Native Americans have lived in Montana for more than 14,000 years, based on archaeological findings. The Bitteroot Salish came from the West Coast, whereas the Kootenai lived mostly in the interior of present-day Idaho, Montana, and Canada. The Kootenai left artifacts in prehistoric time. One group of the Kootenai in the northeast lived mainly on buffalo hunting. Another group lived on the rivers and lakes of the mountains in the west. When they moved east, they could rely less on salmon fishing, but turned to eating plants and buffalo. During the 18th century, the Salish and the Kootenai tribes shared gathering and hunting grounds. As European-American settlers entered the area, the peoples came into conflict.
In 1855 the United States (US) made the Treaty of Hellgate, by which it set aside a reservation solely for the Flathead. Although the tribe opposed European-style allotments and farming, the US Congress passed the 1904 Flathead Allotment Act. After allotments of land to individual households of members on the tribal rolls, the government declared the rest "surplus" and opened the reservation to homesteading by whites. United States Senator Joseph M. Dixon of Montana played a key role in getting this legislation passed. Its passage caused much resentment by the Flathead, and the allotment of reservation lands remains "a very sensitive issue". The Flathead would like to regain control of their reservation lands.
The area was favorably compared to the Yakima River Valley in Washington State. Thousands of acres on the reservation were reserved for town sites, schools and the National Bison Range. The Flathead were given first choice of either 80 or 160 acres of land per household. The rest was made open to whites in 1910. A total of 81,363 applications by whites were received for 1,600 parcels of land. The applications were placed in plain brown envelopes, piled onto a pallet, and three young girls drew 6,000 of them, choosing who would have a chance to homestead on the land. The first 3,000 were notified in the spring and the second 3,000 were notified in the fall. But, lottery winners took only 600 tracts, leaving 1,000 tracts still open. These were taken in what the tribe considers a subsequent "land grab". According to their treaty, the tribes have the right to off-reservation hunting, but the state believed it could regulate those activities. State game wardens were responsible for the confrontation that led to four deaths, what is known as the Swan Valley Massacre of 1908.
All but the northern tip of Flathead Lake is part of the reservation. Flathead Lake lies in the northeast corner of the reservation, with most of the reservation to the south and west of the lake. Part of the Mission Mountains range is on the reservation. The western end of the range is protected by the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness and the eastern end of the range is protected by the Mission Mountains Wilderness. Parts of the Bob Marshall Wilderness are nearby.
The tribes derive most of their income from selling timber, revenue from Kerr Dam, the KwaTuqNuk ("where the water leaves the lake") resort and casino in Polson, and S&K Holding—an electronics manufacturing firm. Salish Kootenai College is a community college located in Pablo.
There are 26 places (including CDPs) on the reservation that are officially recognized by the Census Bureau. Only 8 of them are majority Flathead. Whites own about 1/3 of the land on the reservation. Previously whites owned most of the reservation but the tribe has been steadily buying back the land over many years.