Cabin Fever
Indians
Seasonal Travelers

1988 Mildred Chaffin


During the past one hundred years and earlier, bands of Flathead, Kootenai, Nez Perce and even neighboring Indians from Canada used the trails that wound through the passes of the Mission Mountains, across the Swan and Clearwater valleys and into the South Fork of the Flathead River Valley. The land east of the Continental Divide was “buffalo country”. The Blackfoot River was known by Salish peoples as the “Great Road to the Buffalo”. Many groups also used this route to reach the valley of the Yellowstone which was a source of yellow war paint. The discovery of arrowheads, stone implements, flint, shards of obsidian and even ornaments would suggest that tribes from distant Washington once passed this way and lingered for awhile. Until extensive excavations are conducted in the Swan Valley and Seeley Lake areas, archeologists will only guess that the pre historical use of these areas by native people was similar to other patterns of use throughout the Northwest.

Firewood for the CampThe Seeley lake area was mainly used by Salish groups, although Blackfoot raiding parties also traveled through the country. The three major Salish groups were the Semte’use, the Upper Pend d’Oreille, and the Flathead. The Flathead Indians came to Camas Prairie, Placid Lake and Seeley Lake to dig camas plants.

After the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the subsequent increased exploration of the West by white people, the federal government began to establish Indian “reserves”. Most of the native people lived on their reserves, but many were reluctant to give up their nomadic lifestyles and continued to travel seasonally throughout the country. In the late 1800s, the Northern Pacific granted the Indians permission to camp on the sections of land owned by the railroad, but from the standing teepee poles and stone fireplace circles near the lakes and streams, it would appear that they were not aware of the section boundaries and were seldom restricted as to camping spots. Some favorite camps near Seeley Lake were at Morrell Meadows, before and after the area became the Double Arrow Ranch, and at the top of Morrell Creek hill.

The Blackfeet from east of the mountains sometimes infiltrated these western valleys to hunt (which was no sin unless they got caught!). This sometimes happened, as the Flatheads and the Blackfeet were old adversaries. Folklore has it that parts of skeletons plowed up on the Double Arrow Ranch are believed to have been the end results of battles between the two tribes.

Long tedious treks took the western Indians east to the main range of the Rockies where they were able to obtain stone that could be ground and hollowed out to make their peace pipes. This place on top of the Continental Divide became Pipestone Pass.
Wanderlust

The movements of these people were essentially peaceful. Traveling unhurriedly, they usually took their families and possessions with them. Before the advent of the trader with his blankets and calico the Indians made clothing from tanned skins and furs. They fashioned saddles from elk horns and the light-weight wood of quaking aspen. Containers for gathering foods were made from cedar or birch bark laced together with rawhide or buckskin thongs.

Food was no great problem for they gleaned a living from the land. Camas and wild vegetables grew in plenty. There were wild berries and edible plants, both roots and stalks. There were the black mosses that still hang in plenty throughout the forest and even the inner (cambium) bark of the different species of trees. The Indians layered the black moss over the camas in roasting pits. The moss is said to have the flavor of licorice. There was wild meat and fish to be dried and smoked, but when the game laws and hunting regulations were established, the Indian was largely unfamiliar with the white man’s diet and the white man’s way of life. He was understandably bewildered and frightened at seeing his livelihood threatened. Naturally he resisted, which resulted in his getting into trouble with the law. This resistance and bewilderment was at the root of a game warden and Indian confrontation during which a game warden and four Indians were killed near Holland Prairie in the Swan Valley in 1908, about which much has already been written.

Grandmother’s Stories
I have vivid memories of the cavalcades of buggies and wagons flanked by riders on horseback on their way to dig bitterroots south of Fort Missoula and beyond. Before the white man and his covered wagons arrived, the Indians had little knowledge of wheat flour and its products as we know them. My own great-grandmother told of an Indian man who came to breakfast. It happened soon after she and her family settled in the Bitterroot Valley, coming by wagon train before the Indians were all moved to the reservation. Being southern, she made biscuits, and being mannerly, she passed the plate to her company first. On his second visit he astounded everyone by taking the plate and pouring the contents down the front of his shirt! Later—much later—came Indian fried bread which is still popular among both Indians and white people today.

As this same grandmother grew older she made friends of certain Indian women and even adopted some of their practices. The one that I have cause to remember was a tonic made of chokecherry bark (or was it Oregon grape roots?). It was steeped in a crockery jar and stood handily by the kitchen door. if it was good for the Indians, it must be good for us, so we youngsters were instructed—with emphasis—to help ourselves to a swig from the granite dipper whenever we passed by. We devised a method of getting the bitter stuff down by swallowing hard and looking quickly to see who made the worst looking faces. It is questionable whether the stuff was of any benefit to our bodies, but the discipline must surely have been good for our mischievous little souls.

Rodeo Days, or "Stampedes"
Entertainment often took the form of endurance tests, games or ceremonial dances. They learned about the rodeos, then called stampedes, entering all events and often beating the white man at his own game. Early in the century a young brave named John Delaware was a favored performer having acquired his skill at the wild horse roundups before leaving the Bitterroot. Young John was familiar figure at the roundups where he could be seen to perch on top of the corrals and drop down on a passing bronco, grab a handful of mane and ride the terrified animal without benefit of bridle or saddle.

James (Jim) Grinder, an Okanogan Indian married and living among the Flatheads, was the first man to ride a buffalo with a saddle. The incident took place in 1915 at the then-famous stampede in Missoula. The animal rolled over on him. He drew five hundred dollars in prize money, which was considered "a goodly sum." Five hundred dollars was also a "goodly" medical bill for that day and Jim laid it out in a Missoula hospital. He was ninety-six years old when I first talked to him. "Feel here," he said to me. I hesitantly touched the indicated spot on his ribs. "Feel here," he said again and I gently touched a knot on his collarbone. He had led a hard riding, hard drinking, cowboy life and lived to near the century mark. I never heard him say whether he considered the prestige worth the consequences.

The Indian divisions in parade dress were a very important part of the Fourth of July celebrations at the Missoula Stampedes. White buckskin costumes fabulous with fringe and beadwork adorned both ponies and riders. The costumes were accented by ermine tails and elk teeth decorations done by the nimble fingers of the Flathead women. High fashion of that day was bright colored calico, full gathered skirts, shawls generously fringed with silk, and bright head kerchiefs. New beaded moccasins with high tops or leggings completed the lady’s outfit. It was quite common on Higgins Avenue to see babies peeping from their papoose boards hanging upon the mother’s backs. Sometimes the little brown face would be framed in a pink ruffled bonnet and almost always it would be dotted with small beads of perspiration.

Legends were told around the teepee fires in the Swan and Clearwater valleys, legends that were no part of the white man’s life, legends that were brought with the Indians from their beloved Bitterroot homes. Such were the tales of the angry Wind Giants who hurled boulders in great heaps to form the craggy peaks of their native Bitterroot mountains.

And then there was Plassie, a gentle old man who sat on the edge of his bed in the dim light of a kerosene lamp and told me of his life as a medicine man and earnestly and patiently began to relate the wonderful legend of Coyote that has come down through the ages and is known to all the tribes. Coyote journeyed across mountains and valleys protecting the people and performing miracles to undo the mischief created by his traveling companion, the fox. Coyote, the benevolent, promised the people that when the end of the world came he would return.

Plassie spoke in his native tongue, with my friend interpreting and me taking notes as fast as I could scribble. The stories were saved and savored for the shorter days of the year after summer’s work was done. The stories were taken up and continued for days around the fires by one narrator after another.

The White Man’s Religion
Many Indian people wholeheartedly embraced the white man’s religion. A very old lady, Mrs. Mary Finley Niles, told me that her grandfather was one of the men who went to St. Louis to fetch the "Blackrobes", the priests who came to set up the missions and teach Christianity. Eighteen months after her grandfather returned, he died from the poison and infection in his swollen legs. His long march through the prickly pear and thorns had taken its toll.

The early day priests and Sisters of Charity established schools where the Indian children were housed, boarded and taught housekeeping and livelihood skills as well as the three R’ s and religion. They were strict, but fair, in their teachings. Mrs. Niles credited the nuns with everything that she had learned. My friend and I visited at her neat little home when she was in her nineties. She served us lemon meringue pie and coffee and proudly showed us her flower beds. "I'm going to flood the market," she smiled, pointing out three lush strawberry plants!

However, despite their deep feeling for Christianity there was a regard for their native Deity, a spirit whom they could call upon when there was a need for help. Wherever there was a camping place there was almost certain to be a sweathouse, a small dome-shaped structure framed of willows and covered with skins when in use. The bathers crawled into a small opening and sat inside the steam bath. These baths were used for both cleanliness and "making medicine", petitioning the spirit for a cure for an illness or an injury.

After the steaming the bather was required to jump into the creek, however icy it might be. This is thought to have been the undoing of many during the smallpox epidemic of the late 1800’s when several hundred died of the disease. The sweathouse frames have all but disappeared throughout the Seeley-Swan area, but the shallow pits where the stones were placed and the fires laid to heat them may occasionally be found. I am proud to have one in my front yard. I have filled it and made it into a flower bed.

The sweathouse, I am told, was affectionately called their "grandmother". I once heard of two Indian men from Arlee who made a hunting-camping trip to Lake Inez. Not finding much game they decided to go into the sweathouse and ask the spirit, sometimes called "Sumesh", for a special favor in getting some meat. It seems they were over-zealous with the firewood which heated the rocks to extreme. Once inside the small enclosure one of the men imprudently threw on a bucketful of water. The resulting blast of steam and ashes was a bit too much. Both men made a dive for the small exit and lay on the banks of the lake laughing like clowns. "Our grandmother threw us out!" They were only able to kill one small deer which they consumed for camp meat and went home empty-handed but happy with their vacation.

Beauty by the Wayside
Cosmetics and ornamentation have always been a feminine weakness and the Indian woman was no exception. She used the oily leaves of the snow brush to lend sheen to her black hair, pretty feathers to compliment her features and sweet grass to lend a perfume. Before the traders came with their beads and silken scarves, some tribal women decorated their families’ accoutrements with dyed and flattened porcupine quills, bits of fur and ermine tails, elk teeth and fringed buckskin.

Although the white man thought the red man was wasting time, the Indian was seldom idle. They had no conveniences as we know them and most of their daylight hours were spent in taking care of their daily needs. Imagine killing animals, working for days to tan the hides and then sewing for more untold days to fringe and bead a party dress and new shoes! To paraphrase an old adage, "Let us not censure the Indian until we have walked a mile in his moccasins."