WE ARE STILL HERE
The Flathead Valley has seen many transformations. This is the story of the biggest one.
randpa! Grandpa! Come see our time machine!” My 10-year-old granddaughter Raven ran into the house, followed by her younger twin sisters, Meadow and Lark.
The three had been in the backyard all morning, playing with the large box our new refrigerator had arrived in. Smiling at their excitement, I followed the girls out back to see their creation. “You’re going to have to crawl, Grandpa,” Raven explained, clearly wondering if her ancient grandfather could do such a thing.
“Let’s see if I can manage,” I chuckled as my knees crackled in protest as I folded myself down. Sunlight shone through the four portholes they had cut in the far end of the box, one for each of us. Through the holes, the snowcapped south end of the Mission Range appeared bigger than the earth on which it stood.
“Welcome to the Reservation Time Machine, Grandpa! You get to be the captain because you know everything,” Raven said. “You can take us back to any time you want on our lands. We want to learn more about how the old ones lived.”
“Our lands?” I asked, “The homelands of the Kootenai, Salish and Pend d’ Oreille Nations?”
“Yes,” Raven said. “Anywhere within the sacred mountains.”
“For the old ones, our homeland was far greater than this little reservation. Far greater,”
“For the old ones, our homeland was far greater than this little reservation. Far greater,”
“For the old ones, our homeland was far greater than this little reservation. Far greater,” I said, sighing. Then I refocused on the little faces before me. “I hope this machine works. I don’t want to get eaten by a dinosaur.”
The girls giggled. “Okay, here we go, dialing in our first stop,” I said. “We’re going back a little more than three hundred years, to the late 1600s. We’re out on the plains by the mighty falls of the Missouri, where Great Falls is today. But there’s no American city. Instead, it’s only our People, and they number in the tens of thousands. Our villages are everywhere, from the foothills of the Bear Paw, Belt and Crazy Horse Mountains in the east to the Bitterroot and Cabinet Mountains to the west,” I explained.
“Where did all our people go?” Meadow asked.
“Good question,” I said. “In the time of the old ones, our People possessed all we desired. Our homelands covered the best of two worlds: the plains with buffalo everywhere, and our mountain valleys where lakes and rivers provided more than enough game to feed and clothe our people forever. Many of our people spent the summer on the plains and the winters on the west side of the mountains, in the valleys where it was warmer. Did you girls notice there are dogs, but no horses? In the time of the old ones, there were no horses anywhere in our lands.”
“What did people ride?” asked Meadow.
“People walked,” I explained. “Never, in all our lands, had anyone seen a horse until one day a band of Shoshone from the south appeared on horseback, seeking to trade horses for meat and hides. Soon after that, horses appeared in the wild.”
“Where did the horses come from?” Meadow asked.
Whisper Camel-Means, Wildlife biologist
Serves on the Flathead Reservation Fish and Wildlife Board, the Mission Mountain Audubon Society, SciNation on the Flathead Reservation STEAM youth group, and the Montana Chapter of the Wildlife Society. Volunteers at local schools to share wildlife and local tribal knowledge.
“My grandmother was one of the last full-blood Qĺispé people here. My family is known for my uncle Marvin Camel, who was the first cruiserweight boxing champion of the world. People in our family are driven, many of us excelling in academia with bachelor’s and master’s degrees. [As a wildlife biologist] I want to protect wildlife resources on the Flathead Reservation, for current and future generations. Professionally this protection is for the Tribal membership, but personally it is for everyone who lives within the boundaries of the reservation and our region.”
Qĺispé, member of the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes
“The Shoshone told our People that one day the earth opened, and thousands of horses emerged, but that was a legend. It’s true that thousands of horses appeared, but it was because the Pueblo Nation had revolted against Spanish invaders and beaten them back to Mexico, then turned loose the horses the Spanish left behind. Horses brought our People a golden age of prosperity that lasted more than one hundred years. There were no wars for territory or resources between the Tribes; everyone had enough.” I paused, reflecting. “As good as the horses made our lives, though, if we had known the price our People would ultimately pay at the hands of the European settlers who brought them, all Tribes would have gladly never seen a horse.”
“Never?” asked little Lark.
“Never,” I responded softly. “With the arrival of the Europeans, our world changed forever, and almost erased all our people from the face of the earth.”
“Were they bad people?” Lark asked.
“No worse or better than any people, but their presence changed everything,” I tried to explain. “This huge village our people lived in at the Great Falls? Almost everybody died. Not in a war, but from illness. Long before we saw our first white man, their diseases traveled west from Nation to Nation. Illnesses that only made Europeans sick killed our People by the thousands. Then Tribes from the east moved west to escape the Europeans.”
I tried to think of a way to share this part of our history without hate. “The British drove People from their homelands in Canada. They traveled onto our lands to survive, and fought to make our land their own. Smallpox had already killed many of our warriors. Worse, the invaders had rifles and metal knives from the British. We fled to the west side of the mountains and only came east to hunt buffalo.” I paused. “Enough here. Let’s see what happened to our People who lived in the Bitterroot Valley.”
“I hope it’s better there,” Raven said.
I wished I could honor her desire. “The Bitterroot Valley was the heart of our homelands,” I began.
“Wait, Grandpa, I don’t get it. I thought we lived in the Flathead Valley?” Raven asked.
“We do now, but in old times, the Flathead was only one of many valleys our Tribes lived in. Mostly Pend d’Oreilles, Kootenai and Kalispel lived here, and the Salish in the Bitterroot. We were friends, and often our People would marry their People.” I organized my thoughts. “Okay, now it’s 1850. Our village is by the Bitterroot River, near Lolo Creek. Near where Missoula is, but there was no Missoula yet. All the valley was ours.”
“Is it still ours?” Meadow asked.
I shook my head. “We were not aware European nations and the United States were competing to colonize our territory. The Russians and Spanish first claimed our homelands on maps without ever setting foot here. Then the French and British laid their own claims. Finally the Americans came, seeking to extend their empire to the Pacific Ocean. We, and many other Tribal Nations, were in their way.”
“But we are Americans,” Raven interjected.
Casey Ryan, Hydrologist
Serves on the board of directors for Swan Valley Connections, council member with the Missoula City-County Water Quality Advisory Council, Advisory Board for AWRA’s Water Resources IMPACT Magazine. Active in various local science, career, and educational outreach efforts. Graduate of Leadership Flathead Reservation.
“I have always been inspired by our elders’ stories and the lessons they teach me. I hope to apply the values I have learned from my elders into my work, my relationships, and my personal life. From listening to my elders and my family I have learned many important lessons: that everything is to be respected, that we must take only as much as necessary, that we must always give back at least as much as we take, and that we must always protect our natural resources for future generations. Every day I try to remember these lessons as I work to preserve, protect, and enhance water resources for future generations. I believe that caring for this landscape is a generational responsibility.”
Bitterroot Séliš, member of the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes
“We are today,” I answered. “It was not always so. Very early in the 1800s, our People asked the Americans to come to us and bring their priests to teach us to be a better people. Had we not done this, the British may have won their claim to our lands.”
“So it was good that the Americans came?” Raven asked.
“Perhaps,” I said. “Had they honored their promises, it would have been much better. Unfortunately, the Americans did not keep their word.”
“We got our reservation,” she countered. “That’s good.”
“Just wait, little one, the story isn’t over. Look at our Bitterroot settlement—see our village with all the teepees and lodges, and the valley where our People farm the land and raise cattle? We welcomed the Americans and granted them safe passage through our lands. Our People helped the Americans secure their claim to the Oregon Territory over the competing claims of the British. Then, in 1855, our People made a treaty with the Americans.”
“When we sat with the Americans to negotiate the 1855 treaty, they did not write the promises in Salish. All was in English, which we could not read. We had to trust what the Americans told us was on the papers we signed. We were told both the Bitterroot and Flathead Valleys were ours. We consented to two reservations, the Flathead primarily for the Pend d’Oreilles, Kootenai, and Kalispel, and the Bitterroot mainly for the Salish. They said our People could no longer live east of the mountains, but we would always be free to cross the mountains to hunt buffalo and other game in the Missouri River Basin. We were also told our valleys, to the tops of the surrounding peaks, would be forever ours. We went into treaty negotiations with more than 20,000 square miles, and left owning less than 3,000 square miles. We gave much and received little; we had no choice. Worse, the little they promised was never honored. The Americans had already surveyed our lands for railroads—already planning to break their promises.”
The girls listened silently.
“In 1871, less than 20 years after the first treaty, President Grant sent future president James Garfield to tell us everyone must move to the Flathead Reservation and leave the Bitterroot Valley forever. We refused. Garfield said it made no difference. Like many in the United States government in those times, Garfield did not like or respect Native Americans,” I explained, remembering the terrible words he had said as a member of Congress:
“The race of the red men will…before many generations be remembered only as a strange, weird, dreamlike specter, which once passed before the eyes of men, but had departed forever.”
“James Garfield did not see our people as equals,” I continued. “He said that it was ridiculous for the government to even bother making treaties with us, people he called ‘painted and half naked savages.’”
The girls giggled at the word ‘naked,’ but kept listening. “When Garfield returned to Congress, he lied, telling them that our People had agreed to abandon the Bitterroot Valley. He presented the forged mark of our chief on his paper as proof. So the Americans took another thousand square miles of our homeland. Their soldiers made us move.”
“Grandpa, isn’t there anything good we can see in our time machine?” Raven asked.
Stephanie Gillin, Wildlife Biologist & Educator
Serves as the Information & Education Program Manager for the Division of Fish, Wildlife, Recreation and Conservation. Vice chair for the Ronan/Pablo Indian Education Committee (IEC).
“My passion is to continue to educate and reconnect our youth and community to the cultural significance of wildlife and valuable resources to us as Native people. I love to incorporate culture and language into all of my presentations. As an Indian Education Committee member, I also want to continue to push for more culture and language within our schools. I hope to continue learning more and passing on my knowledge, because, unfortunately I did not learn about it in our public schools within our own Reservation. School was not easy for me and I was not the best student. I like to be a role model for Native youth, to tell them to never give up on their dream! Never let anyone tell you that you can’t be someone; use that as fuel for your fire and prove yourself right!”
Séliš, member of the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes
I smiled. “Well, let’s go forward in time, to the year 1900. Look out now: we are in our own Flathead Valley and buffalo graze everywhere. These are the last buffalo anywhere. White hunters killed all the millions of buffalo on the great plains, but our People protected these herds, preventing them from going extinct.”
“That’s really good!” Raven said.
“It was starting to look like better times,” I agreed. “What was left of our People—the Salish, Kootenai, Kalispel, and Pend d’Oreille—all ended up here and started farming, ranching, and logging. Everyone worked hard to make our valley our home. We had good land, healthy timber stands, plenty of water for drinking and irrigation. Our nation had become much smaller, but we were handling the changes. Look out there and see how prosperous and hard-working our People are, building a life and a future on our own land. Unfortunately, we soon discovered the Americans were not yet done taking from us.”
“Not again!” the girls shouted. I nodded.
“In 1904, Congress passed a law to take away almost all of our best land. Overnight, it seemed, American homesteaders appeared. Seven thousand homesteaders seized the very best agricultural land within our reservation, fencing our People out of the land where they had ranched and hunted. Most of our Reservation became their private property.”
“They can’t do that,” Raven cried. “That’s stealing.”
“It would be today. In 1904, Native Americans were not citizens. The government had the power to take what was ours and we could not stop them. That is why so many non-Native people live on our reservation. They never bought the land from us–they simply took it because the government said they could. Then the government took thousands of acres for the bison range lands, then flooded thousands more for the Kerr Dam south of Polson. It is amazing we have any land left.”
“I thought the reservation was ours?” Raven asked.
By the 1950s, Tribal members owned less than 400 square miles of the original 3,000-square-mile reservation.
“Very little is truly ours. By the 1950s, Tribal members owned less than 400 square miles of the original 3,000-square-mile reservation. The U.S. Government took the rest and either gave it to homesteaders or kept it as federal land. In the 1950s, Congress attempted to eliminate our reservation entirely. They called it “disestablishment.” Thankfully, they weren’t successful, or no Tribal lands would exist today. Since then, our Tribes have worked hard to get back ownership and control of what has been taken, but progress is slow and expensive. It may take centuries for the Tribes to regain ownership of what the maps say is reservation land.”
“That’s not right,” Lark protested. “When I grow up, I’m going to fight to get it all back.”
“If you do, do so wisely and with compassion. Do not commit wrongs to correct the wrongs of others,” I cautioned.
“Grandfather,” Raven asked, “if you could change anything you showed us, what would it be?”
I gazed out my small porthole at the Mission Mountains. “It would be too much to ask for the Europeans to have stayed home. They went everywhere in the world, not just North America. But our history could have been much better if only they had kept their word. Had the 1855 treaty been respected, we would now live in a place much like Yellowstone National Park. Free-range bison would graze everywhere. But more than that, great numbers of healthy, thriving Native people would live in their midst. Children born and raised here could speak both our native tongues and English fluently. What a loss our People have suffered to satisfy others’ greed for land.”
Roy Bigcrane, Documentary Filmmaker
Filmmaker and Media Specialist at Salish Kootenai College. Served as SKC Member of the Advisory Board, Native Voices Public Television Workshop, MSU, member of the Planning Committee for the Native American Film Category.
“Our family, like all families here, has a rich history. On both sides of my family, there are great stories, but in the past number of years, one story that is becoming more known is about our great grandfather, Little Falcon’s Robe. Back in the late 1800s, he brought some bison calves from the plains of Montana and started a small bison herd close to where the National Bison Range is now. The bison were nearly extinct at that time. The herd that he started continued to grow and was eventually sold to other people. Their herd also grew and now the bison is no longer in danger of becoming extinct like it was. That is a little history of my family.”
Séliš, member of the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes
“Grandpa,” Raven asked, tearing up a little, “why did they set aside land for trees and bison for Yellowstone National Park, but not for Native Americans?”
“Honey, back then the government thought there was nothing wrong with destroying our Nations and our culture, pretending we had no rights to the land they wanted to take,” I explained. “But our People have risen to the challenge. Not by war, but by surviving and thriving in spite of two hundred years of oppression. We have our own colleges and trade schools; our People have become professionals of every kind. Every day we work to reverse the loss of our lands and the destruction of our culture. I’m proud of us, and I know I’ll be proud of what you three will become.Together, we will let the world know, ‘we are still here.’”
Photographer: Tailyr Irvine
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