The Flathead Tribe

From their reservation in western Montana came a delegation of 15 Flatheads (Selish), the historic tribe of De Smet and Ravalli, accompanied by several Spokan (Sihqomen) and Coeur d’ Alene (Kalispiel). These three tribes were closely associated and spoke nearly similar Salishan dialects. They also had the same dress and general appearance.

Despite their name, the Flatheads do not, and never did, have flat heads. This paradoxical statement is explained by the fact that the Indians of the Columbia region, most of whom formerly compressed the head by artificial means, considered their own heads as pointed, and contemptuously applied the term ‘flat-heads’ to their neighbors in the mountains, who had not the custom, but allowed the skull to retain its natural shape.

The early travelers adopted the name without understanding the reason of its application, and thus it came that the one tribe which despised the practice was supposed to be above all others addicted to it.

The men wore their hair turned up from the forehead, similr to that of the Crows. Their color is not the coppery brown of the eastern Indians, but rather the creamy yellow sometimes seen among the Pueblos. In temper they are good-natured and fond of pleasantry, resembling the Pueblos rather than the stern warriors of the plains.

They formerly occupied the rough mountains at the extreme head of Missouri river, subsisting more by roots and berries than by hunting, as they were cut off from the buffalo country by their powerful enemies, the Blackfeet. They had houses of bark and reeds, as well as the skin tipi.

In 1855 they were gathered on a reservation, where the confederated tribes now number about 2000, besides about 670 Spokan and 500 Coaur d’ Alene on the Colville reservation in Washington. To see more images from the Indian Congress, visit the Indian Congress Photo Gallery. This collection includes over 500 photographs of Native Americans, including portraits of individuals, group photos of families and photographs of various activities.

The library also has the original “Secretary’s Report” from the Trans Mississippi Exposition. This document includes a section on the The Indian Congress by Mr. W. V. Cox, Secretary of the Government Exhibit Board. It also contains the Report of Captain Mercer, manager of the Indian Congress.

1998 Omaha Public Library