Flathead/Salish Nation



Flathead/Salish Literature

North American Indians of the Flathead, Salish, Pend d’Oreilles (named by Europeans because they wore large shell earrings) or Kalispel tribes in Montana were all visited by Lewis and Clark in 1805. A Post was established in Pend d’Oreille Lake in 1809 by the North West Company and another Post at Clark Fort called Salish House. In 1844, these Indians were converted by the RomanCatholic church. By 1855, all of the tribes in the area had surrendered their lands, except those around Flathead Lake, which became the Jocko Reservation.

In 1700 the Indian population of that area ranged from 5,000 to 6,500. Lewis and Clark estimated about 1,600 when they visited in 1805. Tribal names have been preserved in countries, cities, banks, lakes, mountains, and rivers in the Northwest region.

The Salish or Flatheads, belonging to the Salishan language family, early in the 1800s were driven from the Plains into western Montana by the Blackfeet tribes, who had begun to use guns and horses. The Flathead name applied because they left their hair up-standing, flat on top. Other bands of Crow, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Chippewa in the same area similarly “flattened their heads.” Salish relations with whites were always friendly. Most of these tribes and bands settled on the Flathead Reservation in Montana and live there today.



Coyote and the Monsters of the Bitterroot Valley

This story was recorded from a great-great-grandmother whose name means “Painted-Hem-of-the-Skirt.” In the summer of 1955, she was the only person on the Flathead Reservation in western Montana that even an interested interpreter could find who knew the old stories of their people.

The Bitterroot Valley is in western Montana.

After Coyote had killed the monster near the mouth of the Jocko River, he turned south and went up the Bitterroot Valley. Soon he saw two huge monsters, one at each end of a ridge. Coyote killed them, changed them into tall rocks, and said, “You will always be there.”

There the tall rocks still stand.

Then he went on. Someone had told him about another monster, an Elk monster, up on a mountain to the east. Coyote said to his wife, Mole, “Dig a tunnel clear to the place where that monster is. Dig several holes in the tunnel. Then move our camp to the other side.”

Coyote went through the tunnel Mole had made, got out of it, and saw the Elk monster. The monster was surprised to see him.

“How did you get here?” he asked. “Where did you come from?” The monster was scared.

“I came across the prairie,” lied Coyote. “Don’t you see my trail? You must be blind if you didn’t see me.”

The monster became more scared. He thought that Coyote must have greater powers than he himself had.

Coyote’s dog was Pine Squirrel, and the Elk monster’s dog was Grizzly Bear. Grizzly Bear growled at Pine Squirrel, and Pine Squirrel barked back.

“You’d better stop your dog,” said the monster. “If you don’t, he’ll lose his head.”

The dogs wanted to fight. Grizzly Bear jumped at Coyote’s dog. Pine Squirrel went under him and killed him with the flint he wore on his head. The flint ripped Grizzly Bear. Bones and flesh flew everywhere.

“Look down there,” said Coyote to the Elk monster. “See those people coming along that trail? Let’s go after them.”

He knew that what he saw was Mole moving their camp, but the monster could not see clearly in the tunnel. Elk monster picked up his shield, his spear, and his knife. “I’m ready,” he said.

After they had gone a short distance along the trail, the monster fell into the first hole. Coyote called loudly, as if he were calling to an enemy ahead of them. The monster climbed out of the hole, tried to run, but fell into one hole after another. At last Coyote said to him, “Let me carry your shield. Then you can run faster.”

Coyote put the shield on his back, but the monster still had trouble. “Let me carry your spear,” Coyote said. Soon he got the monster’s knife, also–and all of his equipment. Then Coyote ran round and round, shouting, “This is how we charge the enemy.”

And he jabbed the monster with the monster’s spear. “I have the enemy’s war bonnet!” he yelled. He jabbed the monster four times,each time yelling that he had taken something from the enemy. The fifth time he jabbed the monster, he yelled, “I have stripped the enemy.” Then he said to the Elk monster, “You can never kill anyone again.”

Coyote went on up the Bitterroot Valley. He heard a baby crying,up on a hill. Coyote went up to the baby, not knowing it was a monster. He put his finger in the baby’s mouth, to let it suck. The baby ate the flesh off Coyote’s finger, then his hand, and then his arm. The monster baby killed Coyote. Only his skeleton was left.

After a while, Coyote’s good friend Fox came along. Fox stepped over the dead body, and Coyote came to life. He began to stretch as if he had been asleep. “I’ve slept a long time,” he said to Fox.

You’ve been dead,” Fox told him. “That baby is a monster, and he killed you.”

Coyote looked around, but the baby was gone. He put some flint on his finger and waited for the baby to come back. When he heard it crying, he called out, “Hello, baby! You must be hungry.”

Coyote let it have his flinted finger to suck. The baby cut himself and died.

“That’s the last of you,” said Coyote. “This hill will forever becalmed Sleeping Child.”

And that is what the Indians call it today.

After Coyote had left Sleeping Child, Fox joined him again and they traveled together. Soon Coyote grew tired of carrying his blanket, and so he laid it on a rock. After they had traveled farther, they saw a storm coming. They went back to the rock,Coyote picked up his blanket, and the two friends moved on. When the rain began to fall, he put the blanket over himself and Fox. While lying there, covered by the blanket, they looked out and saw the rock running toward them.

Fox went uphill, but Coyote ran downhill. The rock followed close on Coyote’s trail. Coyote crossed the river, sure that he was safe. Spreading his clothes out on a rock, he thought he would rest while they dried. But the rock followed him across the river. When he saw it coming out of the water, Coyote began to run. He saw three women sitting nearby, with stone hammers in their hands.

“If that rock comes here,” Coyote said to the women, “you break it with your hammers.”

But the rock got away from the women. Coyote ran on to where a creek comes down from the mountains near Darby. There he took some vines–Indians call them “monkey ropes”–and placed them so that the rock would get tangled up in them. He set fire to the monkey ropes. The rock got tangled in the burning ropes and was killed by the heat.

Then Coyote said to the rock, “The Indians will come through hereon their way to the buffalo country. They will play with you. They will find you slick and heavy, and they will lift you up.”

In my childhood, the rock was still there, but it is gone now, no one knows where.

Coyote left the dead rock and went on farther. Soon he saw a mountain sheep. The sheep insulted Coyote and made him angry. Coyote grabbed him and threw him against a pine tree. The body went clear through the tree, but the head stayed on it. The horns stuck out from the trunk of the tree.

Coyote said to the tree, “When people go by, they will talk to you. They will say, ‘I want to have good luck. So I will leave a gift here for you.’ They will leave gifts and you will make them lucky–in hunting or in war or in anything they wish to do.”

The tree became well known as the Medicine Tree. People from several tribes left gifts in it when they passed on their way to the buffalo country that is on the rising-sun side of the mountains.

In my childhood, the skull and face were still there. When I was a young girl, people told me to put some of my hair inside the sheep’s horn, so that I would live a long time. I did. That’s why I’m nearly ninety years old.

As the interpreter and I were leaving Painted-Hem- of-the-Skirt,she bent low and made a sweeping movement around her ankles and the hem of her long skirt. Then she said a few words and laughed heartily. The interpreter explained: “She says she hopes that she will not find a rattlesnake wrapped around her legs because she told some of the old stories in the summertime.”

She had laughed often as she told the tales, but I feel sure that her mother would not have related them in the summertime. “It is good to tell stories in the wintertime,” the Indians of the Northwest used to say. “There are long nights in the wintertime.”

Coyote and the Rolling Rock 

One spring day Coyote and Fox were out for a walk, and when they came to a big smooth rock, Coyote threw his blanket over it and they sat down to rest. After a while the Sun became very hot, and Coyote decided he no longer needed the blanket. “Here, brother,” he said to the rock, “I give you my blanket because you are poor and have let me rest on you. Always keep it.”

Then Coyote and Fox went on their way. They had not gone far when a heavy cloud covered the sky. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled and rain began to fall. The only shelter they could find was in a coulee, and Coyote said to Fox, “Run back to that rock, and ask him to lend us the blanket I gave him. We can cover ourselves with it and keep dry.”

So Fox ran back to the rock, and said, “Coyote wants his blanket.”

“No,” replied the rock. “He gave it to me as a present. I shall keep it. Tell him he cannot have it.”

Fox returned to Coyote and told him what the rock had said. “Well,” said Coyote, “that certainly is an ungrateful rock. I only wanted the use of the blanket for a little while until the rain stops.” He grew very angry and went back to the rock and snatched the blanket off. “I need this to keep me dry,” he said. “You don’t need a blanket. You have been out in the rain and snow all your life, and it won’t hurt you to live so always.”

Coyote and Fox kept dry under the blanket until the rain stopped and the sun came out again. Then they left the coulee and resumed their walk toward the river. After a while they heard a loud noise behind them coming from the other side of the hill. “Fox, little brother,” said Coyote, “go back and see what is making that noise.”

Fox went to the top of the hill, and then came hurrying back as fast as he could. “Run! run!” he shouted, “that big rock is coming.” Coyote looked back and saw the rock roll over the top of the hill and start rushing down upon them. Fox jumped into a badger hole, but the rock mashed the tip of his tail, and that is why Fox’s tail is white to this day.

Meanwhile Coyote had raced down the hill and jumped into the river. He swam across to the other side where he was sure that he was safe because he knew that rocks sink in water. But when the rock splashed into the river it began swimming, and Coyote fled toward the nearest woods. As soon as he was deep in the timber, he lay down to rest, but he had scarcely stretched himself out when he heard trees crashing. Knowing that the rock was still pursuing him, Coyote jumped up and ran out on the open prairie.

Some bears were crossing there, and Coyote called upon them for help. “We’ll save you,” the bears shouted, but the rock came rolling upon them and crushed the bears. About this time Coyote saw several bull buffalo. “Oh, my brothers,” he called to them, “help me, help me. Stop that rock.” The buffalo put their heads down and rushed upon the rock, but it broke their skulls and kept rolling. Then a nest of rattlesnakes came to help Coyote by forming themselves into a lariat, but when they tried to catch the rock, the rattlesnakes at the noose end were all cut to pieces.

Coyote kept running along a pathway, but the rock was now very close to him, so close that it began to knock against his heels. Just as he was about to give up, he saw two witches standing on opposite sides of the path. They had stone hatchets in their hands. “We’ll save you,” they called out. He ran between them, with the rock following close behind. Coyote heard the witches strike the rock with their hatchets, and when he turned to look he saw it lying on the ground all shattered into tiny pieces.

Then Coyote noticed that the path had led him into a large camp. When he sat down to catch his breath, he overheard one of the witches say to the other: “He looks nice and fat. We’ll have something good for dinner now. Let’s eat him right away.”

Coyote Pretended he had heard nothing, but he watched the witches through one of his half-closed eyes until they went into their lodge and began rattling their cooking utensils. Then he jumped up and emptied all their water pails.

As soon as they came outside again, he said, “I am very thirsty. I wish you would give me a good drink of water.”

“There is plenty of water here,” one of the witches replied. “You may have a drink from one of these pails.” But when she looked in the pails she found that every one was empty.

“That creek down there has water in it,” Coyote said. “I’ll go and get some water for you.”

He took the pails and started off, but as soon as he was out of sight he ran away as fast as his legs could carry him. Afterwards he heard that when the old witches discovered that he had tricked them, they began blaming each other for letting him escape. They quarrelled and quarrelled, and fought and fought, Until finally they killed each other.

Coyote’s Adventures in Idaho

Near Spokane one day, Coyote and Fox were travelling together on their way north. When they reached a river, Coyote said to Fox, “I believe I’ll get married. I’d like to take one of those Pend d’Oreille women for my wife.”

So they decided to go in search of the Chief of the Pend d’Oreilles. They soon located him with his tribe, and Coyote approached him with a gift of salmon.

“Chief, I would very much like to have one of your tribal women for my wife. Can we talk about which one you would choose for me?”

“Now Coyote, you know we do not approve that our women intermarry with other tribal members. So you cannot have one of our Pend d’Oreille women for your wife.”

Coyote and Fox left the Chief. Coyote became so disappointed with the Chief’s decision, he began to rage to his partner, Fox.

“Soon the Chief will be sorry for his refusal. I’ll make a big waterfall here in his big river. Forevermore, salmon will not be able to get over the falls to feed the Pend d’Oreilles.”

Since Coyote had the power for his wishes to be granted, the great falls immediately formed as he had proclaimed. That is how the Spokane Falls began.

From there, Coyote walked north to Ravalli. Soon he met an Old Indian Woman camped close by. Old Woman said to Coyote, “Where are you going?”

“I am on my way to travel all over the world.”

“Well, you had better go back and not stay here,” Old Woman said to Coyote.

“Why should I turn back and not stay here for a while? I am looking for a wife.”

“Because there is a Giant here who kills everyone passing through this valley,” replied Old Woman.

“But I am strong, I will fight him and kill him instead.”

So Coyote did not heed Old Woman’s warning and started walking on the trail again. He noticed a large tamarack tree nearby on a hillside.

“I’ll put an end to the Giant with a hard blow from this tree. That’s the way I’ll kill him,” Coyote said to himself. So he pulled the tamarack tree from the ground and swung it onto his shoulder and continued his search for the Giant.

Soon Coyote saw a woman who seemed nearly dead. He asked, “What is the matter, are you sick?”

“No, I am not sick,” she replied.

“I am going to kill the Giant with this tamarack tree,” said Coyote.

“You might as well throw the tree away. Don’t you know the Giant already sees you and you are already a tasty bite in the Giant’s belly?” said the woman.

Coyote took her advice and threw the tamarack tree up on a hillside where it is still growing near Arlee, a little station on the Northern Pacific Railroad. All of what was Jocko Valley now fills the Giant’s belly.

As Coyote travelled on from there, he observed many people lying here and there. Some were already dead, others seemed about to die, or were nearly dead.

“Tell me what is the trouble with all of you people,” asked Coyote of an Old Woman with her eyes open.

“We are all starving to death,” she answered.

“How can that be, when I can see plenty to eat here, lots of meat and fat?” said Coyote.

Then Coyote attacked the Giant and cut away large chunks of grease and fat from the sides of the Giant and fed all of the people. Soon all became well again.

“All of you people prepare to run for your lives. I am going to cut out the Giant’s heart. When I start cutting, you must all run to O’Keef’s Canyon or to Ravalli,” called out Coyote.

With his stone knife, Coyote cut out the Giant’s heart. The Giant called out, “Please, Coyote, let me alone. Go away from here. Get Out!”

“No I won’t go away. I’m going to stay right here until I kill you, said Coyote.

Then he cut out the Giant’s heart. As he was dying, the Giant’s jaws began to close tightly. Woodtick was the last one to escape from the Giant’s belly when Giant’s jaws closed. But Coyote caught hold of him and with all his strength pulled Woodtick out of the Giant’s mouth.

“We can’t help it but you will always be flat headed from your experience,” said Coyote as he left and started again on his world trip.

From there the traveller continued on to what is today Missoula, Montana. Coyote walked along between Lolo and Fort Missoula when he thought he heard someone call his name. But he could not see anyone. He trotted forward again, and heard his name called again. He stopped and when he looked into the woods, he saw two women sitting down beside a river.

Coyote swam across the river, and went up the embankment to the women. They were very good-looking women, thought Coyote, maybe he could marry one of them. He sat down between them, but they stood up and danced down to the river.

“Wait for me,” called Coyote. “I’ll go swimming with you.” He took off his jacket beaded with shells, denoting that he was a great Chief.

“We don’t want to wait, we are having a good time dancing,” replied the two women as they danced on into the river. When Coyote joined them, they pushed him down into the water and tried to drown him.

Later, Coyote’s partner, Fox, appeared from around a bend in the river, looking for something to eat. When he looked into the river and saw something lying on the bottom, he said, “This must be my partner, Coyote!”

Fox pulled out the object, and when he was sure it was Coyote, he made a magical jump over him and brought Coyote back to life.

Coyote said, “Oh, I must have had a long sleep.”

“You were not asleep, you were dead,” replied Fox. “Why did you go near those women, you had no right to be near them, they are from the Shell tribe.”

Coyote climbed partway up the hill and set the grass on fire. Later it was discovered that the women could not escape, and died in the fire. Today some shells have a black side, because they had been burned at the same time.

Creation of the Red and White Races

Among the people of long, long ago, Old Man Coyote was the symbol of good. Mountain Sheep was the symbol of evil.

Old-Man-in-the-Sky created the world. Then he drained all the water off the earth and crowded it into the big salt holes now called the oceans. The land became dry except for the lakes and rivers.

Old Man Coyote often became lonely and went up to the Sky World just to talk. One time he was so unhappy that he was crying. Old- Man-in-the-Sky questioned him.

“Why are you so unhappy that you are crying? Have I not made much land for you to run around on? Are not Chief Beaver, Chief Otter, Chief Bear, and Chief Buffalo on the land to keep you company?

“Why do you not like Mountain Sheep? I placed him up in the hilly parts so that you two need not fight. Why do you come up here so often?”

Old Man Coyote sat down and cried more tears. Old-Man-in-the-Sky became cross and began to scold him.

“Foolish Old Man Coyote, you must not drop so much water down upon the land. Have I not worked many days to dry it? Soon you will have it all covered with water again. What is the trouble with you? What more do you want to make you happy?”

“I am very lonely because I have no one to talk to,” he replied. “Chief Beaver, Chief Otter, Chief Bear, and Chief Buffalo are busy with their families. They do not have time to visit with me. I want people of my own, so that I may watch over them.”

“Then stop this shedding of water,” said Old-Man-in-the-Sky. “If you will stop annoying me with your visits, I will make people for you. Take this parfleche. It is a bag made of rawhide. Take it some place in the mountain where there is red earth. Fill it and bring it back up to me.”

Old Man Coyote took the bag made of the skin of an animal and travelled many days and nights. At last he came to a mountain where there was much red soil. He was very weary after such a long journey but he managed to fill the parfleche. Then he was sleepy.

“I will lie down to sleep for a while. When I waken, I will run swiftly back to Old-Man-in-the-Sky.”

He slept very soundly.

After a while, Mountain Sheep came along. He saw the bag and looked to see what was in it.

“The poor fool has come a long distance to get such a big load of red soil,” he said to himself. “I do not know what he wants it for, but I will have fun with him.”

Mountain Sheep dumped all of the red soil out upon the mountain. He filled the lower part of the parfleche with white solid, and the upper part with red soil. Then laughing heartily, he ran to his hiding place.

Soon Old Man Coyote woke up. He tied the top of the bag and hurried with it to Old-Man-in-the-Sky. When he arrived with it, the sun was going to sleep. It was so dark that the two of them could hardly see the soil in the parfleche.

Old-Man-in-the-Sky took the dirt and said, “I will make this soil into the forms of two men and two women.”

He did not see that half of the soil was red and the other half white. Then he said to Old Man Coyote, “Take these to the dry land below. They are your people. You can talk with them. So do not come up here to trouble me.”

Then he finished shaping the two men and two women–in the darkness.

Old Man Coyote put them in the parfleche and carried them down to dry land. In the morning he took them out and put breath into them. He was surprised to see that one pair was red and the other was white.

“Now I know that Mountain Sheep came while I was asleep. I cannot keep these two colors together.”

He thought a while. Then he carried the white ones to the land by the big salt hole. The red ones he kept in his own land so that he could visit with them. That is how Indians and white people came to the earth.

Godasiyo the Woman Chief

At the beginning of time when America was new, a woman chief named Godasiyo ruled over an Indian village beside a large river in the East. In those days all the tribes spoke one language and lived in harmony and peace. Because Godasiyo was a wise and progressive chief, many people came from faraway places to live in her village, and they had no difficulty understanding one another.

At last the village grew so large that half the people lived on the north side of the river, and half on the south side. They spent much time canoeing back and forth to visit, attend dances, and exchange gifts of venison, hides, furs, and dried fruits and berries. The tribal council house was on the south side, which made it necessary for those who lived on the north bank to make frequent canoe trips to consult with their chief. Some complained about this, and to make it easier for everybody to cross the rapid stream, Godasiyo ordered a bridge to be built of saplings and tree limbs carefully fastened together. This bridge brought the tribe close together again, and the people praised Godasiyo for her wisdom.

Not long after this, a white dog appeared in the village, and Godasiyo claimed it for her own. Everywhere the chief went the dog followed her, and the people on the north side of the river became jealous of the animal. They spread stories that the dog was possessed by an evil spirit that would bring harm to the tribe. One day a delegation from the north bank crossed the bridge to the council house and demanded that Godasiyo kill the white dog. When she refused to do so, the delegates returned to their side of the river, and that night they destroyed the bridge.

From that time the people on the north bank and those on the south bank began to distrust each other. The tribe divided into two factions, one renouncing Godasiyo as their chief, the other supporting her. Bad feelings between them grew so deep that Godasiyo foresaw that the next step would surely lead to fighting and war. Hoping to avoid bloodshed, she called all members of the tribe who supported her to a meeting in the council house.

“Our people,” she said, “are divided by more than a river. No longer is there goodwill and contentment among us. Not wishing to see brother fight against brother, I propose that those who recognize me as their chief follow me westward up the great river to build a new village.”

Almost everyone who attended the council meeting agreed to follow Godasiyo westward. In preparation for the migration, they built many canoes of birch bark. Two young men who had been friendly rivals in canoe races volunteered to construct a special water craft for their chief. With strong poles they fastened two large canoes together and then built a platform which extended over the canoes and the space between them. Upon this platform was a seat for Godasiyo and places to store her clothing, extra leggings, belts, robes, moccasins, mantles, caps, awls, needles and adornments.

At last everything was ready. Godasiyo took her seat on the platform with the white dog beside her, and the two young men who had built the craft began paddling the double canoes beneath. Behind them the chief’s followers and defenders launched their own canoes which contained all their belongings. This flotilla of canoes covered the shining waters as far as anyone could see up and down the river.

After they had paddled a long distance, they came to a fork in the river. Godasiyo ordered the two young canoeists to stop in the middle of the river until the others caught up with them. In a few minutes the flotilla was divided, half of the canoes on her left, the others on her right.

The chief and the people on each side of her began to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the two forks in the river. Some wanted to go one way, some preferred the other way. The arguments grew heated with anger. Godasiyo said that she would take whichever fork her people chose, but they could agree on neither. Finally those on the right turned the prows of their canoes up the right channel, while those on the left began paddling up the left channel. And so the tribe began to separate.

When this movement started, the two young men paddling the two canoes carrying Godasiyo’s float disagreed as to which fork they should take, and they fell into a violent quarrel. The canoeist on the right thrust his paddle into the water and started toward the right, and at the same time the one on the left swung his canoe toward the left. Suddenly Godasiyo’s platform slipped off its supports and collapsed into the river, carrying her with it.

Hearing the loud splash, the people on both sides turned their canoes around and tried to rescue their beloved chief. But she and the white dog, the platform, and all her belongings had sunk to the bottom, and they could see nothing but fish swimming in the clear waters.

Dismayed by this tragic happening, the people of the two divisions began to try to talk to each other, but even though they shouted words back and forth, those on the right could not understand the people on the left, and those on the left could not understand the people on the right. When Godasiyo drowned in the great river her people’s language had become changed. This was how it was that the Indians were divided into many tribes spreading across America, each of them speaking a different language.


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