Salish youth plant bitterroot on historic grounds; reconnect with heritage

Lawrence Mahkuk, 17, a Two Eagle River School senior, helps Jaxson Adams, 5, a Nkwusm Salish Language School student, plant a bitterroot at Fort Missoula on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current

Reenacting their ancestral ceremony, kids of all ages planted 850 bitterroot plants on Wednesday at Fort Missoula – their Missoula Valley homeland.

“We’re coming back to our homeland and the little ones will come to know that,” said tribal elder Arleen Adams of Arlee, watching from the sidelines as students from Nkwusm Salish Language School and Two Eagle River School planted bitterroot plants in the 16-acre natural field at Fort Missoula Regional Park.

“Really, it’s just a small fragment of what it used to be,” said Morgan Valliant, conservation lands manager for Missoula Parks and Recreation. “What is cool is that we have history in the ground rather than in a museum.”

The planting project marks the first step in a long-term plan to reestablish a sustainable population of bitterroots that Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes (CKST) can periodically harvest.

A culturally and historically significant plant, the bitterroot played a vital role in the survival of Montana’s native people.

Long before the European settlement of the Missoula Valley, until the early 1900s, the Salish visited what’s now the South Reserve Street area to harvest bitterroots. It was historically considered one of the best bitterroot sites in the Missoula valley.

But as the Missoula Valley was developed, the once vast populations of the eventual iconic Montana state flower, Lewisia rediviva, were wiped out of existence.

Until now.

Since 2016, the tribes, the city and Missoula County have worked in concert to restore a small fragment of the bitterroot population on Missoula’s south side. Both have carefully collected bitterroot seed and grown the plants in their own greenhouses.

“Our goal on this site is to make it a collectible site, so the tribe will be able to come down and collect Bitterroots,” said Valliant. “But it will take several years to get it back to a (full) collectible site.”

Three Nikwusm Salish Language School students wear the school pledge on their T-shirts. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current)

The groups collected seeds on the North Hill of Missoula.

“Getting enough seeds to grow 1,000 plants was tough,” added Valliant. “But we finally got enough.”

On Wednesday, Valliant directed 37 grade-school students and 16 high school students on how to pick a spot, dig and plant the prepped plants. He and his city crew guided the kids, ensuring they spread out in the field to help avoid dig-happy ground squirrels.

Several teens teamed up with some of the littles as teachers wandered from spot to spot.

“The Bitterroot is an important part of the culture,” said Stephanie Fisher, an Eagle River science teacher. “In the spring we dig them up to harvest.”

Gene Beaverhead, language specialist at the Nkwusm Salish Language School in Arlee, said cooking and eating the root is part of the Salish heritage.

“It’s one of the main staples back in the day,” said Beaverhead. “It’s the first plant that sprouts in the spring. Most people won’t eat it, but I eat it. I tell the kids that a long time ago we’d eat it – not because it tastes good, but because it’s nutritious.”

His great grandfather, Beaverhead, often told him that people attributed living to 100 to eating the bitterroot.

Adams, who serves as the cultural advisor for Two Eagle School, praised the nutritional value, as well. But she calls the taste “awesome.”

Boil the bitterroot with berries for a special ceremonial sweet treat – primarily at winter dances and memorials.

“Every month of the winter I have to have the taste of bitterroot,” added Adams, taking in the landscape full of busy kids and teachers. “I think of it as a blanket on the ground full of bitterroot – that’s how my Mom and Grandmother looked at it. I think of it as a person – and you treat it as such.”

Morgan Valliant, conservation lands manager for Missoula Parks and Recreation, gives directions to students and teachers from two schools prior to planting bitterroots in the natural field east of Bella Vista Pavilion at Fort MIssoula Regional Park on Wednesday. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current)

The Missoula Valley has special meaning for Adams, as her grandmother, Caroline Vanderberg, was born on the banks of the Clark Fork River. As a child, Adams picked Apples in an orchard near where Reserve Street now runs.

Beaverhead, who led a prayer circle before the planting, thanked all participants.

“We thanked people for coming down to help us because this was native lands and the plant grew abundantly here,” said Beaverhead. “We want it to come back.”

Lawrence Eagle River, a Two Eagle River senior and one of the oldest high school students said, “It’s important to show the little kids what our people used to do for food.”

The planting brought back memories for Two Eagle River bus driver A.J. McDonald, who grew up picking roots.

“It’s good seeing the little kids start out picking, too,” said McDonald as he waited and watched.

Immersed in their language, the preschool-through-third-grade students speak Nkwusm Salish as their first language – although they also pick up English along the way. Often, the youngsters teach their parents Salish.

“We do a lot of outings and we try to have them practice our culture and our ways,” said Elizabeth Deroche, who teaches grades 5 through 8 at Nkwusm Salish.

Even her daughter Atlin, 4, can aptly translate everything her mother says from Salish to English.

Several of the younger students wore bright red T-shirts emblazoned with the school’s language pledge, which the kids recite daily, said teacher Echo Brown.

The short, less eloquent version of the pledge includes an oath to learn the language, be respectful, avoid laughing at others, listen to the teachers and never give up learning, added Brown.

Bitterroot planting and preservation of language are intertwined, as the students may return in the spring to dig up the bitterroots to continue their ceremonial tradition.