The Salish Indians

The Salish Indians of the Flathead Reservation

Charlo, or Charlot, was the son of Victor, and his successor as chief of the Salish bands. The Treaty of 1855, negotiated by Isaac Stevens, had guaranteed that Victor and his people could stay in the Bitterroot Valley. In 1872, however, President U.S. Grant ordered the Salish, then led by Chief Charlo, to move north to the Flathead Reservation. Two sub-chiefs, Arlee and Joseph Nine Pipes, complied, but Charlo refused, and stayed resolutely, but “illegally,” on his native lands.

In 1876, the government of Montana Territory proposed a tax on Indians’ property. Charlo’s bitter but eloquent response resonates with his deep sadness and disillusionment.

Chief Charlo‘s Answer

Since our forefathers first beheld [the white man], more than seven times ten winters have snowed and melted. Most of them like those snows have dissolved away. Their spirits went whither they came; his, they say, go there too. Do they meet and see us here? Can he blush before his Maker, or is he forever dead? Is his prayer his promise—a trust of the wind? Is it a sound without sense? Is it a thing whose life is a foul thing?…

What is he? Who sent him here? We were happy when he first came; since then we often saw him, always heard him and of him. We first thought he came from the light, but he comes like the dusk of the evening now, not like the dawn of the morning. He comes like a day that has passed, and night enters our future with him.…

Had Heaven’s Chief burnt him with some mark to refuse him, we might have refused him. No, we did not refuse him in his weakness; in his poverty we fed, we cherished him—yes, befriended him, and showed the fords and defiles of our lands. Yet we did think his face was concealed with hair, and that he often smiled like a rabbit in his own beard. A long-tailed, skulking thing, fond of flat lands, and soft grass and woods.

To confirm, his purpose; to make the trees and stones and his own people hear him, he whispers soldiers, lock houses and iron chains.…He, the cause of our ruin, is his own snake, which he says stole on his mother in her own country to lie to her. He says his story is that man was rejected and cast off. Why did we not reject him forever? He says one of his virgins had a son nailed to death on two cross sticks to save him. Were all of them dead then when that young man died, we would be all safe now and our country our own. . . .

…His meanness ropes his charity, his avarice wives his envy, his race breeds to extort. Did he speak at all like a friend? . . .

He is cold, and stealth and envy are with him, and fit him as do his hands and feet. We owe him nothing; he owes us more than he will pay, yet he says there is a God.…

His laws never gave us a blade nor a tree, nor a duck, nor a grouse, nor a trout. No; like the wolverine that steals your cache, how often does he come? You know he comes as long as he lives, and takes more and more, and dirties what he leaves.”

In 1891, after 20 more years of impoverishment and near-starvation, Charlo agreed to move his band of 157 people to the Flathead Reservation. They walked the seventy-five miles from their ancestral homeland in the Bitterroot Valley to the Jocko Valley at the southern end of the reservation.

In 1855, most of the region now known as Montana was still a part Washington Territory. In July of that year, in a grove of cottonwoods along the Clark Fork River about ten miles west of today’s Missoula, the territorial governor and superintendent of Indian affairs, Isaac Stevens, convened a council of the chiefs of the Flathead (Salish), Pend d’Orielle, and Kootenai people. The principal item on Stevens’s agenda was to persuade the Indians to move to a reservation in the Mission Valley.

Most of the Indian signatories to the treaty that Stevens offered, agreed to move their followers to a reservation in the Mission Valley, north of the Clark Fork and Bitterroot valleys. However, Victor, the Salish head chief, persuaded Governor Stevens to allow him and his people to remain in the Bitterroot Valley. Altogether, the three tribes surrendered some 25,000 square miles to the U.S. Government. A cash settlement was promised, but it was never paid.

The Treaty of 1855 was to have been the final settlement with the Indians. In 1887, however, under pressure from settlers from the east, as well as commercial interests such as banks and railroads, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, which specified that all Indian reservations were to be broken up, and the land allotted to the heads of Indian families in 160-acre parcels. The object was to motivate the new landowners to become farmers; otherwise they could sell or lease their allotments to non-Indians. Allotted Indians were subject to state civil and criminal jurisdiction. This was to have been the end of it.

The Flathead Reservation was surveyed and allotted in 1908. Charlo fought it with all his might, until his death on January 10, 1910. Just fifteen days later, the government opened nearly 1 million acres of reservation land to homesteading by any U.S. citizen. The best of it was that 20,000 acres were later set aside for the National Bison Range at Moiese, and several thousand more for two wetland wildlife ranges, Pablo and Ninepipe. Otherwise, the tribes were left with little agricultural land, but with considerable timber.

In 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act reversed the policies of assimilation and allotment, and permitted the writing of tribal constitutions. The Salish and Kootenai successfully derailed the other main provision of of the Act—the termination of all federal services to Indians.

Slightly less than half of the 1,242,969 acres within the Flathead Reservation are owned by the tribe or by tribal members, and most of it is mountainous. Non-Indians own most of the valley’s prime agricultural land.

From the 1950s through the 70s, the Salish-Kootenai Confederated Tribes took important steps toward regaining certain significant rights. They became national leaders in defining areas of tribal jurisdiction, including taxes, law enforcement, and recreation management.

They are currently fighting two new battles. One is over the Montana Department of Transportation’s intent to rebuild the main north-south artery, U.S. highway 93, as a 4- and 5-lane throughway.

The other is over rights to enforce laws on non-tribal lands within the reservation boundaries. Congressional action on that issue has been shelved.

Late in 1997, Senator Conrad Burns (R) of Montana wrote a discussion draft of a bill to return civil jurisdiction over non-tribal members to the State of Montana. Civil matters involving tribal members on reservation land would still be handled by the tribes.

Proponents of the action point out that in just one of the three counties within the reservation boundaries, 80 percent of the residents are non-Indians, who cannot vote in tribal elections, nor serve on tribal juries, although they are subject to tribal regulations, laws, and courts. Supporters also include the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, which suffered a $250 million judgment from a Crow tribal court. The railroad urges the limitation of Indian jurisdiction over all who cross a reservation, including business travelers, truckers and tourists.

Indians, however, are convinced that the measure would effectively have destroyed tribal sovereignty.

On March 26, 1998, after three public hearings, Senator Burns withdrew the proposed legislation and invited Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., to schedule a field hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs in Montana to discuss jurisdictional issues.

Said State Representative Jay Stovall, a member of the Crow tribe: “…the actions of Congress created the complex situation that we encounter today and it is the responsibility of Congress of resolve it in the future.”


Pertinent articles in the New York Times:

March 8, 1998
“New Prosperity Brings New Conflict to Indian Country”
By Timothy Egan

March 9, 1998
“Backlash Growing as Indians Make Stand for Sovereignty”
By Timothy Egan