The bridge over the Clark Fork river downtown Missoula has been renamed “Bear Tracks Bridge” in one of several efforts to acknowledge the area’s cultural landscape. Credit: Cameron Evans / MTFP

Reconstruction of the historic Higgins Avenue Bridge that spans the Clark Fork river in downtown Missoula is nearing completion. The new bridge will have more spacious pathways for pedestrians and cyclists, and it will come with a new name to reflect Missoula’s history as the aboriginal territory of the Salish and Kalispel people.

Earlier this month, the bridge was officially renamed “Bear Tracks Bridge” in one of several efforts spearheaded by Missoula County to acknowledge the area’s cultural landscape and history.

Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier initiated a collaboration with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council, the Séliš-Ql̓ispé Culture Committee and the city of Missoula to rename the bridge, along with several other sites in town, including a meeting room in the courthouse and a neighborhood targeted for development in the Mullan Road area. 

“We recognize that Missoula County is within the aboriginal homelands of the Salish and Kalispel people, and as such, the places in which we reside here ought to reflect and respect the heritage of this place,” Strohmaier said. 

As an important part of their culture, the Salish and Kalispel people commonly named places after the resources that were abundant in the area. Missoula, for example, was known as “place of the small bull trout.”

“In just one place name that we share, we can learn from it,” said Chaney Bell, the Salish language coordinator for the culture committee. “Especially when you learn the language and the stories that come from those place names. It’s just a really important piece of who we are as Salish people.”

The collaboration between the Séliš-Ql̓ispé Culture Committee and Missoula County began when Strohmaier, who was previously a historian focused on Native Americans, took notice of street names in downtown Missoula while walking to work. 

“I found it highly ironic that the names of streets in downtown Missoula reflect the names of former presidents of the United States or species of trees,” Strohmaier said. “Nothing would indicate that we are standing on land that has been occupied by people stretching back to the receding waters of Glacial Lake Missoula.”

Strohmaier reached out to the CSKT tribal council and the culture committee several years ago to pick a name for the meeting room in the Missoula County Courthouse where the Board of County Commissioners holds public meetings. 

“I found it highly ironic that the names of streets in downtown Missoula reflect the names of former presidents of the United States or species of trees. Nothing would indicate that we are standing on land that has been occupied by people stretching back to the receding waters of Glacial Lake Missoula.”

Dave Strohmaier, Missoula County commissioner  

After a lengthy process of vetting different names, the culture committee suggested naming the room after Sophie Moiese, a highly respected Salish elder. Along with renaming the room, the county hung the Flathead Nation flag alongside the State of Montana and United States flags. 

The name selected for the meeting room and other places in Missoula County, such as the new Bear Tracks Bridge, are based on decades of work, documents and interviews with elders compiled by the culture committee. 

Shirley Trahan, the Séliš-Ql̓ispé Culture Committee’s senior translator and language adviser, said the committee is the keeper of Salish language and culture. Trahan noted that Antoine Incashola, who served as the committee’s director until he passed away this summer, was instrumental in educating the public about the history of the Salish and Kalispel people.

“One of our tasks is to keep these traditional ways alive, keep our memories alive, and keep our history told to our people and to others that want to hear it,” Bell said. 

The most recent renaming project of the historic Higgins Avenue Bridge, now Bear Tracks Bridge, is particularly significant for Indigenous people. The bridge has been referred to as the Salish “Trail of Tears” because it was the site where, in October 1891, during the U.S. government’s forced removal of Indigenous people in the Bitterroot Valley to the Flathead Reservation, one of the parties crossed the Clark Fork River.

The new name, Bear Tracks Bridge, is a shortened translation of the Salish name Sx͏ʷ͏úytis Smx̣e, which means “Grizzly Bear Tracks” and is the “Indian name” of a prominent Salish family. 

According to the culture committee’s research and documentation, Alexander Beartracks was among the sub-chiefs who signed the 1855 Hellgate and Lame Bull treaties. In October 1891, sub-chief Louis Vanderburg — who married Alexander Beartracks’ daughter, Mary Beartracks — led one of the groups that crossed the Clark Fork near the location of the modern bridge. 

The new name for the bridge was approved by the Montana Transportation Commission in April and was listed on banners along the bridge this summer. 

Trahan said that despite the site’s history, the culture committee wanted to give the bridge a positive name. 

Similarly, the committee submitted Sx͏ʷtpqyen, which means “a Place Where Something is Cut Off and Comes to a Point,” as a name for the Mullan neighborhood development as Missoula County and the city work on a plan to promote development in the area. 

The area was originally named after U.S. Army Captain John Mullan, but was renamed due to concerns over racist comments made by Mullan and the decimation of Native cultures brought by colonizing the area. 

Now, the name Sx͏ʷtpqyen recognizes the importance of the abundance of bitterroots, food and medicinal plants that the tribes found in the Missoula Valley. 

Thompson Smith, coordinator of tribal history and geography projects for the committee, said recognizing the history of Missoula through renaming projects helps foster respect between Native and non-Native communities. 

“Even in this strange time we’re living in now, we can rebuild relations of true respect between people, and that respect really depends upon a deeper understanding of one another,” Smith said. 

Planning is currently underway for the dedication ceremony of the Bear Tracks Bridge on Oct. 10, which is Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Strohmaier said the city and county are also working to develop interpretive signs for the bridge that will explain various aspects of Salish place names, the history of the Bear Tracks name, the Beartracks family, and the forced relocation of the Bitterroot Salish to the Flathead Reservation. 

Stromhaimer said the city and county are also working with the Federal Highway Administration to include on the signs both the English and Salish languages, much like the dual language signs that dot Highway 93 on the Flathead Reservation. 

“There are a lot of regulatory hurdles, but we’re working through that process because it’s important to reinforce that Bear Tracks Bridge is named after the Beartracks family,” Strohmaier said. “It’s not named Bear Tracks because the mascot for the University of Montana is the Grizzlies.”

Bell and other members of the culture committee said they have a good relationship with the county, and Strohmaier noted that the county regularly works with the CSKT on projects from land management to cultural undertakings. 

“We’re doing our best to keep alert, relearn and reach out into our aboriginal territory,” Bell said. “It’s just nice when you work with people that have good hearts.”

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Cameron Evans

Cameron Evans is a freelance journalist based in Missoula. Cameron is a graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism and worked for the Missoulian. Her work has appeared in USA Today, Kaiser Health News, Business Insider and INSIDER. Find her at cameronevans.me or follow her on Twitter.