American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Salish

"Salish" or Flathead, comes from the fact that they did not, like many neighboring peoples, shape their babies' foreheads (they left them "flat"). Their self-designation was Se'lic, or "People." Traditionally, the Salish lived in western Montana, around the Rocky Mountains and Little Belt Mountains. Today, most live in the Flathead, Lake, Missoula, and Sanders Counties in Montana. The Salish spoke a dialect of Interior Salish.

All Salish-speaking Indians probably originated in British Columbia. From their base in western Montana, the Salish may have moved farther east onto the Plains before being pushed back around 1600 by the Blackfeet. The Salish continued moving westward, into north central Idaho, throughout the following two centuries.

Various bands were formed of several related families. Each band was led by a chief, possibly hereditary in earlier times, and an assistant chief, both chosen by merit. Beginning in the late prehistoric period, as tribal cohesiveness increased, the band chiefs formed a tribal council to advise a tribal chief, and later the band chiefs themselves were relegated to the status of minor chiefs or subchiefs. In addition, individuals were selected as needed to lead various activities such as hunting and war.

Rule- or lawbreakers were punished by public whipping and/or ridicule. Premarital sexual relations were frowned on; the woman could be whipped if discovered. Although some people eloped, marriage was arranged by families and formalized by cohabitation and a formal ceremony. Polygamy was common. Women were responsible for all domestic tasks.

Winter dwellings were of two types. One was a partially excavated, conical mat (cedar bark, hemp) house on a wooden frame; the other was a long communal and ceremonial lodge. Brush shelters sufficed during camping and mountain hunting trips. Bark or skin teepees gained popularity after horse ownership turned the Salish into buffalo hunters.

Beginning in the eighteenth century, buffalo, hunted on the Great Plains, became a key food item. Before this period, however, the Salish ate a number of animals including elk, deer, antelope, and small game. Fish, including trout, salmon, and whitefish, formed an important part of their diet. Plant foods included camas, bitterroot, other bulbs, roots, and berries.

Men used hook and line, nets, traps, and weirs to catch fish. Women made birchbark and woven skin containers as well as coiled cedar baskets. They also made twined grass spoons.

Around 1700 the Salish acquired horses and assumed a great deal of the culture of Plains Indians (including buffalo hunting, stronger tribal organization, and raiding). Ongoing wars with the Blackfeet as well as several smallpox epidemics combined in the eighteenth century to reduce their population significantly. They also encountered Christian Iroquois Indians during this time.

Although disease preceded their physical arrival, non-Indians began trading in Salish country shortly after the 1805 visit of the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark expedition. The missionary period began in 1841. In 1855, a major land cession (the Hellgate Treaty) established the Flathead, or Jocko, Reservation, but most Salish Indians avoided confinement until at least 1872, in part owing to their friendliness with the Americans. During these years, other tribes were placed on the reservation, and the buffalo herds diminished rapidly. Charlot, the leader of one Salish band, held out in the Bitterroot Mountains until 1891, when his people finally joined the Flathead Reservation.

The government considered terminating the reservation in the 1950s but was successfully opposed by tribal leaders. In 1960, the tribe won roughly $4.4 million in land claims settlements.

 

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