St. Ignatius embraces its multicultural roots

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A view of downtown St. Ignatius on March 13 with the snow-capped Mission Mountains in the background. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

The fabric of life in St. Ignatius has been a multilayered tapestry since the town grew up around the Catholic mission that took root there in 1854.

For those who venture off U.S. 93 it’s not much different, at first glance, than any other small town in Montana. The Malt Shop is a popular hang-out for high school kids, and a smattering of other businesses provide the basics: food, gas, hardware and lumber.

What’s different about St. Ignatius, though, is the connectivity between cultures. The community is located on the Flathead Indian Reservation, home to the Salish and Kootenai Confederated Tribes, or the Flathead Nation.

The Long House in St. Ignatius is a center of activity for preserving the native culture, a place where tribal leaders like Tony Incashola have worked for the Salish Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee since the 1970s. The Montana Historical Society recently presented Incashola with its Heritage Keeper Award for his work as a Salish culture keeper.

“I believe there’s mutual respect on both sides (native and non-native) very strongly,” said Fred Gariepy, the former owner of Lake County Bank, which had been in his family since 1945 until it merged two years ago with Valley Bank of Ronan. “Naturally there are issues that split the population, different views, but that’s the way” with any community, he said.

Stuart Morton, another longtime St. Ignatius businessman, agreed with Gariepy.

“There are a lot of different people who live here,” Morton said. “It can be close-knit when it needs to be. We battle back and forth, but people rally together … we’re a multicultural people, and the tribe’s influence overall is a good influence.”

Morton has been in business for 42 years in St. Ignatius. He grew up there after his parents relocated from Hamilton in the mid-1950s.

When asked why he chose to stay in St. Ignatius, he didn’t hesitate to offer “it was because they raised me.

“Mom died when I was 13, Dad died when I was 17 so the town had to raise me,” Morton reflected. “I never felt the need to go anywhere else.

“The town hasn’t changed a lot,” Morton said. “It’s still a small town. Only problem is, the world grew up around it, and left the town like it was.”

People make more trips to shop in Kalispell, Missoula and Spokane these days, and that has eroded St. Ignatius’ business base.

“What’s left are the core businesses,” Morton said. He owns several of those mainstay businesses in St. Ignatius: a gas station, auto parts store and an auto repair garage. He also owns Nine Pipes Lodge down the road.

One of the big cultural changes in St. Ignatius in recent years has been the addition of the Mission Amish community that was established outside of the city about 20 years ago.

“They want to live a simple life, and they’re business- and service-oriented,” Morton said. “They understand their ability to generate business within the area.”

A small community of German Baptists, members of a conservative church with roots in Anabaptism and in Pietism, settled in St. Ignatius about 10 years ago.

“They have their own ways,” Morton said. “They drive, but there are no radios in their cars.”

Marianne Johnson lives on a ranch 5 miles from St. Ignatius but does most of her shopping in town. She attended school in St. Ignatius from the fifth grade on and considers it her hometown.

“It’s a great, caring community,” Johnson said. “Like most of these small ranching and farming communities, it revolves around the school and churches.”

Johnson is excited about the upcoming all-school reunion planned July 20-21 in conjunction with the annual Good Old Days celebration. St. Ignatius’ school was founded in 1918, so it’s a centennial celebration.

Gariepy, who served as a St. Ignatius volunteer fireman for 34 years, has observed the economic drain on the town over the years. There used to be two grocery stores, now there’s one. Four taverns have been whittled down to one watering hole. Four gas stations have been reduced to one. The hospital closed in the late 1980s, though a portion of the original hospital is now part of the tribal health center.

The Garden Wall Clinic has been the town’s other medical facility, but come Monday it won’t open. Its lone family-practice doctor is retiring.

“Job opportunities here are pretty minimal,” admitted Gariepy, who is now a loan officer at Valley Bank, but he said St. Ignatius has its ever-present ace-in-the-hole: the Mission Mountains.

“In rural areas here the actual growth numbers have gone up,” he said. “People move in here for the beauty and in the computer age they can work from home.”

Gariepy, too, was asked what keeps him anchored to St. Ignatius.

“I’ve stayed here, No. 1 because of the beauty of the area,” he said. “It’s not over-populated … in my younger days I used to fish five to six times a week.”

The Mission Mountains in all of their grandeur come up in nearly every conversation with St. Ignatius residents. The mountain range should be ranked as one of the wonders of the world, Morton suggested. In the hearts of St. Ignatius residents, it already is.

Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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