Aggie Incasola has been working with beads for over 40 years. It’s a skill she first learned from her mother, and the countless hours she’s spent designing and creating beaded items have given her a deep understanding of the care and intent that goes into this art form.
And so, on a recent morning in late March, Incasola couldn’t help but think of the stories behind the nearly 20 pieces of beads and ornaments laid out on folding tables under the fluorescent lights in the basement of the Three Chiefs Cultural Center and Gift Shop. at St. .Ignatius.
Taking a break from her own beadwork, Incastola, the museum’s education coordinator, walked over to the table and looked at the items, some of which date back to the late 19th century. Near where she had been sitting was a beaded cradle with a doll. The item is over 100 years old and had been a housewarming gift in 1920 for Montana Governor Joseph Dixon. It was only returned to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in 2012, after it was passed from the Dixon family to the Missoula Public Library, the Missoula County Historical Museum at Fort Missoula.
Across the room was a pale blue beaded waistcoat adorned with flowers, and near the right shoulder was a name. The vest belonged to Chief Martin Charlo, as did the matching beaded cuffs found nearby. Also on the table was a black-and-white photo from 1923 showing the chief in a vest and cuffs.
At the opposite end of the room, Incashola was drawn to a blue horse-beaded martingale inlaid with designs of feathers, moose, eagles, and flowers. She said she doesn’t know the full story of it, but she wonders if the subtle differences in design and shape between the pieces of the martingale might hold clues that seem to suggest it might be made from repurposed items. As she imagines the possibilities behind the creation of the martingale, she learns with a mixture of sadness and joy the recent story of her survival.
It has been approximately a year and a half since an arsonist broke into the CSKT People’s Center museum and community center on a Sunday in September 2020 and started 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 caused by the arsonist started in a warehouse used for the storage of the collection. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, the women who ran the center, and now run the Three Chiefs Center instead, were instrumental in the effort to get into the burning building and sift through the destruction to find what could be salvaged. His reflections are now included in a small exhibit about the fire at the Three Chief’s Center.
Some of the damaged but salvageable items have been slowly making their way back through contract 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 staff member. museum.
Every time items are returned, staff grapple with the complicated emotions that come from seeing pieces of tribal history and culture saved, as well as remembering all that was lost, including the life of the man who started the fire, from 33 years. Julian Michael Draper. At the most recent restoration return event, Draper, though unnamed, was among those for whom prayers were directed. Officials tasked with investigating the fire said in the days afterward that there was no clear motive.
For Incasola, recovering pieces from the museum’s collection reminds her of the way a storm cloud covers the sun. “And as each piece comes back, that cloud moves away a little bit further at a time,” she said.
The return of items brings back memories of recovery efforts for conservator Geri Hewankorn, who said the mention of the effort to salvage items from the Town Center brought tears to her eyes over the recent event. She 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 donned masks and gloves and worked layer by layer through the rubble, soot and ash until they reached the concrete floor.
Understanding the extent of the loss in numerical terms is complicated. Ginger Morigeau, a curator who joined the museum’s 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 according to Morigeau’s findings, there are 500-600 item records, and 250-300 items to compare them to, suggesting hundreds of items were lost in the fire. Fonicello has restored about 30 items so far, and the museum has plans for her to continue working on more items.
In January, Kalispell conservator Joe Abbrescia returned to the Three Chief’s Center eight paintings that he had been commissioned to restore. The most recent return of items came from Nancy Fonicello, a Wilsall curator who previously worked as a chemist.
“The first part is that you have to get over the overwhelming moment when you see what condition they were in (after the fire). And you think, ‘Can I really save that?’ And then you think, ‘Well, I have to try it,’” Fonicello said.
Evidence of Fonicello’s work was displayed alongside each restored item. Each piece of beadwork was accompanied by a corresponding photo or photos showing the damage sustained by the fire.
Fonicello said that only as a last resort would he alter or remove components from each piece as he sought to clean them up and mitigate damage. The reluctance to disassemble items during restoration stems from the belief that doing so would change the history of the object. Every repair has to be reversible and documented, Fonicello said. She described how the approach to restoring each item differed depending on the components involved, including imported Venetian glass beads, painted glass basket beads, elk hide leather, and silk ribbon.
“Soot is a problem because it is acidic, abrasive and also hygroscopic (moisture absorbent). And those things, when placed on top of an object, will actually destroy the materials underneath,” Fonicello said. She said the process could involve mechanical cleaning with vacuums, brushes and sponges. Also, she said that chemical cleaning and the application of different solvents is another method. In some cases, adhesives could also be used for repairs. According to Fonicello, an item can take between two and 40 hours to restore.
Some of the items in the museum’s collection were acquired through auctions and others were donations from families, some of whom saw a donation as a way to keep the memory of a family member alive. Museum staff had to field phone calls from family members asking if the donated items survived.
“It’s hard to answer when they call, and they deserve an answer,” said museum director Marie Torosian, adding that in her head she can still see hundreds of items: beaded dresses, buckskin dresses, leggings, a drum and plus. that were lost Even amid those sad reminders, Torosian said there’s a happiness that comes from seeing refurbished items return. She also described how tribal history, stories and culture are in some cases connected to physical elements, but still have the ability to survive them.
“Our stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. Our histories and our traditions and our cultures are things that go back thousands and thousands of years,” he said. “Those are things that have been proven, for our people and for others, that will never go away as long as we are here.”