Battle of the bones

Kalispell activist delivers burial-ground ultimatum



John Gisselbrecht is a man on a mission. He wants Kalispell to erect a fence around the hillside overlooking the newly built pool and skatepark in the Woodland Park area.

The reason Gisselbrecht—a Sioux pipe-carrier, sundancer and administrator of Kalispell’s Native American Resource, Research and Cultural Center—is so passionate about this fence is that a number of bones and remains of Native Americans have been found in the area since railroad digging first began in the late 1800s. The exact number is unclear, as early records weren’t always diligently kept, but Tony Incashola, a Salish-Kootenai tribal member and a member of the state’s Burial Preservation Board, says his tribes have repatriated three or four separate remains in his memory, and Gisselbrecht says that dozens of burial sites have been discovered in the surrounding area over the past 150 years.

Gisselbrecht speculates that the area was once an Indian burial ground, and not simply unrelated scattered remains, and he seeks the fence because he feels the land is not currently being respected as a burial site. Aside from the pool and skatepark set to open June 12 at the base of the hill, Gisselbrecht says the hillside is a hot spot for high school partiers and transients.

When the Independent surveyed the site, it was mostly clean, aside from a beer can, rolling papers and a couple of cigarette butts. Gisselbrecht says that he has found used condoms on the site in the past.

“At the same time that we’re bragging about Lewis and Clark and improved Indian relations, we’re pissing in their graves,” says Gisselbrecht, who rarely minces words.

Gisselbrecht’s concerns culminated with a call to the office of Flathead Deputy County Attorney Jonathan Smith on Fri., June 4. Gisselbrecht asked the attorney to investigate Gisselbrecht’s charge of destruction of property on a historic site, saying that the building of the pool and skatepark violated the law.

“Our interest is the hillside,” says Gisselbrecht, speaking on behalf of his cultural center. “But unfortunately, we might have to file it as a past action of destruction. You can’t file something on possible future desecration.”

Essentially, what Gisselbrecht offers is an ultimatum. While Gisselbrecht acknowledges that the pool is a done deal, if he doesn’t get the fence he’s seeking around the surrounding land, he’s prepared to sue.

“I don’t want to see legal action, but if they don’t put a fence up, there will be,” Gisselbrecht says.

Gisselbrecht’s claim lies in the idea that the hillside is a burial ground, but Assistant Montana Attorney General Sarah Bond isn’t so sure.

“Gisselbrecht uses the term ‘burial ground.’ He’s the only one I’ve heard say that,” Bond says.

Instead, Bond says, many look at the area as a series of individual burial sites, mainly because tribes weren’t known to bury their dead en masse, as in Euro-American cemeteries. Yet Gisselbrecht can point to remains found in a virtual ring around the area, he says, which begs the question: How many remains must one find before a series of individual burial sites is considered a burial grounds?

“That’s a really good question,” Bond says, but no one in the state seems to have a definite answer.

Aside from the fence, Gisselbrecht is also hoping the hill can be retained by the city for reburial of any future remains found nearby, such as the skull of a young Indian woman found in a dirt pile at McElroy & Wilken Ready Mix about a month ago. Such remains have typically been given to the Salish-Kootenai.

Whether the area is deemed a burial grounds will be up to the geographically closest member of the Burial Preservation Board, a body with members from each of Montana’s seven tribes, says the board’s chairman, Carl Fourstar, an Assiniboine. Kalispell City Attorney Charlie Harball concurs. In the case of remains found on the hillside overlooking Kalispell’s new pool, that member is Tony Incashola.

“We’re working with the sheriff’s department,” Incashola says. “We haven’t come to any solid conclusion on what we’re going to do other than keep a monitor in the area.”

Incashola won’t say if he’s considering a fence, nor is he willing to call the area a burial site yet, although he believes it’s “highly likely.”

But Gisselbrecht says the Salish-Kootenai shouldn’t necessarily be in control of the remains, since no one knows which tribe they came from and the area is considered a common ancient travel route. With such an X-factor in play, he says, site protection is the city’s responsibility, and the city has not been following the letter of the law.

City Attorney Harball admits that Kalispell hasn’t followed the procedures outlined in the 1991 Human Skeletal Remains and Burial Site Protection Act. Instead, he says, Sheriff Jim Dupont has dealt with Indian remains just as he did before passage of the law: When bones are found, he calls the tribes to collect them.

“What he should have done, according to the law, is first go to state Historical Preservation Officer Stan Wilmoth. That whole step was missed completely…so I have to give Gisselbrecht some credit, says Harball. “He’s gotten all the right people together and said, ‘What’s the law and what do we need to do to comply with it?’”

But even if proper procedures are henceforth followed, that won’t settle Gisselbrecht’s immediate concern for the hillside overlooking the new pool. Only a fence will.

Harball says city agreement to a fence may depend on the defined boundaries of the site. However, such a determination may be difficult because “no one wants to stick a shovel in the ground” to see how far a site might extend, Harball says. “That’s what burial protection is about, keeping that from happening.”

Some tribal members have declared Gisselbrecht’s hard-line approach arrogant, but Gisselbrecht seems unbothered by such charges, arguing that he is seeking to safeguard the afterlife of Indians buried long ago.

“It is not our way to rebury these bones far away from their original site. We believe this shoves the dead into limbo,” Gisselbrecht says. “Is it arrogant of me to say that those who are allowing this to happen are ignoring the traditional beliefs? If so, so be it. Let it be considered arrogant.”

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