Christianity Comes to the Flathead Indians

During the 1830s, a major stir occurred among the missionary groups in North America when there were reports of the “savage” tribes from the interior who had come to St. Louis seeking Christianity. One of these tribes was the Flathead or Bitterroot Salish, a Salish-speaking tribe whose traditional territory included much of Western Montana. After they acquired the horse during the early 1700s, they began going east of the Rocky Mountains to hunt buffalo.

During the 1800s, the buffalo hunting area east of the Rocky Mountains on the Great Plains was claimed by a number of different tribes and there were often battles between them. The animosity between the Flathead and the Blackfoot was particularly intense and Blackfoot warriors were often successful in their raids on Flathead hunting parties.

In 1810, the North West Company established a trading post called Saleesh House in Flathead country on the Clark Fork River near present-day Thompson Falls in Montana. Fur trader David Thompson employed six Iroquois at Saleesh House to help him find bark for making canoes.

Following the establishment of Saleesh House, Nor’wester fur traders accompanied a hunting party of 150 Flathead across the Rocky Mountains through Marias Pass to hunt buffalo on the Plains. The hunting party was attacked by a party of 170 Piegan Blackfoot. The Flatheads won the battle, in part through the aid of the three traders who were traveling with them. The Flathead were armed with 20 guns obtained from the Nor’westers. They killed 7 of the Blackfoot and wounded 13 others. Among the Flathead, 5 were killed and 9 wounded. This was the first time in many years that the Flathead had won a battle against the Blackfoot.

The following year, the North West Company trading post Saleesh House was abandoned because of Blackfoot raids against the Flathead and fear of reprisals for the Nor’westers’ role in the battle against the Blackfoot.

In 1820, a group of about two dozen Christian Iroquois (Catholic Mohawk from Quebec) under the leadership of Old Ignace La Mousse came to live among the Flathead. The Iroquois worked for the Canadian fur traders and were to help establish fur trade and to show the Flathead how to trap.

The Iroquois preached their version of Christianity to the Flathead and taught them a number of Christian prayers and hymns. They told the Flathead about the great power of the Black Robes – the Jesuit Priests of the Catholic Church.

In 1831, some of the Flathead decided that the power of the Black Robes (Jesuits) could help them prevail over their enemies. The American Fur Company transported four Indians, including Silver Eagle and Running Bear, to St. Louis where they met with William Clark. Clark, of Lewis and Clark fame, had first made contact with the tribe when the Corps of Discovery had passed through their territory. While Clark was sympathetic to their request for missionaries, he was unable to find any Black Robes who were free to go to western Montana.

Two of the Flathead men died in St. Louis. The other two traveled part of the way home with the well-known American artist George Catlin who later reported that the Flathead had told him that the Jesuits had a superior religion and that they would be lost if they did not embrace it. The two remaining Flathead men died before returning home.

In 1834, Jason Lee, sent by the Methodist Missionary Board to establish a mission among the Flathead, met with the Flathead and Nez Perce at the Green River Rendezvous in Wyoming. He found the Indians deeply unsettling and concluded that the Indians were slaves to Satan and to alcohol. Instead of establishing an Indian mission, he continued his journey west to Fort Vancouver in Washington.

 In 1835, the Flathead still felt it would be good if they were to have a Black Robe live among them and share with them the great power of the Black Robes. Consequently, a second delegation of Flathead left Western Montana to travel to St. Louis, Missouri. The journey from Western Montana to Missouri was not an easy one for it meant that they had to pass through territories claimed by other tribes, such as the Crow and Lakota. Even though they were on a peaceful mission, it was easy to be mistaken for a war party and to invite attack by other tribes.

In St. Louis they asked for a Black Robe to be assigned to them. The delegation included Old Ignace, the Iroquois who first introduced the Flatheads to Catholicism. Historian Larry Cebula, in his book Plateau Indians and the Quest for Spiritual Power, 1700-1850, reports of Ignace:

“He was familiar with Catholicism and went straight to the cathedral to have his sons baptized. There he told the blackrobes that the Flatheads had sent him to St. Louis to request missionaries and that other Plateau groups, including the Spokans, Nez Perces, Cayuses, and Kutenais, wanted missionaries as well.”

In spite of the request, all available Jesuit manpower was committed to establishing a mission among the Kickapoos on the southern Plains and therefore there was no one available to be assigned to the Flathead.

In 1836, a party of four Flatheads left their Western Montana home for St. Louis to ask for the Blackrobes (Jesuits) to come to their people. This delegation was also lead by the Iroquois Old Ignace. The group was not heard from again. Indian agent Peter Ronan, in his 1890 book History of the Flathead Indians, reports:

“Whether killed while passing through the roaming places of their enemies or died of sickness or fatigue on their wearisome journey has never been known.”

In 1839, a fourth delegation of Flathead, including Peter Gaucher and Young Ignace, left Western Montana to journey to St. Louis. Upon reaching St. Louis, they met with Bishop Rosati. In their meeting with Bishop Rosati they extracted the promise that a priest would be sent to live with them.

In 1840 the Jesuits sent Father Pierre-Jean De Smet to live among the tribes of Western Montana. His first contact with them was at the Three Forks of the Missouri River where he was welcomed into a camp of Flathead and Pend d’Oreille. In his M.A. Thesis Religious Acculturation of the Flathead Indians, Richard Forbis reports:

“Like the Catholics of medieval Europe, De Smet wanted to make all aspects of life subservient to the Church and to Christianity.”

As a part of this assimilation, he wanted the Indians to become farmers.

Upon his arrival in Western Montana’s Bitterroot Valley in 1841, Father De Smet set about constructing St. Mary’s mission, baptizing children, and instructing the people in the ways of Catholic Christianity. He placed a large hand-hewn cross in the center of a circle. According to J. F. McAlear, in the book The Fabulous Flathead: The Story of the Development of Montana’s Flathead Indian Reservation:

 “Following a short service by Father DeSmet, all the Indians, young and old, came forward and solemnly kissed the cross and declared an oath that they would never forsake the religion of the Black Gown.”

At least this was DeSmet’s interpretation of what happened. According to Indian agent Peter Ronan:

“On the 3d day of December, 1841, about one-third of the Flathead tribe were baptized into the Catholic faith, and the others who were under religious instructions were received into the fold on Christmas day of that same year.”

In his book Charlo’s People: The Flathead Tribe, Adolf Hungry Wolf reports:

“But after all their efforts to learn about the Catholic religion, the Flatheads were soon discouraged by the attitudes of the priests. The People wanted to add Catholicism to their own Ways of Life—not to exchange their Ways for the ways that the priests demanded.”

In 1846, the Small Robes band of Blackfoot were living among the Flathead and observed their great victory over the Crow. The Blackfoot felt that the reason for the victory was the great War Medicine of the Blackrobes (Jesuits). Consequently, they had Father De Smet baptize 80 of their children. Encouraged by this baptism, Father De Smet set out to find the main band of the Blackfoot so that he might: (1) establish peace between the Flathead and the Blackfoot, and (2) establish a permanent mission among the Blackfoot.

In a letter to a London supporter, Father De Smet described the Blackfoot:

“They are the most treacherous and wily set of savages among all the nations of the American desert, in whose words no reliance can be placed.”

By seeking to bring Christianity to the Blackfoot De Smet angered the Flatheads. According to Richard Forbis:

“Although De Smet had lived with the Flatheads for five years, he apparently did not appreciate the fact that the Indians were not particularly interested in the moral and non-material aspects of Christianity; they were primarily concerned with its protective powers.”

When the Flathead had become Christian they had become successful in repelling Blackfoot attacks. This success, according to the Flathead, was due to the superior power of the Black Robes and if this power were to be given to their enemies, they reasoned, they might be exterminated. De Smet’s promiscuous proselytizing – giving the power to their enemies – caused Flathead resentment and hostility toward the priests and toward Christianity.

When DeSmet returned to the Flathead he found that their attitude toward the Black Robes had changed. Now they openly challenged the Black Robes by publically gambling, an activity which the priests discouraged. According to historian Larry Cebula:

“One Flathead disrupted religious services and others practiced shamanism within the mission itself.”

In 1847, smallpox struck the Flathead shortly after the hunters left for the buffalo hunt. Eighty-six people died, leaving only fifteen children alive. In her M.A. Thesis Bighorn Sheep and the Salish World View: A Cultural Approach to the Landscape, Marcia Pablo Cross reports:

“The priests regard this as a sign of God’s displeasure with the Flatheads for so many of them turning away from the mission. The Salish could have viewed this incident as the priests withholding their good medicine.”

In 1850, the Jesuits closed their mission to the Flathead and sold the mission to a local trader. The trader turned it into Fort Owen which served as a trading post for the Bitterroot Valley. The Jesuits abandoned the mission because they had little protection from Blackfoot attacks. Indian agent Peter Ronan blamed the lack of Flathead protection for the mission on the traders:

“Those men—licentious, immoral and impure generally, who accept from the great fur companies of the west, situations as trappers, hunters, etc., lead wild and desolate lives, and in their career of debauchery among the simple natives, brooked no opposition, and looked with jealous eyes upon the missionaries’ teachings of Christianity and virtue, and in the councils of the Indians began to sow the seed of discontent against the missionaries for the new order of things, which deprived the Christianized Indian from as many wives as he chose to take and in prohibiting debauchery of the Indian women by those lewd camp followers.”

It should be pointed out that Ronan had been appointed Indian Agent for the Flathead Reservation by the Catholic Church under the U.S. government policy of requiring Indians to convert to Christianity.

In 1854, the Jesuits established St. Ignatius as a mission among the Pend d’Oreille, a Salish-speaking group north of the Flathead. The Jesuits hoped that this mission would encourage the Flathead to abandon their traditional home in the Bitterroot Valley and move north to resettle among the Salish-speaking Pend d’Oreille. The Jesuits were led to the site of the new mission by Chief Alexander.

Today many, if not most, of the Flathead are Catholic and participate in Catholic ceremonies. At the same time, many also practice some of the “old ways” and see no conflict between the two. Christianity provides them with additional power.

 

The Flathead and Lewis and Clark

Long before Europeans had even dreamt about the possibility of the Americas, the Bitterroot Salish, also known as the Flathead, were living in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana. For many generations the Bitterroot Salish occupied western Montana and the area east of the Rocky Mountains past the red paint caves near present-day Helena. They maintained a winter camp at the confluence of the Madison, Gallatin, and Jefferson Rivers east of the Rocky Mountains and they hunted as far east as present-day Billings and south into Wyoming. They were friendly with the tribes to the west, all the way to the Great Salt Water Mystery (Pacific Ocean).  

With regard to language, Salish is the largest language family in the Pacific Northwest. Salish languages were spoken from the Pacific Coast to the Rocky Mountains. The Bitterroot Salish are the western most group of Salish-speakers. According to Salish elders, the various Salish-speaking tribes were separated many thousands of years ago and as a result the different Salish languages emerged. Several Salish bands-which were later misnamed Flathead-camped throughout Montana from the Bitterroot to the Yellowstone Valleys. Linguists estimate that this language family may be 6,000 years old, although some feel it may be as young as 3,000 years old.

With regard to the name Flathead, Father Palladino, who had been a missionary among them in the 19th century, wrote:

“Their heads are normal and shapely, and therefore the name Flat Heads in its obvious meaning and literal sense cannot be applied to them, save as a misnomer or a libel.”

While there are some stories that tell of the Flathead migrating to Western Montana from the Pacific Coast and having practiced cranial deformation, most likely the name comes for a misinterpreted sign. In the sign language of the Plateau Area, which is somewhat different than Plains Indian Sign Language, the sign for the Bitterroot Salish was made by patting the head with the right hand above and back of the ear. In Plains Indian Sign Language the sign was made by placing both hands to each side of the head, which indicated that the people lived between the mountains. Both of these signs were easily misinterpreted by the early Europeans as meaning “Flat Head.”

Bitterroot map

The map above shows the Salish territory between the mountains.

Woman's Dress

Girls dress

Flathead Mocassins

Gloves

Shown above are some examples of Salish clothing.

Basket Sweet Grass

Flathead Basket

Flathead Basket 1

Shown above are some Salish baskets.

Grinding stone

Shown above is a grinding stone-mano and metate-which was used in preparing nuts, seeds, and berries.

Flathead Beadwork 1

Flathead Beadwork 2

Flathead Beadwork 3

Some examples of Bitterroot Salish beadwork which is on display at the Ravalli County Museum are shown above.

Impact of the Horse:

The first major impact of the European invasion came to the Bitterroot Salish in the form of the horse, an animal which was re-introduced to the Americas by the Spanish in a domesticated form. The Bitterroot Salish did not get the horse directly from the Spanish, but from the Shoshone who had acquired the horse from their cousins the Ute shortly after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Sometime between 1700 and 1730, the Bitterroot Salish acquired the horse and this resulted in a dramatic change in their lifeways.

Saddle

Shown above is an early Salish-made saddle.

After the acquisition of the horse, many of the hunters from the eastern Plateau tribes traveled over the mountains to the Great Plains to hunt buffalo. Among the Flathead, there were two or three buffalo hunts each year: the big hunt which lasted from the middle of August to the end of November; the spring hunt or little chase from the middle of April to the end of May; and a winter hunt. During the winter hunt, the Indians would obtain buffalo robes of the highest quality.

The Flathead would leave their homes near present-day Stevensville, Montana and follow Sinkakatiiwax (“the People’s Trail”) to the buffalo. The ten-day journey would take them first north, past present-day Missoula, and then east along Pattee Creek to the Clark’s Fork River. They would then follow this river to the Big Blackfoot River. They would travel past present-day Drummond, Avon, and Elliston. Passing through the Rocky Mountains via Mullen Pass, they would emerge at the Missouri River near present-day Helena.

In the fall hunt, the Flathead were usually able to cross the Missouri River-which they called ep iyu nte?tkwus (“river of the red paint”)-without any problems. For the spring hunt, however, the water would usually be higher and they would have to make “tipi-skin boats” to get across. Once east of the mountains, they would travel into the Musselshell area to hunt buffalo.

Sometimes the hunters would drop south into the area of Yellowstone National Park where they could hunt the mountain or woods buffalo (bison bison athabascae Rhoads) which was smaller, tougher, and faster than the plains buffalo (bison bison bison Linnaeus). The mountain buffalo grazed on willow and leaves and their flesh had an aromatic flavor.  

Bow and Arrow:

The primary hunting weapon used by the Bitterroot Salish was the bow and arrow. Flathead arrows were about three feet in length and were tipped according to the use for which they were intended. In hunting small game, arrows were tipped with bone, but when hunting buffalo, stone or metal tips were used. The arrows were distinctively marked so that their ownership could easily be ascertained.

Bow and Arrow

Lewis and Clark:

In 1805, the Corps of Discovery under the leadership of Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (generally known today as the “Lewis and Clark Expedition), travelled through Montana following the Missouri River. Near present-day Three Forks, Montana they were running out of river and needed to change from boats to horses. Fortunately, they encountered a Shoshone band which was able to supply them with horses, information about the Lolo Trail, and a Shoshone guide.

Guns Lewis Clark

Shown above is part of the Ravalli County Museum display of the material culture of the Corps of Discovery.

They travelled to Ross’s Hole near present-day Sula. Here they camped for a while with the Flathead. Communication was difficult: the Captains would ask questions in English which would then be translated into French by a member of the Corps who had some knowledge of French; Charboneau, their French-Canadian guide, would then translate the questions into Hidatsa for his Shoshone wife, who would translate them into Shoshone for a Flathead man who spoke some Shoshone and, finally, he would translate them into Salish.

While talking to the Salish was difficult, there were other forms of contact. Captain Clark quickly obtained a Flathead woman as a sexual companion. This woman gave birth to a son as a result of the union (commonly called an “in-country marriage”).  Much later, after the Blackrobes (Jesuit missionaries) had come among the Flathead, Captain Clark’s son was baptized as Peteter Clarke.

The Americans smoked with the Flathead using some of their Virginia tobacco, but the Flathead found it too strong. Realizing this, the captains called for some kinikinnick-a trailing perennial whose small leathery leaves were smoked by many tribes-to mix with their trade tobacco. Once mixed, the Flatheads found the tobacco acceptable.

Tobacco

Shown above is a twist of tobacco similar to that which Lewis and Clark would have had with them. (Courtesy of the Ravalli County Museum)

The Corps camped for a while at a centuries-old Native American gathering ground at the hub of travel and trade.  Meriwether Lewis dubbed the area Travellers Rest (today it is Travelers’ Rest State Park). From here, the Americans followed the buffalo hunting roads over the mountains and made contact with the Nez Perce. A year later, in June 2006, they visited this site again on their return trip.

Lewis & Clark 3

Lewis & Clark 2

Lewis & Clark 3

Shown above are the displays from the Ravalli County Museum showing Lewis and Clark and the Salish.

Christianity Comes to the Flathead Indians

( – promoted by navajo)

During the 1830s, a major stir occurred among the missionary groups in North America when there reports of the “savage” tribes from the interior who had come to St. Louis seeking Christianity. One of these tribes was the Flathead or Bitterroot Salish, a Salish-speaking tribe whose traditional territory included much of Western Montana. After they acquired the horse during the early 1700s, they began going east of the Rocky Mountains to hunt buffalo.

During the 1800s, this buffalo hunting area east of the Rocky Mountains on the Great Plains was claimed by a number of different tribes and there were often battles between them. The animosity between the Flathead and the Blackfoot was particularly intense and Blackfoot warriors were often successful in their raids on Flathead hunting parties.  

In 1820, a group of about two dozen Christian Iroquois (Catholic Mohawk from Quebec) under the leadership of Old Ignace La Mousse came to live among the Flathead. The Iroquois worked for the Canadian fur traders and were to help establish fur trade and to show the Flathead how to trap.

The Iroquois preached their version of Christianity to the Flathead and taught them a number of Christian prayers and hymns. They told the Flathead about the great power of the Black Robes – the Jesuit Priests of the Catholic Church.

In 1831, some of the Flathead decided that the power of the Black Robes (Jesuits) could help them prevail over their enemies. The American Fur Company transported four Indians, including Silver Eagle and Running Bear, to St. Louis where they met with William Clark. Clark, of  Lewis and Clark fame, had first made contact with the tribe when the Corps of Discovery had passed through their territory. While Clark was sympathetic to their request for missionaries, he was unable to find any Black Robes who were free to go to western Montana. All four of the Flathead men died on their return trip.

In 1835, the Flathead still felt it would be good if they were to have a Black Robe live among them and share with them the great power of the Black Robes. Consequently, a second delegation of Flathead left Western Montana to travel to St. Louis, Missouri.  The journey from Western Montana to Missouri was not an easy one for it meant that they had to pass through territories claimed by other tribes, such as the Crow and Lakota. Even though they were on a peaceful mission, it was easy to be mistaken for a war party and to invite attack by other tribes.

In St. Louis they asked for a Black Robe to be assigned to them. The delegation included Old Ignace, the Iroquois who first introduced the Flatheads to Catholicism. In spite of the request, all available Jesuit manpower was committed to establishing a mission among the Kickapoos on the southern Plains and therefore there was no one available to be assigned to the Flathead.

In 1837, a third Flathead delegation led by the Iroquois Old Ignace began another perilous journey east to seek a Black Robe. However, the delegation was attacked by the Lakota and all were killed.

In 1839, a fourth delegation of Flathead, including Peter Gaucher and Young Ignace, left Western Montana to journey to St. Louis. Upon reaching St. Louis, they met with Bishop Rosati. In their meeting with Bishop Rosati they extracted the promise that a priest would be sent to live with them.  

In 1840 the Jesuits sent Father Pierre-Jean De Smet to live among the tribes of Western Montana. His first contact with them was at the Three Forks of the Missouri River where he was welcomed into a camp of Flathead and Pend d’Oreille.

Upon his arrival in Western Montana’s Bitterroot Valley in 1841, Father De Smet set about constructing St. Mary’s mission, baptizing children, and instructing the people in the ways of Catholic Christianity. He placed a large hand-hewn cross in the center of a circle. Then he gave a short service and all the Indians present, young and old, came forward and solemnly kissed the cross and declared an oath that they would never forsake the religion of the Black Robes. At least this was his interpretation of what happened. DeSmet soon baptized about one-third of the tribe.

The Flathead seemed eager to accept the new religion, but did not see it as a replacement for their old religion. Rather, they saw it as an additional power. Thus the people soon came into conflict with the priests. The people did not want to give up their way of life as the priests demanded.

Five years later, De Smet managed to anger the Flathead. Father De Smet had decided to Christianize the Blackfoot, the mortal enemies of the Flathead. In spite of having lived with the Flathead for five years, De Smet did not understand the fact that the Flathead were not particularly interested in the moral and non-material aspects of Christianity. Instead, they were primarily concerned with its protective powers and its ability to help them overcome their enemies.

When the Flathead had become Christian they had become successful in repelling Blackfoot attacks. This success, according to the Flathead, was due to the superior power of the Black Robes and if this power were to be given to their enemies, they reasoned, they might be exterminated. De Smet’s promiscuous proselytizing – giving the power to their enemies – caused Flathead resentment and hostility toward the priests and toward Christianity.

The Small Robes band of Blackfoot had witnessed a battle in which the Flathead had vanquished the Crow. The Blackfoot felt that the reason for the victory was the great War Medicine of the Black Robes. Consequently, they had their children baptized. Encouraged by this Father De Smet set out to find the main band of the Blackfoot so that he might: (1) establish peace between the Flathead and the Blackfoot, and (2) establish a permanent mission among the Blackfoot.

When DeSmet returned to the Flathead he found that their attitude toward the Black Robes had changed. Now they openly challenged the Black Robes by publically gambling, an activity which the priests discouraged. In some instances, they disrupted the church services and they openly practiced shamanism.

Today many, if not most, of the Flathead are Catholic and participate in Catholic ceremonies. At the same time, many also practice some of the “old ways” and see no conflict between the two. Christianity provides them with additional power.