the growth we’re experiencing, redevelopment of the fairgrounds and improving outcomes in our justice system.
Later this week, my fellow commissioners and I will hold a hearing on the Missoula Area Mapping Project. It’s a community-driven land use planning project led by Community and Planning Services that identified the values of our communities and developed a vision for how we can get there. For more than a year, we held over a dozen public workshops, three rounds of soliciting public comment through an interactive online map, and dozens of one-on-one stakeholder and public conversations. This yielded a plan based on community input that represents new ideas on how to guide growth:
We streamlined the designations, paring down from about 60 to the 15 you see here;
We added the county’s first agricultural land use designation to preserve our intact agricultural areas;
We worked closely with the East Missoula and West Riverside communities to develop a live/make land use designation. This supports small-scale entrepreneurship and manufacturing while protecting the residential character of the neighborhoods.
The plan uses infrastructure to proactively guide growth, increase housing supply and develop walkable neighborhoods. The plan has the support of diverse groups, including both the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition and the Missoula Organization of Realtors, as well as the affected East Missoula community council, where traditional planning methods have fallen flat. Through real conversations and creativity, our staff − thank you, Andrew Hagemaier and Christine Dascenzo − achieved this broad support and came up with a plan that honors our shared values of preserving working landscapes and wilderness areas while driving opportunities like entrepreneurship and affordable housing.
Hand in hand with land use planning and growth come conversations of sustainability and resiliency around climate change. As the 2017 wildfires and resulting smoke and 2018 floods demonstrated, we’re already experiencing the impacts of climate change, and these impacts are only projected to accelerate in the coming years.
This is a picture I took in my subdivision while I was on pre-evacuation notice in the 2017 Lolo fire. It was like watching an air show as the multiple planes and helicopters flew over our front porch and doused the approaching wall of flames. It was a phenomenal sight, and my little girls, who were 2 and 5 at the time, were both fascinated and terrified by it. What’s truly terrifying though is the world they will live in if we drag our feet on addressing climate change. Thanks to our Energy Conservation and Sustainability Coordinator, Diana Maneta, the county is engaged in stakeholder-driven Climate Resiliency Planning with the City and Climate Smart Missoula, which will deepen our understanding of the local impacts of climate change that we’re clearly experiencing and develop strategies to address them.
In addition to adapting to impacts, we are doing our part to reduce our contribution to climate change. Missoula County operations emit 7,583 metric tons of CO2 equivalent every year. We have established a goal of carbon neutrality in county government operations by 2035, with an interim goal of 30 percent reduction by 2025. This would eliminate 80,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent, which is like taking 17,000 cars off the road for a year.
Together with the city, we have established a goal of 100 percent clean electricity by 2030 for the Missoula urban area. The hard part is putting that in action. A couple of weeks ago, we passed interim regulations requiring new and expanding cryptocurrency mining companies to use 100 percent new renewable energy.
Cryptocurrency mining in Missoula County is currently estimated to use as much electricity as one-third of all households in the city and county, and that simply doesn’t align with our community’s goal of mitigating climate change.
Also on the sustainability front, under the direction of our amazing Director Emily Brock, the Western Montana Fair has joined Missoula’s ZERO by FIFTY initiative to reduce 90 percent of the material sent to the landfill by 2050. Last year the fair saw 80,000 visitors and produced nearly 60 tons of trash. Moving forward, we’ll have stations set up around the fair to recycle and compost everything possible and will require all vendors to convert to compostable and recyclable materials.
For the past century, the Fairgrounds have embodied the diversity found in Missoula County itself; connecting people by bridging our rural heritage and urban vibrancy and honoring education, human connection, history and recreation.
We currently host over 500 events on the Fairgrounds every year, and we’re looking to grow the venue into a community destination as we break ground this year on what will be the home of the Missoula County Weed District and Extension Office and privately funded Missoula Insectarium. This partnership is a vital part of a stewardship and revitalization project that will bring community life to Midtown Missoula.
Another thing to look for on the grounds this year is the historic remodel of the Commercial and Culinary buildings, which are on track for a grand re-opening at this summer’s fair.
Historic plaza and concessions row
For the 2020 fair, you can expect a relocated and new concessions row, historic plaza, trails, updated exhibit space and, with any luck, new perimeter fencing that feels less like a correctional facility and more like a welcome home.
Longer term, a new Rodeo Arena will be built with seating for 3,000 spectators and improved staging areas for the animals. A new 80,000 square foot Livestock Center will be located adjacent to the Learning Center so youth enrolled in agricultural programming can easily move from classroom space to the field. This facility will be an enormous asset to livestock programming and will increase agricultural education opportunities for youth living in the urban core.
Glacier Ice Rink will eventually move toward the YMCA and will have three sheets of ice and four dedicated curling lanes. The current rink operates up to 18 hours a day with nearly 4,000 people a week during peak season. The new rink will create opportunities for year-round ice, increase available ice time, and increase participation across all programs.
It will also look a lot better. Moving it away from Malfunction Junction will improve the viewscape into the open space and newly renovated historic buildings on the grounds.
The new layout of the fairgrounds will feature 19.1 acres of green space, nearly a mile of commuter trails and an all-abilities playground, serving as a rural oasis in the middle of Missoula, actualizing a decades-long planning process involving hundreds of community members that calls on us to be stewards of this property, our heritage and of community life.
This last project I’ll talk about honors our collective values of equity, collaboration, social justice and public safety. Last year these stakeholders and others worked together to form a Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, a holistic collaborative governance structure to integrate Missoula’s many criminal justice projects, services and initiatives.
America overincarcerates people – we have 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the incarcerated population. And Montana is worse than the national average.
What’s driving it? Well, it’s certainly not simple, but among other things we decided to be “tough on crime.” This slide shows incarceration for drug offenses, going up by and order of magnitude since the 80s. But it’s a general trend; incarceration for property and violent crime have also gone up, even when overall crime rates have gone down − a national trend mirrored locally.
According to the Jail Diversion Master Plan commissioned by Sheriff McDermott, the average daily population in the Missoula County jail increased 31.4 percent between 2007 and 2015. In addition to incarcerating more people, we incarcerate them for longer: the average length of stay in the Missoula County jail increased over 50 percent between 2007 and 2015. It took a dip in 2015, but it’s currently up at about 15 days.
So we incarcerate people without addressing underlying issues, they often become criminalized by that detention, they’re released and re-offend, and they come back. There’s a lot of evidence now that, when we’re talking about non-violent offenders, the current approach doesn’t work to improve outcomes, but rather creates and perpetuates this cycle of incarceration. What is most is to hold them reasonably accountable, address the underlying issues driving their criminality, and allow them the opportunity to become productive members of society. Simply put, we need to stop trying to address public health issues in the criminal justice system.
This slide lists some of the justice improvement efforts I’ve been personally involved in since taking office in 2015. There are certainly more; for example, County Attorney Kirsten Pabst has received national awards for her work in addressing secondary trauma in her team.
It’s important to keep in mind that these efforts focus on social justice and low-level crimes often driven by mental health and substance abuse issues; but our teams are dealing with multiple double homicides and truly disturbing crimes, and it takes a toll on everyone involved. Those crimes and criminals are not who we are talking about with these efforts. For these efforts addressing non-violent crimes, we also have received national recognition from, among others, the National Association of Counties and the National Conference of State Legislatures, who’s bringing legislators from around the country here this spring to see what system reform can look like in a small jurisdiction. They’re finding that the evidence-based models developed in large metropolitan areas are not effective in rural areas, and two-thirds of all counties in America qualify as rural. There’s a national conversation about finding more appropriate, scalable models, and Missoula County is at the forefront.
These are just a few of the initiatives going on at Missoula County that make me proud to be a commissioner and honored to work with an incredible team to serve all of you.
In a gesture that Commissioner Dave Strohmaier estimates came “about 150 years late,” Missoula County this week dedicated its public hearing room in the courthouse in honor of Sophie Moiese (1864-1960), one of the most highly respected Salish cultural leaders of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Moiese, or Č̓ɫx͏ʷm̓x͏ʷm̓šn̓á in Salish, was considered an expert in virtually every aspect of traditional tribal life, from song, dance and material culture to the Salish spiritual and material relationship with plants, according to a biography provided by the Séliš-Qlispé Culture Committee. She taught countless young Salish people about the gathering, preparation, storage and use of the tribe’s traditional food and medicines. For many years, she led the springtime bitterroot ceremony, when the Salish welcomed the return of the bitterroot flower, the first major food of the year in the old way of life.
As the Missoula Valley was perhaps the single most abundant bitterroot grounds throughout the tribe’s vast aboriginal territories, it’s fitting that
a room in the courthouse that now inhabits it be named for Moiese.
On Monday, members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council joined the Missoula Board of County Commissioners to do just that during a ceremony that featured a blessing and remarks from Tony Incashola, director of the Séliš-Qlispé Culture Committee, an honor song performed by tribal drum group Yamncut and a proclamation from the county commissioners.
In his remarks, Incashola emphasized the importance of honoring the people who inhabited – and cared for – the land that is now Missoula County.
“We need to try to understand what (the land) looked like, what it was like here, thousands of years ago, as our ancestors utilized, lived in the area” Incashola said. “And it was people like Sophie Moiese who took care of it, who utilized it, who respected it, so she could pass it down … to the next generation. And it’s people like her, and other Natives, who have made that possible for us to exist here today.”
In addition to her botanical expertise, Moiese also passed on to the younger generations her extensive knowledge of tribal history. She often carried a buckskin string with knots in it, known as a memory string (ɫsispiʔ nɫqʷlqʷelstn), which was the traditional way of ensuring the accurate transmission of oral history. She often recounted the painful story of the forced removal of the Salish from the Bitterroot Valley in 1891, when she was 27. She especially recalled the elder women weeping as soldiers pushed the people north to the Flathead Reservation.
The connection to Moiese, and to the history she helped keep alive, remains strong today. When Incashola asked those attendance how many were direct descendants of her, more than a dozen people raised their hands.
“This is a great day not only for her family, but for the tribes, the county, Native and non-Native people,” he said. “It’s a day that we’re attempting to bridge some of those gaps that have existed for hundreds of years.”