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The Kalispel Indians of Montana

The Kalispel Indians of Montana

[Commentary by Dr. John Anderson]

The Ancient Kalispel In Montana

American scholars came to call the Montana Kalispel the Upper Kalispel, because they occupied the upper reaches of the greater Kalispel river drainage.

The Flathead Lake Region

All of the upper reaches of the Kalispel river drainage (including the Clark Fork, Flathead, Missoula, and Bitterroot rivers) were occupied by the Kalispel in ancient times. The great valley now called Flathead, where the Flathead Indian Reservation is located, was once a population center of the Upper Kalispel. See Flathead for a brief history of the Flathead valley.

The Bitteroot Valley

The valley of the Bitterroot river is located south of Missoula, Montana. It was an ancient Kalispel area, but by the time of the first European contacts it had become a center of a pan-tribal coalition of Salish-speaking peoples. The Americans called them the Salish (and also by the nicknames Flatheads and Bitterroots).

Salish immigrants from much farther downstream, as far as Idaho and Washington State, had moved to this large valley so they could be nearer the Buffalo Plains of eastern Montana. As a result of constant warfare with the non-Salish tribes who tried to drive them from the Buffalo Plains, the Salish confederation invited large numbers of Sahaptin (Nez Perce) Indians to join them in their hunting expeditions. As a result of their long-standing alliance, many Kalispel and Bitterroot Salish families became intermarried with the Nez Perce.

The Hell Gate Treaty

By 1854, the American army was sufficiently strong in the region to impose a treaty between the Siksika (Blackfeet) and the Kalispel of Montana (plus their Salish and Kootenai allies). This treaty took place at Missoula, next to the Hell Gate pass which was a militarily strategic 'gateway' in and out of the Bitterroot and nearby Flathead valley.

One of the reasons that the Kalispel alliance was willing to sign this treaty was their desperate need to end the biter fighting with their bitter enemies the Siksika. Among the Shahaptin attending this treaty conference was a young man named Looking Glass, who would later distinguish himself as military leader of the Sahaptin.

The Nez Perce War

When fighting between the Sahaptin (Nez Perce) and the United States army broke out in 1877, the Sahaptin fled over the Lolo Trail into the Bitterroot Valley of the Salish-speaking peoples. These residents of the Bitterroot valley were called the Flatheads by the Americans.

The Sahaptin, under the leadership of Looking Glass and Chief Joseph, were desperately seeking military assistance from the Salish. But only the Kalispel living in the area of the modern Flathead Indian reservation offered military assistance. The pan-Salish coalition living in the Bitterrot valley remained neutral, causing Chief Joseph to decline the Upper Kalispel offer of assistance. In between the fleeing Sahaptin and potential Kalispel reinforcements were well-armed American miners, who had seized the Kalispel lands now called Missoula and were determined to resist any Sahaptin/Kalispel alliance.

For the Montana Kalispel, Chief Joseph's decision to escape southeast instead of directly north was a military blessing. Chief Joseph and his followers were eventually defeated by American troops near the Canadian border, far from the Flathead valley and thus saving the Kalispel from the massacre that resulted in the Bear Paw Mountains of central Montana.

Contemporary Montana Kalispel

Many of the Kalispel of Montana now reside on the Flathead Reservation, which they share with the Salish (Bitterroot) and Kootenai Indians. Many contemporary families have relatives among not only the Salish and Kootenai, but also the nearby Blackfeet and even the Iroquois who first visited the Montana Kalispel with French trappers.

The Flathead Indian Reservation offers many programs important to the Montana Kalispel including education, housing, environmental protection, and social work. See Salish-Kootenai College for further information on higher education on the reservation. You can write the college administration at: Salish-Kootenai Çollege, P.O. Box 117, Highway 93, Pablo, MT 59855 (tel: 406 675-4800). You can reach the Salish & Flathead Cultural Committee at St.Ignatius, Mt 59865. See Powows for current information on public dances and other ceremonial events.

MORE (text)


Eastern Kalispel See Upper Kalispel for discussion. Flathead The first Salish speaking peoples encountered by the Europeans were coastal peoples of Canada and Washington State. These people flattened their foreheads, so the Europeans called them Flatheads. When the first Americans encountered the Upper Kalispel and other Salish-speaking peoples in the Bitterroot Valley, they called them Flatheads even though they did not flatten their foreheads. This nickname persisted among American bureaucrats into modern times, when the great lake of the upper Kalispel in western Montana is called the Flathead lake. And the large reservation where the Kalispel, Salish, and Kootenai live is now called the Flathead Reservation.

Bitterroot Valley A large valley located south of Missoula, Montana. This valley ws the home of a pan-Salish coalition, at the time of early American contacts. The Bitterroot Indians called themselves the Salish, to reflect the fact that they were a mixed group of Salish-speaking peoples including Kalispels, Kettles, Okanogan, Lakes, Spokanes, Couer d'Alenes. Due to severe military losses against the Blackfeet and other rivals on the Buffalo Plains, this coalition took in increasing numbers of Nez Perce, who joined them for annual Buffalo hunts by traveling across the Lolo Trail from nearby Idaho.

Horse Plains An American name for a major horse grazing valley, used by the Upper Kalispel as a safe grazing area away from possible raids by the Blackfeet and other rival tribes from the Buffalo Plains of central Montana. The Kookoosint pass protected this river valley, from attack.

Nez Perce See Sahaptin

Sahaptin A large tribe of Indians who lived in Idaho, and used the Lolo Trail to cross the mountains to join forces with the Kalispel and other Salish in annual Buffalo hunts. Chief Joseph is the most famous Nez Perce, who fled from Idaho through the lands of the Upper Kalispel in 1877. The Sahaptin spoke a language related to the greater Penutian language family that included their neighbors such as the Umatilla.

Saint Ignatius The location of the Catholic 'mission' among the Upper Kalispel. This site is now located on the Flathead Reservation. See Sinielmen for further discussion.

Sinielmen The Kalispel name for the valley located south of the Flathead Lake, which is now the site of the St. Ignatius Catholic 'mission.' Also spelled Snia'lemenex, Snia'lemenic, Sniyelemen (Teit). Davis translates this name to bean a gathering place, i.e. a place of rendezvous.

Upper Kalispel The term used by American scholars to refer to the Kalispel who lived in the upper reaches of the Kalispel drainage. This region of Montanta included the Clark Fork, Flathead, Missoula, and Bitterroot rivers.

This web page presents the views of the author, and does not necessarily represent

the views of the Kalispel Indians, either individually or as a group

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