History of the Salish
The Bitterroot Mountain range is the backbone of the valley. The Salish call the Bitterroot Mountains VCk Welk Welqey which means 'the tops are red. The life way of the Salish people is a cooperative dependent relationship with the land, plants, and animals. Recognition of spirit is contained in all things. Nature is not filled with objects to be dominated, but with 'identities' to be respected. These interrelationships are confirmed through a conscious and concrete understanding of their landscape. Mary Ann Combs, a Salish elder, was 12 years old when she and her family moved with the last band of Salish from the Bitterroot Valley in 1891. She told the following story:
"'When I was young and we still lived in the Bitterroot Valley before being moved to the reservation, the rocks on the mountain were red up toward the top. In the morning the sun would hit the mountains, they were pretty red. Once my Aunt and I went horse back high up into the mountains to gather White Pine cones for the seeds. We were close to the top, the mountain was beautiful red. It is not that way anymore. It is like the rocks all washed off.
Pierre Pichette, another Salish elder, said the mountains were red because of a red plant that used to grow near the tops. Whichever reason is true, the meaning lives on in the Salish name for the Bitterroot Mountains.
Salish is the name of a group of people, consisting of several tribes, and the language they spoke. The Bitterroot Valley was the permanent home of their forefathers. The Stevensville vicinity was their main winter camp.
After the Hellgate Treaty of 1855, pressure increased for the removal of the Salish from the Bitterroot to the Jocko Valley on the Flathead Reservation. In 1872, General James Garfield presented the three Salish Chiefs Charlo, Arlee, and Adolf, with a second treaty which Charlo refused to sign. Charlo remained in the Bitterroot for 20 more years until he and his band were escorted from the valley by General Carrington in October 1891.
The respect and love for the Bitterroot can be summed up in the words of Louise Vanderburg, a Salish elder:
"'When we go home I think about our old people. I walk lightly when I walk around. The bones of my Grandparents and their Grandparents are all around here. We return to the Bitterroot each year on a Pilgramage to honor our connection with our homeland. Also to ensure the preservation of our ancestors' graves and sacred sites. In doing so we acknowledge the gifts left here by those who have gone on before us, gifts of language, songs, dance, spirituality. This way of life has been sustained for generations by our ancestors' prayers."
- Flathead Culture Committee