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Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today

Three historical paintings of tribal elders damaged in an arson fire on the Flathead Reservation have been restored and returned to the Three Chiefs Culture Center in Montana.

Restoration work continues on other paintings, archives and documents that were damaged in the September 2020 fire set by a local resident with mental health problems who died in the fire.

The center, originally named The People’s Center when it opened in 1995, is owned and operated by the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille Tribes.

“Getting these back was a pretty awesome feeling,” said Marie L. Torosian, a citizen of the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes and a program director for the center.

The damaged paintings included three historical portraits of tribal chiefs, but one could not be restored.

“We had the three main chiefs, one of each tribe,” Torosian told Indian Country Today.. “We did save … two of the chief pictures, the Kootenai chief and the Salish chief, but the painting for the Pend d’Oreille tribe had burned too badly. It couldn't be restored ... It was torn and ripped.”

The paintings were created by several tribal citizens who had done paintings for the center years ago, Torosian said. Other paintings were also damaged in the fire.

“A few of them were older paintings that were purchased either by auction or from private holders that had been there long before I came to the People's Center,” said Torosian, who started work there in 2003.

This historical painting, damaged in a 2020 arson fire in 2020 at the Three Chiefs Culture Center, has been restored and returned to the tribes.  Conservator Joe Abbrescia of the Abbrescia Gallery and Fine Restoration Studio in Kalispell, Montana, returned three paintings on Jan. 20, 2022, including this one. The center is run by the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille tribes. Work is continueing on restoring other paintings, artifacts and beadwork. (Photo courtesy of Marie Torosian)

The Three Chiefs Culture Center is important to the community, as it houses the rich cultural heritage of the tribes and keeps up with how traditions and culture have been passed down, first orally from generation to generation and moving into new technologies as time goes on.

The center has housed artifacts, exhibits and stories of the people in their own voices. Officials present cultural activities, traditional arts and crafts, cultural education, Native games, and other events.

Nine paintings were pulled from the fire of the 25 paintings at the center, Torosian said.

“They were either in storage or in the repository that burned, but we had them stored in some metal cases,” she said. “They received some water and foam damage from the fire suppression. And then the ones that were hanging up in the rotunda and in other places in the center are the ones that received so much heat and water damage.”

Beadwork on artifacts, moccasins and vests are also being restored.

Insurance is covering the cost for restoring the collection and caring for items until a new center can be built. The Smithsonian Museum also contributed some funding to help with the cost of supplies and to put everything saved into storage. Among the items burned in the fire were items such as boxes and tissues used for archiving.

The Historical Society in Montana and the Fort Missoula Historical Museum also donated supplies.

'The system failed'

The center had been closed because of COVID-19 when the fire erupted on Sept. 6, 2020. Firefighters breaking in to fight the blaze found the suspected arsonist dead in a back office.

The tribal community is still reeling from the fire. The man believed to be the arsonist had brought his family to the center, but had separated from his family and had been hanging around the back of the center to build what he called a “prayer circle” with rocks.

He had been recently been arrested on other arson cases, but was released on bail a day before the fire at the Three Chiefs center. He was not a tribal citizen.

“It was not anything against us personally, but, yes, the system failed at protecting this young man from himself and others,” Torosian said sadly.

Employees checking the building while it was closed had discovered the man about two weeks before the fire.

“We would come in once a week to monitor and check on things,” Torosian said. “And I noticed that he was in the back of our building in a beautiful area. We call it our talking circle area that had a fire pit and some logs that the kids would sit on for storytelling. Well, we noticed somebody was building a rock garden around it. It was this man -- he was out there and he was stacking rocks.”

She said officials found he was having problems in his personal life.

“He said he was building this as a prayer circle and he wanted to just continue,” Torosian said. “He had a complete circle around there already, so we allowed him to continue. Then two weeks later he breaks in and burns our facilities.”

Looking ahead

Conservator Joe Abbrescia of the Abbrescia Gallery and Fine Restoration Studio in Kalispell, Montana, was tasked with restoring the artwork.

The one painting that cannot be restored will still be on display, once it is encapsulated into a protective frame.

“He talked about how he did some testing in the corners to see how bad the damage was on there,” Torosian said. “He showed us where one had some bubbling on it, and he said, if he'd done any work on it, it might damage the painting altogether, whereas right now, we can still see the image of the tribal elder.”

Abbrescia returned the first three paintings to the center on Thursday, Jan. 20.

For now, the cultural center is temporarily housed in a log building in St. Ignatius, Montanga, where acclaimed tribal leader Col. Doug Allard once operated a restaurant. Allard, who died in 2009, was a Korean war veteran who owned several businesses in the area.

The tribal councils are in the process of determining when a new facility will be built, and see it as an opportunity for the future. The restored art is going to be in temporary storage until the new facility opens.

“I'm looking forward to working with the council and with an architect and getting a plan in place for a beautiful building that will help us tell our stories again,” Torosian said.

The return of the paintings is a positive move forward, she said.

“We're just happy to have them back,” she said. “And we're going to be receiving some more back next month including some of the beadwork on artifacts and moccasins and vests. I loved the building that we were in. It wasn't a unique design, so now we can expand on what we had and have a bigger more stable facility, a state-of-the-art building.”

The existing building was unique, officials said, and had received an award for design. It may ultimately be demolished, however.

“I've asked our tribal council to let the area where we had been to be totally demolished and let the ground heal for a couple of years, just like we are,” she said. “It's had some hardship there, so it just needs time to heal and gather, like we do.”

For more info
For more information, visit the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation website.

CORRECTION: Marie Torosian is a program director for the Three Chiefs Culture Center. The building that burned was in Pablo, Montana, and has relocated to a building in St. Ignatius, Montana. Those details were incorrect in the original article.

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