Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation

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Flathead Nation Flag at 2015 Arlee Esyapqeyni
Flathead delegation in Washington, D.C. with interpreter, 1884
Flathead family
Tipi and Mission Mountains at 2015 Arlee Celebration Pow Wow

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation are the Bitterroot Salish, Ktunaxa and Pend d'Oreilles (Upper Kalispel) (pronounced: “pond-oray”) tribes.

They were incorrectly called the Flathead Indians by the first Europeans who came to the area. The Flatheads call themselves Salish, meaning “the people”. These people never practiced artificial cranial deformation, but their Columbia River neighbors shaped their own heads to create a pointed appearance, and called the Salish "flatheads" in contrast.

The Flatheads lived between the Cascade Range and Rocky Mountains. The Salish (Flatheads) initially lived entirely east of the Continental Divide but established their headquarters near the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. Occasionally, hunting parties went west of the Continental Divide but not west of the Bitterroot Range. The easternmost edge of their ancestral hunting forays were the Gallatin Range, Crazy Mountain, and Little Belt Ranges.


The first written record of the tribes is from their meeting with the Lewis and Clark Expedition (September 4,[1] 1805). Lewis and Clark came there and asked for horses but eventually ate the horses due to starvation. The Flatheads also appear in the records of the Roman Catholic Church at St. Louis, Missouri, to which they sent four delegations to request missionaries (or "Black Robes") to minister to the tribe. Their request was finally granted, and a number of missionaries, including Pierre-Jean De Smet, S.J., were eventually sent. The Flatheads are also located in Sula, Montana.

The tribes negotiated the Hellgate treaty with the United States in 1855. From the start, treaty negotiations were plagued by serious translation problems. A Jesuit observer, Father Adrian Hoecken, said that the translations were so poor that "not a tenth of what was said was understood by either side." But as in the meeting with Lewis and Clark, the pervasive cross-cultural miscommunication ran even deeper than problems of language and translation. Tribal people came to the meeting assuming they were going to formalize an already-recognized friendship. Non-Indians came with the goal of making official their claims to native lands and resources. Isaac Stevens, the new governor and superintendent of Indian affairs for the Washington Territory, was intent on obtaining cession of the Bitterroot Valley from the Salish. Many non-Indians were already well aware of the valley's potential value for agriculture and its relatively temperate climate in winter. Because of the resistance of Chief Victor (Many Horses), Stevens ended up inserting into the treaty complicated (and doubtless poorly translated) language that defined the Bitterroot Valley south of Lolo Creek as a "conditional reservation" for the Salish. Victor put his X mark on the document, convinced that the agreement would not require his people to leave their homeland. No other word came from the government for the next fifteen years, so the Salish assumed that they would indeed stay in their Bitterroot Valley forever.

After the 1864 gold rush in the newly established Montana Territory, pressure upon the Salish intensified from both illegal non-Indian squatters and government officials. In 1870, Victor died, and he was succeeded as chief by his son, Chief Charlot (aka Charlo, Claw of the Little Grizzly). Like his father, Charlot adhered to a policy of nonviolent resistance. He insisted on the right of his people to remain in the Bitterroot Valley. But territorial citizens and officials thought the new chief could be pressured into capitulating. In 1871, they successfully lobbied President Ulysses S. Grant to declare that the survey required by the treaty had been conducted and that it had found that the Jocko (Flathead) Reservation was better suited to the needs of the Salish. On the basis of Grant's executive order, Congress sent a delegation, led by future president James Garfield, to make arrangements with the tribe for their removal. Charlot ignored their demands and even their threats of bloodshed, and he again refused to sign any agreement to leave. U.S. officials then simply forged Charlot's "X" onto the official copy of the agreement that was sent to the Senate for ratification.

Over time, the real reason for the Hellgate treaty meetings became clear to the Salish and Pend d'Oreille people. Under the terms spelled out in the written document, the tribes ceded to the United States more than twenty million acres (81,000 km²) of land and reserved from cession about 1.3 million acres (5300 km²), thus forming the Jocko or Flathead Indian Reservation. Conditions had become intolerable for the Salish by the late 1880s, after the Missoula and Bitter Root Valley Railroad was constructed directly through the tribe's lands, with neither permission from the native owners nor payment to them. Charlot finally signed an agreement to leave the Bitterroot Valley in November 1889. Inaction by Congress, however, delayed the removal for another two years, and according to some observers, the tribe's desperation reached a level of outright starvation. In October 1891, a contingent of troops from Fort Missoula forced Charlot and the Salish out of the Bitterroot and roughly marched the small band sixty miles to the Flathead Reservation.

The three main tribes moved to the Flathead Reservation were the Bitterroot Salish, the Pend d'Oreille, and the Kootenai. The Bitterroot Salish and the Pend d'Oreille tribes spoke dialects of the same Salish language.

A dispute over off-reservation hunting between a band of Pend d'Oreilles and the state of Montana's Fish and Game department resulted in the Swan Valley Massacre of 1908.

Though marked for termination in 1953 under the House concurrent resolution 108[2] of the US federal Indian termination policy, the Flathead Tribes were able to resist the government's plans to terminate their tribal relationship in Congressional hearings in 1954.[3]


Arlee Celebration Powwow
KwaTuqNuk Resort

The tribe has about 6800 members with approximately 4,000 tribal members living on the Flathead Reservation as of 2013, and 2,800 tribal members living off the reservation. Their predominant religion is Roman Catholicism. 1,100 Native Americans from other tribes and more than 10,000 non-Native Americans also live on the reservation.


As the first to organize a tribal government under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, the tribes are governed by a tribal council. The Tribal Council has ten members, and the council elects from within a Chairman, Vice Chairman, Secretary and Treasurer. The tribal government offers a number of services to tribal members and is the chief employer on the reservation. The tribes operate a tribal college, the Salish Kootenai College, and a heritage museum called “The People’s Center” in Pablo, seat of the tribal government.


The tribes are the biggest employer on the reservation. In 2011, they provided 65% of all jobs.[4] [5]

The tribes own and jointly operate a valuable hydropower dam, called Séliš Ksanka Ql’ispé Dam (formerly known as Kerr Dam). They are the first Indian nation in the United States owning a hydroelectric dam. CSKT also operates the only local electricity provider Mission Valley Power, as well as S&K Electronics (founded 1984),[6] and the internationally operating S&K Technologies (founded 1999).[7] Other tribal businesses are the KwaTaqNuk Resort & Casino in Polson (county seat of Lake County and most populous community on the reservation) and Gray Wolf Peak Casino in Evaro, Montana.

Séliš Ksanka Ql’ispé Dam, formerly known as Kerr Dam, was completed in 1938 and dams the Flathead River a few miles below Flathead Lake southwest of Polson, Montana (2017)


Aboriginal lands[edit]

The peoples of these tribes originally lived in the areas of Montana, parts of Idaho, British Columbia (Canada) and Wyoming. The original territory comprised about 22 million acres (89,000 km²) at the time of the 1855 Hellgate treaty.

Salish men near tipis (1903, Flathead Reservation, Montana)

Reservation lands[edit]

The Flathead Reservation in northwest Montana is over 1.3 million acres (5,300 km²) in size.

The Tribal Council represents eight districts:

During World War II, a 422-foot (129 m) Liberty Ship, the SS Chief Charlot, was named in his honor and built in Richmond, California, in 1943.


Notable people[edit]

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

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