The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation are the 6,800 modern representatives of several Salish, Kootenai and Pend O’Reilles bands who lived in western Montana, northern Idaho, and eastern Washington in the early 1800s. Around 4,000 tribal members currently live on the Flathead Reservation, along with about 1,100 Indians from other tribes and perhaps three times as many non-Indians.
Before the arrival of Europeans, the tribal people hunted and gathered plants over an area the size of many eastern states. Twice a year, they made cooperative hunting trips over the Continental Divide to the buffalo herds of the Great Plains.
In 1855, the tribal people surrendered their claim to western Montana and northern Idaho, but reserved an area known as the Bitterroot Valley as their homeland. Within a generation, the white government reassigned them to a new homeland about 100 miles northwest in the Lower Flathead River Basin which came to be called the Flathead Reservation. Within another generation, the white government apportioned the land amongst the Indians and sold what hadn’t been assigned — generally the most fertile pieces of the valley — to non-Indians as “surplus” land.
The Salish bands gathered on the reservation in its early days each spoke slightly different dialects of the Kalispel or Flathead language. The Kalispel language is part of the Salish family of languages spoken by many tribes of the Pacific Northwest. The Kootenais speak a totally different language. Almost all of the tribal members now living speak English only as a result of years of government-sponsored schooling. Many of the young people of the tribes who speak English as their first language attend classes to learn the old languages. Very few fluent speakers of either language remain today.
The traditional Salish and Kootenai hunted buffalo on the Great Plains, as well as deer, elk, and other wild game in western Montana. A variety of plant foods such as bitterroot, camas, moss, wild onions, Indian potatoes, and sarvis berries were gathered during their seasons and preserved for later use.
The land also furnished poles for lodges from the slender trunks of young trees. Covers were fashioned from young buffalo hides. Clothing was made from the skin of deer and elk, and decorated with porcupine quills colored with natural dyes. Most tools, such as needles, mauls and grinding stones were made from wood, bone, and rock. Even dolls and games were manufactured out of the natural materials at hand.
White traders brought items of metal, glass and cloth, which the Salish and Kootenai people adapted to very their crafts and make work easier. Metal needles and glass beads allowed the women to vary the geometric patterns of quillwork and develop a distinctive style of floral designs. The trader’s calico and wool were colorful and wore well in wet weather. Unfortunately, the traders also brought alcohol and disease, from which the tribes are still working to recover.
Since the arrival of white people, the Salish and Kootenai have adapted to a way of life based on ranching, logging, and general wage work. Many of the traditional ways of making and decorating clothing and ceremonial objects are now preserved as local crafts. The traditional foods are important to many as a symbol of their heritage as Salish and Kootenai Indian people.
After being forcefully deprived of much of their land when the reservation was opened to white settlement in 1910, tribal members have worked to regain control over tribal affairs and re-establish their economic independence. In 1936, the Tribes were formally organized as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation, governed by an elected, ten-person tribal council.
The Tribes own one of the most valuable hydropower dam sites in the Pacific Northwest and have leased it to the Montana Power Company until 2015. Tribal timber is harvested on a sustained-yield basis. Tourism and a growing number of small manufacturing plants provide further employment. Many tribal members work for the tribal and federal programs that serve the reservation community.
In October of 1994, the Tribes entered into an agreement with the federal government to take over the decision-making for health care here, which added about $12 million to the annual tribal budget.
Education has received special attention. The tribes operate a Job Corps training center near Ronan for young Indian people across the U.S. Two Eagle River School, a school for teenagers who might otherwise drop out of public school, is operated by the Tribes near Pablo, the seat of the tribal government. Salish Kootenai College, also located near Pablo, has a student body nearing 1,000 and a library containing 55,000-plus volumes. Part of the library collection includes 1,200-plus published items pertaining especially to the Salish and Kootenai people.
The new tribal museum, the People’s Center, is open to the public year-round. It is located about two miles north of tribal headquarters in Pablo. Eight miles north of there is the KwaTaqNuk Best Western Resort, also owned and operated by the tribes.
The future of the Tribes looks increasingly promising as tribal members are returning to the reservation with professional training in education, business management, psychology, and health sciences. Many of these young people have combined the technical skills they learned off the reservation with the desire to serve the tribal community.
The last 30 years have seen an increased pride in the Indian heritage. The interest in traditional crafts has expanded; the traditional religious communities have found new support and strength; and the Tribes no longer quietly allows Indian resources and rights to be eroded. The Tribes now regularly, and often successfully, fight for their interests in the congress and federal courts.
The Salish and Kootenai people are proud of their heritage and their land. They continue to work to build the reservation community and maintain the values and independence that will enable them to survive into the 21st century.