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Meet the indigenous people of Montana: Flathead

EatTheRich

President
As per Montana’s constitutional guarantee of Indian education for all, any student graduating high school in Montana is supposed to know the name of every reservation in the state, when and how it was established, the principal city, the tribes located there, their linguistic affiliations, and a synopsis of their history. I actually learned next to none of this in school and had to look most of it up, but I still think this is a good framework for a starting point to the history we should know. I hope to discuss every reservation in Montana in order of its creation, but it will take me a while. I apologize for any errors.

Flathead reservation: created by the Treaty of Hellgate (1855), signed by War Chief Michelle (Ahn-Akaht=Big Knife) of the Upper Kootenai, Chief Victor (Xwelxl’cin=Plenty of Horses) of the Bitterroot Salish, and Chief Alexander (Tmlxl’cin=No Horses) of the Upper Pend d’Oreille.

As with other tribes in Montana, these tribes seem to trace their roots to Paleo-Indian big-game (usually mammoth) hunters. The ancestors of the nomadic Montana Kootenai appear to have come up from the south and colonized Montana soon after the glaciers receded about 12000 years ago, and for many millennia lived primarily on salmon for food, deerskin clothing, and deerskin-lodgepole tepees for shelter. Related Kootenai bands seem to have once had hunting grounds near the Great Lakes and been driven West by the Blackfeet perhaps 2000 years ago. Kootenai religion centered on Grizzly Bear, a creator god, Blue Jay, a god of war, and sacred tobacco. Their holiest site was Kootenai Falls on the Kootenai River near present-day Libby, where other tribes would come to trade goods such as furs or smoked fish for assistance from their healers, and where people conducted vision quests in order to join the fraternities responsible for the tribal division of labor. Their language, now nearly extinct, is a so-called language isolate, sometimes posited to be distantly related to the Salishan and/or Algonquian languages and their relatives. Their name for themselves, Ksanka, means “eaters of lean meat” while the Blackfeet name for them, Kotonáwa (Kootenai) means “licks the blood,” a possible reference to cannibalistic practice in the distant past. Their leaders, the War Chief responsible for foreign affairs and Guide Chief responsible for everything else, were selected by the fraternities to which people were invited based on their capabilities and were usually but not always male. After trading the excellent canoes they made to the Blackfeet for horses in the 18th century, some of the Kootenai began taking part in the Plains bison hunt east of the Rockies, and bison replaced salmon as the main source of food and deer as the main tepee construction material. Here they were introduced to the Sun Dance cult, which involved mortification of the flesh, perhaps by the Assiniboine. However, they were driven back across the Rockies by the Blackfeet after the Blackfeet acquired guns. They were introduced to Catholicism by Iroquois and later French missionaries beginning in the 17th century and are largely Catholic today. Historically they had good relations with other tribes except the Blackfeet, their longtime enemies.
 

EatTheRich

President
The Bitterroot Salish and Pend d’Oreille speak two (nearly extinct) dialects of the same Salishan language. Like other Salishan languages such as Lushootseed and Coeur d’Alene, it is renowned for its large number of consonants and difficulty for non-native speakers to learn. The closest relatives of the Salishan languages may be Wakashan languages such as Makah and the extinct Chimakuan languages of the northwest coast. Their remote ancestors seem to have lived in Manitoba where they hunted giant beaver, but after their extinction perhaps 15000 years ago to have moved into the Yukon and hunted reindeer before making their way to the Pacific Northwest, where salmon fishing became a way of life, about 6000 years ago. Although their ancestors lived in settled communities there, the bands that ended up in Montana became nomadic after leaving the northwest coast about 3000 years ago to escape slave raiders from the Tlingit and other tribes coming from the north. The Bitterroot Salish, (Selis/Salish is their word for “people”), also known as “Flathead” to distinguish them from other Salishan tribes that practiced cranial deformation as a marker of status, ended up east of the Continental Divide, in the Helena area, where bitterroot and trout became their main food sources, while the Upper Pend d’Oreille (French “hangs from ears” for the large shell earrings their nobility wore) lived near Ronan on Flathead Lake and ate mostly camas (a native root their name for which, Qlispe, was their name for themselves, and the namesake for the city of Kalispell), huckleberries, rabbits, and trout. The Bitterroot Salish and Pend d’Oreille made tent homes from woven cat-tails. The Bitterroot Salish mostly wore deerskin clothing while the Pend d’Oreille used both deer and rabbit hides for clothing. After they acquired horses from the Shoshone in the 17th century, they shifted to bison skin tepees and a largely bison-based diet. They also made regular voyages to The Dalles, Oregon, a major trading center (controlled in historic times by the Chinookan-speaking Wasco) where they brought deer hides, camas, and bison hides to trade for smoked fish and where they played the “stick game” gambling game. Their traditional religion focused on Old Man, a creator god, Wicked Woman, a malevolent spirit, the Four Good Women, nature spirits, Coyote, a trickster god widely revered by Plateau people, and, for the Pend d’Oreille, Fox, a mystical cult figure who was the focus of vision quests. Their chiefs (usually but not always make) were informed in their own dreams that they had been chosen to lead, and these dreams were confirmed by elders of the “noblest” families of a particular band. As with other Plateau people, chiefs often were born to another tribe. In the 17th century the Bitterroot Salish absorbed neighboring Salishan people devastated by smallpox and wars with the Blackfeet and expanded northward toward the Great Falls area before the Blackfeet, armed with rifles, drove them west of the Continental divide into the Lolo area, where huckleberries became an increasingly important dietary staple. Here they allied themselves with the Kootenai, Shoshone, and Nez Perce against the Blackfeet, with whom they contested control of the Missoula (Flathead-Spokane-Kalispel Salish for “river of cold water,” referring to the Clark Fork, but metaphorically referring to the violent massacres that took place there) Valley.

The Bitterroot Salish met Lewis and Clark’s explorers on the verge of starvation and gave them horses, which they ate. They were introduced to Catholicism by Iroquois fur traders who traded them their first rifles for beaver fur, and sent 4 scouting parties to St. Louis to request that the Jesuit friars there establish a mission in their territory, then burned the first mission at Sula after the Jesuits also established a mission among the Blackfeet. A later mission was established at St. Ignatius among the Pend d’Oreille and eventually most of the Pend d’Oreille and Bitterroot Salish were converted to Catholicism.

The Hellgate Treaty signed with Washington Territory governor Isaac Stevens during the presidency of Franklin Pierce, largely to guarantee the safety of the Oregon Trail pioneers during the time of the California Gold Rush, created two reservations, the 1.3 million acre Flathead reservation for the Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille and the 20 million acre Bitterroot Valley reservation for the Bitterroot Salish, in exchange for $120,000 and perpetual guarantee of the right to hunt, fish, and gather berries on ceded land; but in language described as “complicated” and “poorly translated,” the Bitterroot Valley reservation was a “conditional reservation” pending a survey by the Interior Department to determine whether the Bitterroot Salish would be better off there or on the Flathead. After President Grant falsely attested that such a survey had been completed, Chief Victor’s son Chief Charlo (Smlxe Qwoxqeys, Claw of the Little Grizzly) was told to sign a treaty ceding the Bitterroot Reservation but refused; however, the administration of President Garfield falsely asserted that the treaty had been signed, and the railroad was built through the Bitterroot reservation during the Montana gold rush. In the meantime, the Bitterroot Salish sold horses to the Nez Perce during the Nez Perce War, exacerbating tension with Americans. Hunger became rampant as access to fishing and to berries were cut off. During the flight of the In 1891, under President Benjamin Harrison, African-American troops from Fort Harrison were sent to force the Bitterroot Salish across the recently constructed Higgins St. bridge and onto the Flathead reservation in “Montana’s Trail of Tears.”

Once on the Flathead, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Cree, Nez Perce, Chippewa, Blackfeet, and other adopted peoples who took refuge there were required to live sedentary lifestyles, to send their children to boarding schools where they were taught to shun traditional ways and traditional language, and were pressured to replace tepees with houses of wood. Many survived by piecework picking huckleberries, cherries, and blueberries for local ranchers. In 1908, 4 Pend d’Oreille exercising their treaty hunting rights were killed by a state game warden.

Today, the Flathead reservation is the largest and (due to progressive tribal governments’ investment of the payments for land sales, and hunting and fishing fees for non-tribal members on the reservation, in business development) wealthiest reservation in Montana. It was opened to white settlement in 1908, and 2/3 of its population today is white; rightist groups are challenging the sovereignty of the tribal confederation. The largest city is Polson. The tribal confederation is the biggest employer of whites and Natives alike, and major economic activities include a hydroelectric dam (the only Indian-operated power generation facility in the U.S.), 2 casinos, an electronics firm, and a large-scale defense contractor. It is governed by an elected tribal council led by a tribal chairman. Political controversies include allotment of water rights on the reservation and the tribes’ proposal to take over management of the National Bison Range, part of which is located on the reservation.
 

EatTheRich

President
The Pend d’Oreille decorated their clothing with porcupine feathers and wore earrings, and the Kootenai, Bitterroot Salish, and Pend d’Oreille all painted their clothing with Indian paintbrush. Their traditional music was primarily vocal and used nonsense syllables rather than words; sometimes it was accompanied by flute. It was used mostly for entertainment. More recently they have adopted fancier ornamentation and more varied music styles through assimilation and powwow culture.
 
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