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ST. IGNATIUS – What’s in a name?

In Missoula’s case, that’s a good question. Many people believe it’s an anglicized and butchered version of a Salish word for the area – although Tony Incashola, director of the Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee, told three Missoula City Council members there’s evidence that Salish word actually referenced an area many miles downstream.

The politicians traveled north Monday to ask tribal elders for help as Missoula’s "wayfinding" program seeks a better way to direct people to the places they want to get to in the city.

City Councilman Dave Strohmaier says proposed new signage offers an excellent opportunity to remind residents and visitors alike that they’re in Indian Country.

Including Salish language names, when appropriate, on the proposed new sign system is one way of doing that, he said.

“The history of Missoula did not begin in the 1880s when the Burlington-Northern came through town,” Strohmaier said. “People inhabited the valley for thousands of years before that ever happened.”

Many highway signs on the Flathead Indian Reservation include the historic Native American language names for the towns and rivers the signs identify, the concept wayfinding would like to bring to Missoula.

“We appreciate that,” Incashola said. “It’s been a long time coming, but as they say, the best place to start is now.”

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Strohmaier and fellow council members Jason Wiener and Caitlin Copple asked Incashola and the elders for their help in identifying areas in Missoula that have cultural significance to the Bitterroot Salish people, and help in getting the language correct.

That includes Salish on gateway signs and on signs that identify places in town that have cultural significance to the tribe, and help with English versions of potential interpretive panels that explain that significance.

“We want to rely on you to tell us, what is the history we should be telling?” Wiener said.

It’s a way of expanding Montana’s Indian Education for All beyond schools and to the general populace, Copple added.

Landscape architect Kent Watson showed Incashola and the elders some of the proposed sign designs. One of the larger ones, for Missoula International Airport, featured strips of wood spiking out above the main sign, where Salish words for things such as “sky” and “flight” could be placed.

“We need your help for the correct language, and also the correct translation for the word Missoula,” Watson said.

“Missoula’s story did not begin with Lewis and Clark, and that’s one of the reasons we’re reaching out to the cultural committee,” said Strohmaier, who last year led a successful effort to formally recognize government-to-government relations between the city and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

“We have a much deeper history than names like Higgins or Worden would imply,” he went on. “This is a first step in pointing out that this is Indian Country.”

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or by email at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

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