What shall we make of our stories?
This timeline is a somewhat personal attempt to get the main narratives of this place in my mind. A place is not a place until it has a history, and one can't really inhabit a place without knowing that history.
But history is not simply the past. History is what we make of the past. It's a making we do by what we remember, what we forget, what we decide to believe, what we choose to doubt. It's all tangled up with what we like and don't like, what we anticipate and what we avoid.
Inevitably, what we make of the past is what we make of ourselves. History matters, because our quality of life has as much to do with the quality of the stories we inhabit as it does with the quality of landscape itself.
There's no doubt that the landscapes here are splendid and that life here can be sublime: photographing swans gliding down toward mists over Ninepipes with the sun rising behind the Mission Mountains, watching grizzlies in late summer feed on cutworm moths resting under loose rocks on McDonald Peak, letting one's heart pound with the beat of drums at the Elmo Celebration in July, watching a thunder shower from a rock shelter on the face of Kakashe, diving into the pools at the foot of thirty-foot falls on the upper Jocko River, or riding through Buffalo Rapids on the Flathead River in a twelve-man raft.
And there's no doubt that the stories here are as rich and meaningful as the stories from better known places—that old conservative, Chief Charlo, rigid against an onslaught of changes that did not please him; the Irish settler looking to escape the Butte mines by proving up 80 acres at Dublin Gulch; the Jesuit missionary gazing at a two-mile wide Oregon Trail packed hard by tens of thousands of travelers and realizing that time was short, that the interior tribes were going to be squeezed by development to the west as well as to the east, and that perhaps only assimilation was an alternative to disaster; the Scottish trader and his Nez Perce wife building a new place as the changing global markets of the nineteenth century and the distant forces of international negotiations kept shifting the direction of opportunity.
Quite naturally, the stories here have their share of trouble—where there is life there is trouble—but in the long run trouble is interesting mainly for the way it reveals character. Some people facing trouble turned mean and fearful. Others reached deep and found resilience and courage. Some people who suffered turned bitter. Others learned compassion.
The main point of history, I think, is to help us learn how to live. History does this by giving us examples both of how we want to be and how we want the world to be and of how we don't want to be and how we don't want the world to be.
Any of us can find stories that illustrate whatever we want to feel is true. Stories of kindness and generosity, stories of brutality and cold-heartedness, stories of resilience, stories of defeat, stories of bitterness or stories of hope.
What sort of place shall we make of our past?
For me, I think it's worth considering that marriage has been a far more powerful force than war in changing and perpetuating our local culture. Through marriage, families incorporated elements from various cultures into new combinations that could survive. Through marriage, groups were brought together, sometimes in spite of themselves. And through marriage, many young people here today find that their heritage stretches back to time immemorial in this valley as well as to the Scottish highlands, the gardens of Padua, the fields of Ireland, and the forests of Norway.
My grandparents were not far removed from England, by way of Oklahoma and Missouri. My grandchildren's grandparents include Salish and Kootenai elders. For them, the story is just beginning.
If you would like to join this effort, please invite yourself. Get ahold of me if you have a correction to make. I would welcome any photographs, letters or diaries, facts, or stories you might contribute. Of course, I have a day job, so I'm more interested in helping you organize your materials for publication here than I am in receiving large amounts of historical materials.
If you would like to take on projects, such as the history of a church or a club or a person, that would be even better. I would especially encourage high school classes and students to help.
© 2004 Flathead
Reservation Historical Society. All rights reserved.