MISSOULA – The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes marked the 150th anniversary this weekend of a bittersweet chapter in their long and storied history.
In a gathering at Council Groves State Park west of Missoula on Saturday, tribal leaders commemorated the signing of the 1855 Hellgate Treaty with speeches, a presentation of colors and traditional songs that filled the air with mixed emotions.
The treaty, reached with Territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens, conveyed 12 million acres of tribal land to the United States in exchange for the creation of the 1.3-million-acre Flathead Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana. The tribes live there to this day.
The treaty was proposed by Stevens as a remedy after tribal leaders approached him with concerns about white people settling on their homeland.
It was signed reluctantly by chiefs of the Confederated Tribes of the Flathead, Kootenai and Upper Pend d’Oreille, who speakers said had no concept of property or ownership.
“They were all speaking completely different languages,” said Vernon Finley, a language instructor at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo. “Exactly how much understanding was there as to what was going on?”
Despite the resulting loss of their homeland, Chiefs Victor of the Salish, Alexander of the Pend d’Oreille and Michel of the Kootenai were praised by many speakers for signing the treaty.
“They had the foresight to preserve a little bit so we can be surviving today,” Finley said. “Let’s keep it up so in another 50 years we’ll still be here.”