Salish & Kalispel (Pend d'Oreille) History

Séliš (Salish or "Flathead") and Ql̓ispé (Kalispel or Pend d'Oreille)

by the Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee, 2015

In winter time, our elders tell the oldest stories of tribal history: the

sqʷllum̓t — the sacred stories of the creation and transformation of the

world and its creatures. They tell of Snč̓l̓é, Coyote, who traveled across

the land, killing the naɫisqélixʷtn — the people-eaters or monsters.

Coyote prepared the world for the human beings who were yet to

come. Then came the x̣ʷl̓č̓músšn — the ancestors. Tribal occupancy of

the region reaches back to at least the end of the last ice age, some ten

to twelve thousand years ago.

The elders have told how our people, the Séliš (Salish or “Flathead”)

and Ql̓ispé (Pend d’Oreille or Kalispel), as well as the other tribes of

the Salish language family, were originally one great Salish nation.

Many thousands of years ago, the population grew too large for the

people to stay in one place. They were running out of food, so they

decided to split up. Some families or groups went in one direction,

some in another. Over time, the many Salishan groups, reaching from

Montana all the way to the Pacific Coast, developed into the distinct

tribes of the Salish language family. The Séliš and Ql̓ispé, who speak

dialects that differ in only minor ways, are the easternmost of the

Salishan tribes. Ql̓ispé elder Pete Beaverhead said when this migration

happened, the people moved from this area cɫ išút — downstream, to

the west. A century ago, elders in eastern Washington state said that

the Montana Salish spoke “the proper or purest dialect” and were

regarded as “the head or parent tribe.”

The vast aboriginal territory of the Séliš straddled both sides of the

Continental Divide in what is now the state of Montana. The aboriginal

use area covered most of the state. Before the introduction of horses,

non-native diseases, and firearms — when tribal populations were

many times larger — the Séliš were organized in at least six major

bands, based in such areas as modern-day Butte, Three Forks, the

Jefferson Valley, Big Hole Valley, and the Helena area. In more recent

centuries, the Séliš were concentrated in the part of their overall

territory that included the Bitterroot Valley, and are therefore known to

many people as the Bitterroot Salish. The majority of the Salish

remained in the Bitterroot Valley until October 1891, when the

government forcibly removed them to the Flathead Reservation on

Montana's "Trail of Tears."

The Ql̓ispé are known in English as the Kalispel, and also as the Pend

d’Oreille, a French term meaning something hanging from the ear, in

reference to the shell earrings traditionally worn by both men and

women. The Ql̓ispé traditionally lived in many bands — originally,

probably eleven bands — reaching up and down the drainage systems

of the Flathead, Clark Fork, and Pend Oreille rivers in what is now

western Montana, northern Idaho, and eastern Washington. Non-

Indians therefore called us the “Upper” and “Lower” Pend d’Oreille or

the “Upper” and “Lower” Kalispel. Today, the upstream people,

centered around the Flathead Reservation, are commonly referred to as

the Pend d'Oreille, while the downstream people, based today on the

Kalispel Reservation in eastern Washington state, are commonly

known as the Kalispel.

The old name for the Pend d’Oreille band of the Flathead Lake and

Mission Valley area is Sɫq̓etkʷmsčin̓t, which means People Living

along the Shore of the Broad Water. This is because they were based

around Čɫq̓étkʷ, meaning Broad Water — the Salish name for Flathead


Our tribes and populations suffered heavy losses in the late 1700s, as

epidemics of smallpox and other non-native diseases took a devastating

toll, and as the Blackfeet gained access to firearms through the

Hudson's Bay Company. Tribal territories changed dramatically. The

Plains Salish and Kootenai relocated their winter camps west of the

mountains. A Salishan people called the Tun̓áx̣n, who lived east of the

Continental Divide along the Rocky Mountain Front and adjoining

areas, with bands based along the Sun River, Dearborn River, and near

Great Falls, were eliminated as a distinct tribe by repeated Blackfeet

attacks as well as disease. The few survivors joined neighboring tribes,

including the Séliš, Ql̓ispé, and Kootenai. Our tribes continued to

utilize our old easterly territories for hunting bison and other purposes,

usually making two or more trips per year over the Continental Divide.

By the mid-1800s, as fur traders provided tribes west of the mountains

with access to guns, the western tribes regained military parity with the

eastern tribes.

The Séliš and Ql̓ispé lived as hunters, gatherers, and fishers. We

traveled across our vast territories with the seasons, harvesting a great

variety of foods and storing them for the long winter months. Bison,

deer, elk, moose, antelope, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, and other

animals provided plentiful meat. We harvested many plants for food

and medicine. The prairies were full of bitterroots, which we welcome

each spring with prayer as the first of our important plant foods. In

June, the moist high meadows turned blue with the blooms of camas,

which were dug and then pit-baked in great quantities. In July and

August, the mountains were full of serviceberries, huckleberries,

elderberries, chokecherries, and many other fruits. We managed our

lands, and nurtured our abundant resources, with the careful and highly

skilled use of fire, which had many beneficial effects, including

increased forage for game and revitalized berry patches and camas

fields. The rivers, streams, and lakes of our territories abounded in fish,

many of which played crucial roles in our traditional diet, including aay

(bull trout), pisɫ (westslope cutthroat trout), x̣ʷy̓ú (mountain

whitefish), sl̓aw̓s (largescale sucker), čɫen̓e (longnose sucker), and

qʷoq̓ʷé (northern pikeminnow). Séliš and Ql̓ispé people would also

regularly travel west to fish for salmon or to trade with the salmon


At the center of tribal cultures lay a deeply ingrained ethic of

reciprocity between people, and between people and the land. We lived

by a shared sense of what was appropriate and right in our relations

with each other and with the earth. Over such a vast tenure on the land,

the Séliš and Ql̓ispé doubtless experienced historical changes that are

beyond our knowledge today, including changes in climate,

fluctuations in the availability of various foods, and the inevitable ups

and downs in relations between tribal nations. But for a very long time,

our way of life, rooted in our spiritual relationship with our

environment and careful stewardship of our resources, provided a

dependable sustenance to countless generations.