So I'm taking Native American Culture (SCA 230) this spring, and I was given the assignment of writing a paper about a specific Native American tribe, and an issue involving them. I chose to write my paper about the Flathead Indians, and their relationship with the surrounding communities. I wrote this paper from about 10 PM - 4 AM the night before the paper was due. I was AMAZED when I received a 40/40 grade.
Relations between contemporary U.S. citizens and Native Americans have always been weak at best. From the time Europeans stepped onto North American soil, they have been trying their best to push the natives to different locations, away from their sacred customs and religions and into a more Eurocentric American culture. I feel that within the last 50 years, much progress has been made to help Native Americans get back to their cultural heritage, and many people’s beliefs and opinions about them have been changed dramatically. For the purpose of this paper, I will be specifically studying the Flathead Indian nation and their relationship with their surrounding community.
To begin, I think we must look a brief history of the Flathead tribe, and their first exposure to Europeans.Although the first recorded contact with the Flathead tribe occurred in 1806 when Lewis and Clark came upon the tribe on their journey up the Missouri River (1), it is possible that they had contact with French trappers before this. At this time, the Flathead became known as the Bitter Root Salish, because of their geographic location within the Bitter Root valley of what is now western Montana. “Salish”, their name for themselves, means ‘people’ in the native Flathead language (2). In 1841 the St. Mary’s Mission was constructed and established within the Bitter Root Valley. This Catholic mission encouraged Flatheads to abandon their native religion and convert to Catholicism, and by 1853, the United States government ended it’s official relationship with the sovereign nations of the Flathead, refusing to recognize them as self-governing. Because of this early influence by the Catholic church, Catholicism is the main religion of the Flathead people today. Relations between Europeans then settling in the Bitter Root valley and the Flatheads continued to decline for the next 40 years, with the Flathead slowly being pushed onto less and less of their native lands until 1890, when they were ordered to move to the Jocko Reservation (2). Despite this, the Flathead affirmed their trust with the American government when they refused to assist the Nez Pierce when they looked to the Bitter root valley for refuge. Chief Charlo of the Flathead was said to have questioned Chief Looking Glass of the Nez Perce “Why should I shake hands with men whose hands are bloody? My hands are clean of blood.” “If you kill any of my people or the white people, or disturb any of the property belonging to my people or the white people in my country, I will fight you.” (5) One would think that this display of willingness to cooperate with the U.S. government would help the Flathead in the long run, sadly this was not the case. While not as large a distance to move as say, the Trail of Tears, the move to the Jocko reservation still had a significant impact upon the Flatheads’ already diminishing opinions of their new white neighbors. Jocko Reservation is located just north of current day Missoula, Montana. (3) Although containing only a small part of their native lands, the reservation was considered to be quite large for the number of Flathead to which it was given (an estimated 10,000 at the time), covering about 1.2 Million acres of both alpine forested and open plains land. The Flathead were given their name ironically because while many of the surrounding tribes made their young children wear conical headdresses made of cedar wood that caused their heads to become slightly flat and pointed, the Salish themselves did not (2).
Today out of the 7,005 registered members of the Flathead tribe, an estimated 4,500 live on or near the Jocko reservation (4). The governmental head of the tribe is located in Pablo, Montana and is listed as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, as they were forced to live on the reservation with several other surrounding groups and now consider themselves as one united population (6). Unfortunately, as is the case with many Native populations within the United States today, many of the Flathead economically fall beneath the poverty line. It is estimated that over one third of the population of Pablo, Montana are impoverished. “Over 20% of Native American reservation households have annual incomes below $5000, compared with 6% for the overall U.S. population.” (7) Considering that the average American citizen spends around $6,133 annually on food alone, this is a truly staggering statistic (8).
Despite this fairly extreme economic disadvantage, the Flathead do have several lucrative operations currently underway. As a tribe, they run Flathead Timber company, a successful logging operation. Due to the large amount of forested land located on the Jocko reservation, logging is a wise use of the Flatheads natural resources as a means of profit. Another way that the Flathead are making money is through the use of ‘Indian Casinos’. The tribe currently owns more than sixteen casinos, and two resort-style casinos within the Jocko Reservation and in the immediate surrounding areas. As a recent visitor of Missoula, Montana I can personally attest to the amount of publicity and number of casinos within the Missoula area. With the invention of video-slots, the Flathead have been able to implement gambling much more easily into communities that may have been against it originally. The tribe also collects income as a whole from NorthWest energy. NorthWest energy operates the Kerr Dam facility that produces hydro-electric energy for the surrounding communities within Montana (4). Much of this tribal activity is monitored and controlled by S&K Holding, a Flathead corporation that also offers business loans to tribal members to encourage economic growth and Native entrepreneurship (4).
The gambling industry of the Flathead appears to have the biggest overall impact on relations within the surrounding communities, although I could find no specific study to support this idea.
With the Flathead community in such close proximity to the city of Missoula, the home of the University of Montana, the state’s largest University, Native American studies has become a specialty of the school. The enrollment of Native Americans to the University has more than doubled within the last twenty years, suggesting more state aid being offered to put the Flathead and other tribes through the higher education system (9). The University, through a large private donation, recently constructed The Payne Family Native American Center, focusing on Anthropological study of Native Americans and the betterment and conservation of Native cultures (10). This drive to educate people about Native Cultures, specifically those found within close proximity to the University (I.E. Flathead) show a large improvement in the attitudes of contemporary Euro-Americans towards the Flathead Nation. It has been the willingness of the people of Montana to allow the Flathead to create their casinos, to become more educated and to finally assimilate into society while retaining their strong cultural traditions that proves that relations between these two diverse groups have improved dramatically, especially within recent years. While there is still much progress to be made in regards to becoming a fully egalitarian society, things are looking up for the Flathead Nation.
(1) "Flathead Indians." Family Search. Available from https://wiki.familysearch.org/en/Flathead_Indians#Brief_Timeline. Internet; accessed 31 March 2011.
(2) Ryan. "The Flathead Indians." Cesa10. Available from http://www3.cesa10.k12.wi.us/ecosystems/prairies/people/fhead/flathed.htm. Internet; accessed 31 March 2011.
(3) "google maps." google maps. Available from maps.google.com. Internet; accessed 31 March 2011.
(4) "Flathead." Visit Montana. Available from http://www.visitmt.com/places_to_go/indian_nations/selish-Ktunaxa-flathead/. Internet; accessed 31 March 2011.
(5) Ojibwa. "Removal of the Flathead Indians." Street Prophets. Available from http://www.streetprophets.com/story/2010/3/29/171048/931. Internet; accessed 31 March 2011.
(6) "Montana Casinos." 500 Nations. Available from http://500nations.com/Montana_Casinos.asp#flathead. Internet; accessed 31 March 2011.
(7) Anderson, Terry L.. "How the Government Keeps Indians In Poverty." Perc. Available from http://www.perc.org/articles/article170.php. Internet; accessed 31 March 2011.
(8) "How the Average American Spends their Paycheck." Visual Economics. Available from http://www.visualeconomics.com/how-the-average-us-consumer-spends-their-paycheck/. Internet; accessed 31 March 2011.
(9)"UM Native American Center." The University of Montana. Available from http://life.umt.edu/aiss/nativeamericancenter/default.php. Internet; accessed 31 March 2011.
(10)"Native American Studies." University of Montana. Available from http://www.cas.umt.edu/nas/building.cfm. Internet; accessed 31 March 2011.