Indian Culture and Historic Perspectives of Flathead Lake

by Dr. Joe McDonald
President, Salish & Kootenai College

Thank you Board of Directors and President Sid Rundell for the invitation to speak here and learn about the good work of the Flathead Lakers. It is truly an honor to be here and be among people that are concerned about maintaining and improving the quality of Flathead Lake.

As you know, and as I have read in your literature, when you work to maintain the quality of the lake it involves working with the entire environment surrounding the lake and all of the things that happen that can degrade its quality. To protect it is a huge and ongoing task. We need to carry on the work today and educate our young people so that the work will be carried on in the years to come.

When we think of how pristine the lake was 50 years ago, think of how pristine it must have been 200 years ago or 2000 years ago.

In preparation for this presentation, I visited with Dr. Vernon Finley, a Kootenai Indian that teaches at Salish Kootenai College. He told me of the life around the lake prior to white contact. His people lived and traveled all around the lake. They had names for all of the prominent places on the lake and campsites. The trail around the lake led them to campsites and at the campsite a canoe would be cached that they would use while camped there. From the canoes they would fish and travel to the bays and mouths of streams entering the lake.

They did much of their lake fishing after the water froze over. They were very successful and this was a major food source for them. Laurence Kenmille told me of chasing the large trout under the ice in the shallow waters of Elmo Bay. They would follow the fish, keeping it moving until it completely tired out. I am sure this was not a major way of providing food, but was recreation for pre-adolescent Kootenai children.

The Kootenai people used fish traps in the streams entering the lake. This was done during the spawning season of certain fish that spawned in the streams.

The Kootenai people traveled up every stream that leads to the lake. All the waters and peaks in western Glacier Park along the North Fork of the Flathead River have ancient Kootenai Names. Many of the names last forever.

On rock faces along the shore in a number of locations are paintings. They could be ancient Kootenai paintings or Pend O’reilles. They were news messages or records of successful “spirit guests.” Many are still visible today. Very little publicity is given to these paintings for fear of people destroying them by attempting to remove them or delinquents defacing them. They are a treasure.

The Salish people, of which the Pend D’Orilles are part, commmonly referred to as Flatheads, have been around the lake for a very long time also. There is a lot of history among the Pend D’Oreille about their existence here. John Peter Paul, one of our eldest and active Pend D’Oreille, has relayed many of the Pend D’Oreille names for places around the lake. They too fished the lake and used the “sturgeon nosed” Kootenai canoes. The canoe was designed with ends flaring at the bottom into underwater snouts which made it easier to handle in turbulent waters.

From the lake the Pend D’Oreille went up the Swan and into the Sun River. In later years, up through the 1950s, our Pend D’Oreille and Bitterroot Salish people had fall hunting camps in the Swan Valley and Seeley Lake area.

A story John Peter Paul related goes like this:

There was a giant elk carcass in the middle of the lake. The lake was frozen over and only the giant antlers of the elk stuck out above the ice. The Pend D’Oreille people were moving their camps across the lake to the northeast side. The leaders and spiritual leaders told the people to not touch or disturb the antlers, but to only move quietly by. They were doing this, when some ladies felt they could make use of these horns. The ladies began to cut some of the tips off. The giant elk suddenly came back to life and began to thrash and rose out of the ice making a huge hole in the ice. All of the Pend D’Oreille people fell into the lake, drowning and disappearing.
Vernon Finley shared a Kootenai story with me about Wild Horse Island: Kqalla xa’lcin visits the Aqlsmaknik’:

Long ago a group of white men (probably Vikings) became shipwrecked on the east coast of this continent now known as North America. They had horses on board who escaped into the interior and roamed wild and free.

The spirit of the horse flew up and down the continent exploring his new home. While flying over the Aqlsmaknik’ territory he noticed they were having a ceremony, in which they were talking directly to the spiritis. Spirits would announce their arrival into the ceremony by singing their song. The people know which spirit was present by the song that was sung. The Aqlsmaknik’ could then ask for help from each spirit for health, food, or other things.

Kqalla Xa’lcin entered the ceremony and began to sing his song. The peole were puzzled because they had never heard this song before. They asked who the spirit was. Kqalla Ca’lcin told them his name and told them he wanted to help them. He said he had immediately fallen in love with the Aqlsmaknik’ when he realized they were people who knew about and respected spirits. The people who he had lived with prior to his arrival here had only used his body with no knowledge or belief in his spirit.

Kqalla Xa’lcin told the people he would move here and protect the people from their enemies. He would plant himself in the middle of the lake now known as Flahtead Lake, and when his body arrived in this area he would help the people with it also.

Someone asked, “How will be know it’s you when you arrive? We don’t know what you look like.” Kqalla Xa’lcin then showed the people his hooves and said, “When you see an animal with this type of feet you will know it’s me.”
Later when white people arrived in the area they noticed that a herd of wild horses lived on an island in the middle of the lake and named the island “Wild Horse Island,” without knowing that the island itself was the spirit of Kqalla Xa’lcin, who was here to protect the Ksank Aqlsmaknik’.

The horse spirit has protected Kootenai soldiers through many wars.

You can understand that the lake is very much a part of Kootenai life and culture, the spirit of the horse still protects them. The Kootenai children learn to swim at a very early age and without any formal lessons.

The Pend D’Oreille and Bitterroot Salish are not as involved, but they still enjoy the lake’s beauty and its recreational potential. Many have homes and summer homes around the lake. I am one of them.

Two weeks ago a camp for 12-year-olds was held at Blue Bay. The children were taught stories about the lake and the importance of keeping it as pristine as possible. Each spring a camp is held on the river below Sloan’s Bridge at which most sixth graders in the valley are taken through a day of enviornmental awareness. The camp is called “The River Honoring.”

It is pleasing to me to know that the Tribe and the State are working together to develop a fisheries plan for the lake. Your organization provided very good information to its members on the problem and possible solutions. I appreciate your efforts and dedication to get more people involved. I know personally you can count on my wife and I contributing monetarily to your work.

I work for an organization with much the same enthusiasm and zeal to preserve the environmental quality of the lower Flathead Valley, but also concerned with protecting the quality of our enviornment throughout Motnana, Idaho, and surrounding areas. Our organization is the Flathead Resource Organiztaion (FRO). Thurman Trosper and I serve on the Board of Directors. We could use your help and we can help you.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Salish Kootenai College and its work in cultural awareness and environmental studies. It has tremendous potential to raise the level of awareness about what it takes to maintain and improve the water quality of the lake. The college is a tribal college that was established by our tribe. It is governed by a board of directors appointed by the tribal council. Its purpose is to serve Indian people, but maintain open admissions. It tries to serve as a community college for this area.

The college offers a baccalaureate degree in Environmental Studies. We have just opened a water quality laboratory ot serve the northwest. We are licensed to do surface water studies and in the future will be licensed to test drinking water. We have a foundation that raises money to ensure the college’s perpetuity and this fall we will be holding a fundraising event here at KwaTaqNuk. Please attend if you can. It will be a nice evening for you.

I am a great believer in the power of unity and the loss of positive energy associated with disunity. I had a friend present the idea that when we work together we can defy mathematical principals. The ancient Greeks would be astonished. It’s a new principle: 1 + 1 = 3 when you work together. Just think, the Tribe, state county, cities, FRO, Flathead Lakers, Farmers Union, Chamber of Commerce, all working to preserve the lake.

Thank you very much for this opportunity to speak. Congratulations on your good work. Lemt lench hest chulu pesaya. (Thank you. Good evening all of you.)