NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURE

Creating understanding among all peoples.

Honor the sacred.
Honor the Earth, our Mother.
Honor the Elders.
Honor all with whom we share the Earth:
Four-leggeds, two-leggeds, winged ones,
Swimmers, crawlers, plant and rock people.
Walk in balance and beauty.

— Native American elder

Exposing ourselves to the diversity of our world not only enriches our lives but creates connections of understanding across cultures and nations. In Northwest Montana we welcome you to expose yourself to the culture of the peoples who first lived on this scenic land and to this day honor all those who walk upon it and fly above it.

The small city of Kalispell, a Salish word meaning “flat land above the lake,” lies between two centers of rich Native American culture: the Blackfeet Reservation to the northeast and Flathead Indian Reservation to the south. Both offer cultural attractions and events that foster education and appreciation among all peoples.

To orient yourself to the history of Native Americans in Northwest Montana, visit the Museum of Central School in downtown Kalispell. Through the presentation of historical artifacts — including headdresses, traditional beadwork and a tipi — the Indians of Montana exhibit explains the day-to-day life and significant cultural changes of the native peoples.

Blackfeet Nation

Northeast of Kalispell on the eastern boundary of Glacier National Park, the Blackfeet tribe makes its home. It is believed that the Blackfeet got their name from the black color of their moccasins that were darkened with ash. Tribal members call themselves “Niitsitapi” (nee-itsee-TAH-peh) meaning “the real people.”

The Museum of the Plains Indians in Browning houses extensive artifacts from the Northern Plains Indians, and each year the tribe hosts North American Indian Days during the second week in July. Native Americans from across the United States and Canada gather for the four-day event, and the public is welcome to witness the captivating celebration of Blackfeet traditions — contest dancing, games, sports and more.

Of course, Native American peoples were not always constrained to the borders of their reservations. The site of today’s Glacier National Park is the traditional hunting, fishing and religious grounds of the Blackfeet people. Glacier’s Sun Tours, owned and operated by Blackfeet tribal members, offers park visitors an interpretive tour of the park from the tribe’s historical viewpoint. You will not only discover the park’s beautiful natural landscape on your guided trip over the Going-to-the-Sun Road but you also will learn about the cultural significance of the land, known to the Blackfeet as the “backbone of the world.” From mid-May to the end of September, tours depart from the west side of the park, closest to Kalispell, at Apgar Visitor Center as well as several locations on the park’s east side.

Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes

To the south of Kalispell the Flathead Reservation, encompassing the southern half of Flathead Lake and the Mission Valley south of the lake, is home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, a combination of the Bitterroot Salish, the Pend d’Oreille and the Kootenai people. The first Europeans incorrectly called the Salish the “Flatheads.” These Salish people never practiced head flattening, but their Columbia River neighbors did practice head shaping, particularly rounding of the skull. By contrast the Europeans called the Salish “Flatheads.”

At the People’s Center in Pablo, nine miles south of the southern tip of Flathead Lake and the town of Polson, you can tour the museum and gain perspective into what life was like for the native peoples before and after the Europeans arrived. As is tradition much of the history in the exhibit is told orally, and we recommend that you participate in a personal guided tour or request an audio presentation. The center’s gift shop offers a beautiful collection of Native American artwork, including beadwork, painted animal skulls, jewelry and paintings.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes celebrate their sacred dances, music and ceremonial dress each year at the Arlee Esyapqeyni (Celebration), a multiday pow wow around the Fourth of July welcoming tribal members and the public. Attending a pow wow is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in Native American culture. We promise that what you experience there will enrich your life and your memories of Northwest Montana for years to come.

Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may not remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand. — Tribe unknown

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