What’s in a flag? Ceremony at Missoula County courthouse recognizes tribal absence

Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe Chairwoman Shelley Fryant speaks of cooperation as Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnik looks on during the flag dedication ceremony on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

Putting another’s flag beside your own carries great meaning, especially if the foreign flag has been absent too long.

So when Missoula County commissioners decided to install the flag of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes next to the state flag in the Sophie Moiese room of the county courthouse on Wednesday, it was a recognition of the position the tribes should have held in the county all along.

“Missoula County is in Indian country,” said county commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “For too long and too often, we who occupy these shared places and who call this place home forget the lineage and heritage of the spaces that we occupy.”

Standing near the red CSKT flag, Strohmaier said he had long noticed that the streets of Missoula were named after U.S. presidents and white founders of Missoula but no mention of the Native Americans who spent generations in the Five Valleys. So, working with the Cultural Committee in St. Ignatius, the county commission worked to change that, including naming the meeting room last year for tribal leader Sophie Moiese.

“There’s much more that we need to do, both symbolically and tangibly, in terms of solidifying our relations,” Strohmaier said. “We share government to government relations, something that is far too often forgotten by local governments across Indian country in Montana. We wanted to take a tangible step to rectify that by the dedication of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes flag within this chamber.”

Flags are heavy, weighed down by more than just the heft of warp and weft. More than mere cloth, they are symbols and stories woven into one. As such, their creation is the result of deep deliberation.

Cultural committee member Tony Incashola told the 60 audience members what was represented in the different symbols on the CSKT flag. A disk representing a shield to protect his people, the Rocky Mountains representing the home of the Salish, Spokane and Kootenai people and feathers representing the generations of those people.

“Those are some of the simple things that are on the flag that represent thousands of years of life,” Incashola said. “I want to thank all those who made this day possible. I can only hope that we can continue to move forward in the same direction. Separate, individually, we can’t succeed. But as a group, as partners, we can accomplish many things.”

Representatives of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and Missoula County, along with drummers, attended the flag dedication ceremony. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

The Veterans Warrior Society carried the CSKT flag, along with the U.S. and Canadian flags, to the front of the room while the Ymancut drum group sang.

The second part of the presentation was a dedication of two pieces of art created by CSKT artist Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, which will grace the walls of the meeting room. One, called Tribal/Community, depicts a rabbit figure on a yellow background of symbols, while the other, Nature/Medicine, shows a rough human figure dancing toward a tree with a flute player beyond. They are part of Smith’s four-piece “Survival” series from 1996.

Missoula Art Museum executive director Laura Millin said the museum has been collecting Smith’s work since the early 1990s, when Smith started donating her pieces under the agreement that the museum would continue to expand its collection of contemporary Native American art.

“She uses humor and satire to examine stereotypes and realities of American Indian life in contrast to the consumerism of American society,” Millin said. “Her Survival series represent models that have given indigenous people resilience, allowing them to survive in the severe disruption brought on by colonialism.”

As members of the CSKT murmured their approval, Strohmaier encouraged the audience to stay and visit after the presentation.

“This is a symbol that we are installing and dedicating today, but it is more than that,” Strohmaier said. “It is a piece of the fabric of a story that I hope will go on in Missoula County and be the framework for stories in the 55 other counties in the state of Montana, who might also think about their past and their future and the relationships that they need to respect with sovereign nations across the state.”