To the Bitterroot Salish, the Missoula Valley in 1865 offered no more and no less than it had since time immemorial.
"Where the university is at was a favorite campground," said Louis Adams, a Salish elder whose grandmother was born on those grounds. "If they were just going to camp a night or two and fish, or if they were going to be there a long time, there was everything they needed."
Game was here, and so were fish, Adams said. There were berries and roots of the edible and medicinal kind.
And there were white men building mills and ditches and wooden homes in the middle of it all.
The town and county of Missoula turn 150 this year, but it’s a challenge for her people to put one year on a calendar into context, said Julie Cajune, a Salish educator from the Flathead Reservation.
“All this specific history kind of gets stirred up,” Cajune said. “When people think old history they think the 1800s or the 1700s. But you have to go way back before that.”
Nlay(ccstm) – “Place of the Small Bull Trout” – at the confluence of Rattlesnake Creek and the Clark Fork River was part of a vast Salish territory that, while centered in western Montana by the 1800s, had long covered much of the rest of the state.
“From Evaro to Yellowstone was our stomping grounds,” said Adams, who was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters from University of Montana President Royce Engstrom at graduation exercises in May. “Anybody who died, that’s where they were buried because it was all our home.”
Whites had been trickling in to "civilize" the region for years by the time Missoula got its start. John Owen opened his trading post at Stevensville in 1850. The contentious Hellgate Treaty council had been held 10 years earlier at Council Grove. Jesuit fathers and brothers had a mission at St. Ignatius and a church for settlers at Hellgate west of town, and they were getting ready to revive St. Mary’s Mission in the Bitterroot.
Lt. John Mullan laid out a military wagon road through the valley in 1860 and made more than a dozen other trips through on behalf of the U.S. Army between 1853 and 1862.
“To think Mullan was running around on tribal land, really without anyone doing anything ...” Cajune said. “I was kind of surprised that the people didn’t stop that. I guess people here had probably gotten used to the traders and trappers and missionaries.”
“I’ve read in history papers where a lot of people would gripe on account of Indians camped somewhere, or there were too many, griped about this and that,” said Adams. “The Indians were just trying to live like they always had.”
But that way of life was changing, and the Salish and Pend d’Oreille people knew that. Based in the Bitterroot and Mission/Jocko valleys, respectively, their traditional enemies remained tribes east of the mountains, particularly the Blackfeet and Crow who the Salish viewed as encroachers on their buffalo lands.
They could “drop their robes” and fight with the best of them when the time came, said Cajune.
“The Salish people were known for being generous and hospitable people,” she said. “That gets kind of misconstrued that they were passive. They weren’t.”
Yet history reveals no sustained acts of violence against the whites here, as happened in other places.
“It wasn’t that they were pacifists as much as they were thinking strategically how to save their people,” Cajune said. “Some call it nonviolent resistance. People would do whatever they had to do to protect their territory, their homeland.”
Missoula’s presence became more problematic for the Salish later, after they were moved out of the Bitterroot to the Flathead Reservation in the 1870s and ‘80s and, finally, in 1891 when Chief Charlo’s bedraggled band made the final, sad march from Stevensville to the Jocko.
They crossed the Higgins Avenue Bridge, and thereafter Missoula became a physical barrier to reservation Indians going back to visit grave sites or the Medicine Tree in the upper valley, and sometimes even to work.
“People took jobs for the settlers in the Bitterroot, working on farms, because that was a way they could go back home,” Cajune said.
It made news in the Missoulian when Indians were spotted in town.
“You go back and look at old Missoula newspapers and there are articles like ‘Five braves go through town,’ ” Cajune said. “It was a big deal when they went through.”
After Congress passed the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887, Missoula leaders and businessmen began casting covetous eyes toward the Flathead Reservation. Not every reservation was opened up to settlers, but the Flathead was under pressure from the likes of the McLeods and Beckwiths of the Missoula Mercantile, and U.S. Sen. Joseph Dixon, who owned the Missoulian.
As a state senator from Missoula in 1895, William Smead petitioned the Legislature to open the reservation to homesteaders. Smead was appointed Flathead Indian agent in 1897 and was fired in 1904 for illegally leasing reservation land to white ranchers.
It all opened wounds that could still fester.
Adams, who’s 81, remembers as a young boy walking into the reservation home of Sackwoman, one of the great cultural leaders among Salish women. Suddenly the grown-ups grew quiet.
“Even though I was small, I knew they were talking about something," he said.
One day when he was older, he asked one of the elders, Sophie Louise, what was going on.
"It was because we were talking about home," she told him. "We didn't want you kids to grow up being mad or feeling bad about that. This is your home now."