Montana tribes bid their leader farewell

by George Ochenski

Michael T. "Mickey" Pablo, leader of Montana's Indian nations, died at his ranch Aug. 5, at the age of 51. Postoperative complications from surgery on a knee he twisted while fishing have been reported as the likely cause of death.


This humble man was highly respected for his wisdom and much loved for his kind and gentle manner. Yet, when the chips were down, Mickey Pablo was a fearless warrior in defense of his people, their lands and treaty rights.


His leadership went far beyond the decade he served as chairman of the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes or as chair of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Council. As one Montana state legislator said, "Mickey Pablo united the seven Indian nations of Montana, for the first time putting aside their differences and speaking for Indian issues as a single, strong voice."


His great-grandfather, Michel Pablo, who is credited with saving the last of the Great Plains bison, provided the original stock for the wild herds that now roam Yellowstone National Park. Like his ancestor, Mickey seemed to know what was important to save for future generations: the mountains, good land, clean water and the traditions that honor and respect the earth and its creatures.


His strong convictions were equalled by strong actions. After the Yellowstone Pipe Line Company allowed years of leaks and spills, the tribe threw the company off the reservation (HCN, 3/4/96). When the state Legislature and local county officials refused to cede the tribe legal authority over its members, Mickey threatened to pull tribal funds from local banks, shut down access to the southern half of Flathead Lake and cancel the lease on the runway at the local airport. Tensions became almost unbearable, both in the Capitol and on the reservation, but in the end Mickey and his people won the battle.


Given a choice, Mickey preferred to negotiate rather than fight. In defense of tribal fishing and hunting rights, he hammered out a cooperative agreement with the state that has withstood numerous legislative assaults and continues to provide a model for the nation. The Salish-Kootenai also set their own water-quality standards for the reservation, having achieved "treatment as a state" status from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.


At a recent memorial service at Flathead Lake, hundreds packed the community center in the tiny town of Elmo to bid their friend and leader farewell. Letters of condolence and praise, from the president of the United States on down, were read, while personal testimonials moved many to tears.


* George Ochenski © High Country News