Indian and White
In the History of the Northwest
By Holice and Pam
Extra special thanks to Holice B. Young for transcribing this book. The excellent work she does continues to help many researchers! Thanks also, to Pam Rietsch, for sharing her books with genealogists!
INDIAN AND WHITE IN THE NORTHWEST
The Flat Heads or Selish
Among the Indian tribes of the Rocky Mountains there is none more renowned in modern history than the Selish, commonly known as the Flat Heads. But how they came by such a name is a mystery even to themselves. The barbarous custom of flattening the head implied by the appellation and practiced by the natives on the Sound and along the Pacific Coast, never existed among them. 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.
However, since they are known to the outside world only as Flat Heads and have become famed under that name, we cannot but follow the custom and use the same appellation.
The country of these Indians was that part of western Montana which lies at the base of the main range of the Rocky Mountains, and is comprised today in Ravalli County. They called it in their language Spétlemen, which means the place of the bitter root, whence the name of the Bitter root Valley. This section was properly their home. At times, however, for hunting and trading purposes, they could be found roaming about, like other Indians, in almost any part of the Northwest.
Though in bygone days and previous to their becoming known to the civilized world they must have been more numerous, there seems to be no indication that they ever constituted a large community. When our missionaries arrived among them, the members of the tribe, all told did not exceed seven hundred souls.
But if inferior in numbers to many of the other tribes in the Rocky Mountains, they seem to have surpassed them all in prowess and daring, and as a warlike people they were considered even by their enemies the bravest of the brave. Owing, however,
to their endless hostilities and deadly conflicts with other tribes, who greatly outnumbered them, and who, besides, were better equipped for war, our Flat Heads often met with reverses and, despite their bravery, were constantly being reduced in number.
Their deadly foes from time immemorial were the Blackout tribes, living in what is now northern Montana, and the cause of their perpetual warfare, the bone of contention, was the buffalo. The Blackfeet claimed as their own all the country east of the main range, the home of innumerable herds of buffalo, and looked upon the Flat Heads who resorted thither to hunt, as intruders, whom they should keep off at any cost. The flat Heads, on the other hand, maintained that their forefathers had always exercised the right of hunting on these disputed grounds, and while on of their warriors remained alive the right should not be surrendered. In these continual and desperate encounters, the Flat Heads, being the weaker in numbers, were frequently also the greater sufferers.
Another advantage that the Blackfeet had over the Flat Heads was the use of firearms, which the former obtained from the so-called Forts des Prairies, or the trading posts established east of the mountains at an earlier date and before any post of the kind was located within the reach of the latter. To these murderous weapons our Flat heads, for a long time, had nothing to oppose but the arrow and their undaunted bravery.
It is likely that the first white man seen by Flat Heads were members of an exploring expedition of the de la Verendryes, who between 1740-43 seem to have reached the southeast corner of what is not the state of Montana. In the report of one of those expeditions mention is made of meeting the Flat Heads. But as none of the exploring bands referred to came anywhere near western Montana, where lay the land and home of Flat Heads, it may be reasonably surmised that the Flat Heads in question were only apart of the tribe who were hunting buffalo somewhere in the Yellowstone country or along the Missouri.
That among the first whites met by the Flat , there should have been a Jesuit missionary, a member of the same order as Father De Smet, who a century after was to become their apostle, is interesting.
While one or other of the de la Verendrye parties were the first pale-faces ever seen by the Flat Heads, the first whites to pass through their country, so far as it is known, were Lewis and Clark, and their party, who arrived in the Bitter Root Valley in September, 1805. There is still living at St. Ignatius an old Indian woman, by name Eugenie, who distinctly remembers and speaks of the coming of these explorers, and vividly describes the surprise which their advent created. Eugenie was then in her 14th or 16th year, and in her present venerable old age she is still well preserved, her mental faculties are unimpaired, and she can tell with accuracy of camping scenes and events which Lewis and Clark describe in their Travels.
To these explorers we owe some interesting details about the Flat Heads, which the reader will find in the published history of Lewis and Clark's celebrated expedition. It must be noted, however, that the Indians whom we know as Flat Heads go by an altogether different name with Lewis and Clark, being called by them Ootlashoots. We are at a loss to understand why; but the importance of noting this fact will appear further on. We shall now quote but one paragraph from the Journal of Sergeant Patrick Gass, who served in Lewis and Clark's expedition and gives us an insight into the moral character of the Flat Heads. After pointing to the loose morals of the other tribes they had met in their long tour of exploration, Sergeant Gass writes: "To the honor of the Flat Heads who live on the west side of the Rocky Mountains, we must mention them as exceptions; they are the only nation on the whole route where anything like chastity is regarded."
This statement goes to show that the Flat Heads were c chaste tribe. Further proof of this is the fact that no polygamy existed among then, the missionaries finding but one in the whole tribe who had two wives.
Ross Cox, an English gentleman, first in the employ of the Pacific Fur Company and later in that of the Northwest Com-
pany, the victorious rival of the former concern, spent two years 1812-14, trading among the Flat Heads. He returned to England in 1817, and shortly after published a book of his travel's. According to his testimony, these children of the forest had fewer failings than any other tribe he had met. He speaks of them as being honest in their dealings, brave in the field and amenable to their chiefs, cleanly in their habits and decided enemies to falsehood of every description. The women were excellent wives and mothers, and their character for fidelity was so well established that he had not head of one proving unfaithful.
Notwithstanding all their good qualities, however, in the treatment of their prisoners the Flat Heads were not only without mercy, but as barbarous, cruel and fiendish as any of the savage tribes.
Mr. Cox speaks of his first visit to them and we shall quote him again: "Nov. 10 (1812), we came," says Mr. Cox," to a small village of the Flat Head nation, chiefly consisting of old men, women and children. (The great body of the tribe were hunting.) We were quite charmed with their frank, hospitable reception, and their superiority in cleanliness over any of the other tribes we had hitherto seen. Their lodges were conical buy very spacious, and were formed by a number of buffalo and moose skins thrown over long poles. The fire was placed in the center, and the ground all around it was covered with mats and clean skins, free from the vermin we felt so annoying on the lower Columbia."
The flat Heads lived on game and fish, and also on the wild roots and berries, which are plentiful in their land. The principle roots which they used for food were the camas and the so-called bitter root. The former grows like small onions and has a rather sweet taste, not unlike that of boiled chestnuts after having been smoked. The latter in appearance as well as in taste resembles the root of cultivated chickory. Both kinds may be prepared in various ways and possess excellent nutritious properties.
Both men and women were decently clad, their garments being
made of the skins and furs of the animals that supplied them with food, the buffalo, moose, elk, deer, beaver, and the like. Little urchins, however had often no other garb but what nature provided. Even in winter some of these little red cherubs could still be seen in our days plodding through slush and show in their angel garments, any other raiment proving to them a cumbersome as did Saul's armor to young David.
At a later period, the growing scarcity of furs and peltries necessitated the use of white man's apparel. But it would seem that the change has been at the expense of the health an comfort on the part of the Indian. The Indian arrayed picturesquely in the triumphs of the chase and his native ingenuity is a thing of the past and scarcely to be seen anywhere, save perhaps at Washington, D. C., where occasionally he is manufactured to order, or in the wild West shows.
The Selish or Flat Head language is original in many ways and difficult to master. Its utterance is rather grave and show, but, while tolerably clear and distinct on this account, several of its sounds are aspirated and other intensely guttural. Five of the consonants commonly heard in other tongues, namely, b, d, f, r, and v, are wanting in theirs, and are supplied by p, t, l, and m. Thus, Adolph with them is Aťol; Ambrose, Ameló; Henry, Alee; Raphael, Apél; Mary, Malee; Rosalie, Usalee; Victor, Mitt'tó, the accent in all these names falling on the last syllable, andee sounding as the Italian I in Forlí
The same language is spoken by nine other Indian tribes, the upper and Lower Kalispell, the Spokanes, the Coeur d' Alenes, and the families in the vicinity of Colville, the variations met with being few and accidental.
When still pagans the Selish or Flat Heads believed in a Good spirit and a bad one. They also believed in future states of reward and punishment. With them, the good Indian went to a country of perpetual summer, where he would meet his wife and children, and where the rivers were alive with fish, and the plains swarming with buffalo and horses. The bad Indian, on the contrary, was doomed to a place covered perpetually with ice and snow, where he would always be shivering with cold. He would see fire, but afar off; he would see water also, but beyond
his reach, and never cold he get as much as one drop to cool his parched lips.
Their code of morals was short, yet comprehensive; honesty, bravery, love of truth, love for wife and children, were the virtues that entitled them to future happiness; while the opposite vices would lead them to everlasting misery.
The Flat Head had a very curious tradition about beavers. Toward the end of autumn these interesting animals could be seen assembling in definite numbers, ranging from twenty to thirty. Having chosen a spot for their residence, they would set themselves to cutting down trees, scanning beforehand their bent, and the place where they wanted each tree to fall. When the tree was nearly severed, they would anxiously look up and watch its leaning, and as the cracking sound announced its approaching fall, they scampered in all directions to escape being caught under it. Once on the ground, the tree was quickly stripped of al its branches, and then with their dental chisels they would divide the trunk into several pieces of the same length, and with great energy and persistently roll them to the spot chosen for their dwelling.
Two or three of the older members of the family acted as overseers, and it was not unusual to see them chastising such as exhibited signs of laziness. Some Indians even maintain that they have heard beavers talk together and seen them sitting in council.
Should any of the band prove altogether incorrigible, the lazy fellows were driven off by the whole community and forced to secure shelter and provisions elsewhere. The outcasts were thus forced to pass a miserable winter alone and half starved in a burrow on the bank of some stream, where they easily fell a prey to the trapper. The Indians called the indolent creatures "lazy beavers," and their fur was much less prized than that of the others, whose persevering industry secured them abundant provisions, and comfortable quarters during the severity of winter. It is much to be regretted that these most industrious animals are fast disappearing from along our streams, where they were so plentiful in earlier days.
Impressed by the extraordinary habits of these animals, the
Flat Heads believed them to be a fallen race of Indians who in consequence of some misconduct had been condemned by the Great Spirit to their present condition, but that in due time they would be restored to their former happy state. Stripped of all superstition, may not this strange belief have been a shadow, as it were of God's Revelation concerning man's fall in Adams, and of the promise of our Redemption? Or perhaps a faint ray of reason, pointing to an intermediate state of purgatorial existence?
The social organization of the Flat Heads was somewhat peculiar. Besides, the great chief whose authority over the whole nation was hereditary, they had a war chief, whom they elected year by year. the latter assumed the command of the entire tribe in battle and in their hunting excursions over the buffalo plains and wielded it despotically. The warrior who had displayed through the year the greatest endurance, bravery, and prudence, was the one selected. Hence it not seldom happened that he who had been leader and war chief in one campaign was but a private in the next.
A neighboring tribe of our Flat Heads were the Nez Percés, who lived on the west side of the Bitter Root Mountains. Proximity, intercourse, as well as common interests, kept the two nations on the closest terms of friendliness. Not only were they friends and allies, but to some extent also kith and kin by intermarriage. The importance of noting this will appear as we /proceed with our narrative. For, doubtless, ignorance of this fact has been the principal cause why not a few were led into error, and still deny the claim of the Flat Heads to the expedition sent from the Rocky Mountains to Saint Louis after the Black robes in 1831.
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