Aggie Incashola has been doing beadwork for over 40 years. It’s a skill she first learned from her mother, and the countless hours she has spent designing and creating beaded items have given her a deep understanding of the care and intention that goes into the art form.
And so on a recent morning in late March, Incashola couldn’t help but think about the stories behind the nearly 20 pieces of beadwork and regalia laid out on folding tables beneath the fluorescent basement lights of the Three Chiefs Culture Center and Gift Shop in St. Ignatius.
Taking a break from her own beadwork, Incashola, the education coordinator for the museum, walked over to the table and looked down at the items, some of which date back to the late 19th century. Nearby from where she had been seated was a beaded cradleboard with a doll. The item is more than 100 years old, and had been an inauguration gift in 1920 to Montana Governor Joseph Dixon. It was only returned to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in 2012, after it passed from the Dixon family to the Missoula Public Library, to the Missoula County Historical Museum at Fort Missoula.
Across the room was a pale blue beaded vest adorned with flowers, and near the right shoulder, a name. The vest belonged to Chief Martin Charlo, and so, too did the matching beaded cuffs laid out nearby. Also on the table was a black and white photo from 1923 that shows the chief wearing the vest and cuffs.
On the opposite end of the room, Incashola was drawn to a horse’s beaded blue martingale inlaid with designs of feathers, elk, eagles, and flowers. She said she doesn’t know its full story, but wonders if hints might lie in the subtle differences in design and shape between the martingale’s pieces that seem to suggest it could be made up of repurposed items. Even as she imagines the possibilities behind the martingale’s creation, she knows with mixture of sadness and joy the recent story of its survival.
It’s been roughly a year-and-a-half since an arsonist broke into the CSKT People’s Center museum and community center on a Sunday in September of 2020 and set a series of fires that would destroy hundreds of items in the museum’s collection that were of special significance to the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille tribes. One of the fires set by the arsonist was started in a repository used for storage of the collection. In the immediate aftermath of the fire the women who ran the center, and are now running the Three Chiefs Center in its stead, were instrumental in the effort to enter the burned out building and sift through the destruction to find what could be saved. Their reflections are now included in a small exhibit about the fire at the Three Chief’s Center.
Some of the items that were damaged but salvageable have been returning slowly through contracted work by conservationists, as well as the work of museum staff, and more items are still being held in storage until they can be matched with a conservationist or museum staffer.
Each time items are returned, the staff is faced with the complicated emotions that come from seeing pieces of tribal history and culture saved, and also remembering all that was lost, including the life of the man who started the fire, 33-year-old Julian Michael Draper. At the most recent restoration return event, Draper, although unnamed, was among those for whom prayers were directed. Officials tasked with investigating the fire said in the days afterward that there was not a clear motive.
For Incashola, getting pieces from the museum’s collection back reminds her of the way a storm cloud covers the sun. “And as each piece is coming back, that cloud is moving away a little bit more at a time,” she said.
The return of items brings back memories of the recovery efforts for curation technician Geri Hewankorn, who said that the mention of the effort to save items from the People’s Center brought her to tears at the recent event. It still feels like it was yesterday, she said.
“And I don’t know if that will ever change, because I knew what was in there.”
She talked about how she and other museum staff put on masks and gloves and worked layer by layer through debris, soot, and ash until they reached the concrete floor.
Understanding the scope of the loss in numerical terms is complicated. Ginger Morigeau, a curator who was brought onto the museum staff temporarily through a grant-funded position, worked to build a database of all the records recovered from the fire. Some records were destroyed, but based on Morigeau’s findings there are between 500 and 600 item records, and somewhere between 250 and 300 items to match them with, suggesting that hundreds of items were lost in the fire. Nancy Fonicello, a Wilsall-based conservator who previously worked as a chemist, has restored about 30 items so far, and the museum has plans for her to continue working on more items.
In January, Kalispell-based conservator Joe Abbrescia returned to the Three Chief’s Center eight paintings that he had been tasked with restoring. The most recent return of items came from Fonicello.
“The first part is you have to get over the overwhelming moment when you see what kind of condition they were in (after the fire). And you think, ‘Can I really save that?’ And then you think, ‘Well, I have to try.’” Fonicello said.
The evidence of Fonicello’s work was laid out alongside each restored item. Each piece of beadwork was accompanied by a corresponding photo or photos showing the damage sustained in the fire.
Fonicello said that only as a last resort would she alter or remove components of each piece as she sought to clean them and mitigate the damage. The reluctance to take apart items during restoration stems from the belief that doing so would change the object’s history. Every repair has to be reversable and it has to be documented, Fonicello said. She described how the approach to restoring each item differed based on the components involved, including imported Venetian glass beads, painted glass basket beads, elk hide leather, and silk ribbon.
“Soot’s a problem because it’s acidic, it’s abrasive, and it’s also hygroscopic (moisture absorbent). And those things when they’re sitting on an object will actually destroy the materials underneath,” Fonicello said. She said the process could involve mechanical cleaning with vacuums, brushes and sponges. Additionally, she said chemical cleaning and the application of different solvents is another method. In some cases adhesives could also be used for repairs. An item could take anywhere from two hours to 40 hours to restore, according to Fonicello.
Some of the items in the museum collection were acquired through auctions, and others were donations from families, some of whom viewed a donation as a way of keeping a family member’s memory alive. Museum staff have had to field phone calls from family members asking whether donated items have survived.
“It’s hard to answer when they call, and they deserve an answer,” Museum Director Marie Torosian said, adding that in her head she can still see hundreds of the items – beaded dresses, buckskin dresses, leggings, a drum, and more – that were lost. Even amid those sad reminders, Torosian said that there’s a happiness that comes with seeing restored items come back. She also described how tribal history, stories, and culture are in some cases connected to physical items, but still have the ability to outlast them.
“Our stories that we have have been passed down from generation to generation. Our histories and our traditions and our cultures are things that date back thousands and thousands of years,” she said. “Those are things that have been proven, to our people and to others, that will never go away as long as we are here.”
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