Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d'Oreilles (Western Montana)

Mission Mountains

(A view of the Mission Mountains from the National Bison Range)

The Place

This ecoregion represents riparian and montane areas of Montana, stretching from the northwest corner of the state, to the Rocky Mountain Front and west-central Montana. The topography is characterized by high elevations of 1,800’ to 12,800’ and receives an average 37” of yearly precipitation. Glorious conifer forests can be found at higher elevations and serene valleys laden with rivers, creeks, lakes and rolling bunchgrass praries at lower elevations.  The biodiveristy in this ecoregion is dense and includes many large mammals such as the black bear and grizzly bear; elk, mule deer, white-tail deer, moose, and mountain goats; gray wolves and mountain lions.

Salish men near tipis year 1903

(Salish men dressed in ceremonial attire-1905)

The People

The majority of the Bitteroot's Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d'Oreilles tribes live on the Flathead Reservation located on the Flathead river; however, archaeological evidence confirms a much larger area of western Montana was inahbitted by humans for at least 14,000 years.  The first written record of European contact with these peoples occured in 1805 when the Lewis and Clark expedition travelled through the Bitteroot Valley.  Fifty years later, the Salish and the U.S. Federal government began negotiating the terms of the Hellgate Treaty.  The tribes' representative leader, Chief Many Horses, met with the superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Washington Territory Isaac Stevens. Due to poor translation and complex language intentionally placed by Stevens in the Hellgate Treaty, the homeland of Chief Many Horses and his poeple was only classified as a conditional reservation.  

Over the next forty years, the Salish were forced out of the Bitteroot valley due an influx of settlers following the 1864 gold rush and newly constructed Missoula and Bitter Root Valley Railroad.  The Salish, who were suffering from starvation, agreed to leave the Bitteroot valley and were marched by soldiers from Fort Missoula sixty miles to the Flathead Reservation.  1.3 million acres were allloted to the tribes on the Flathead reservation while more than 20 million acres were ceded to the United States.   

The Plants

Kinnick Kinnick (Arcostaphylos uva-ursi):

Kinnick Kinnick (Arcostaphylos uva-ursi)

The leaves of Kinnick kinnick, also known by the common name bearberry, are harvested, dried and mixed with tobacco to be used as a smoking mixture.  This mixture is smoked both for ceremonial and casual occasions.

Wood's Rose (Rosa woodsii): 

Wood's Rose

Wood's rose served as a food source only in times of famine. The hips are high in vitamins A, B, C, E, and K. The inner bark, root, or both are boiled and strained to be drank as a medicinal tea to treat gastrointestinal ailments. 

Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana):

Wild Strawberry

The wild strawberry is a favorable food source as its small, sweet red berries are delicious and high in vitamin C.  The flowers generally bloom in May and produce fruit throughout the summer.  Wild strawberries are harvested at perfect ripeness to be consumed shortly thereafter.

Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata):

Image of arrowleaf balsamroot

The arrowleaf balsamroot is a long-lived, perennial forb that can grow 1-2 feet in height. It is found on open, fairly dry landscapes with well-drained soils. Also, it is often found in sagebrush habitats. As food, members of the Salish and Kootenai tribes peeled young arrowleaf balsamroot, immature flower stems and ate the tender inner portion raw, like celery. Medicinally, the Salish use the large, coarse leaves as a poultice for burns and drink the tea brewed from the roots for tuberculosis, whooping cough. The tea would also increase urination, working as a cathartic. Members of the Kootenai tribe boil the roots and apply this infusion as a poultice for wounds, cuts and bruises.

Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium):

Image of Fireweed

Fireweed is typically found in large colonies, growing 1-3m tall. It is a perennial that has widespread rhizome-like roots. Commonly found up in the mountains and along highways and railroads, as well as old burns. Although sometimes considered a weed, fireweed has many edible and medical uses. Medicinally the plant extracts, often in the form of an infusion or tea, can be used as treatment for prostate and urinary problems such as enlarged prostate, and for various gastrointestinal disorders such as dysentery or diarrhea. Topically the plant has been used as a soothing, cleansing and healing agent to treat minor burns, skin rashes, ulcers, and many other skin irritations and afflictions. The leaves and young shoot tips of fireweed are edible.

Beebalm/Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa):

Bee Balm PlantBee Balm flower

Beebalm has a minty odor, with obvious tubular flowers. Growing 30-70cm tall, this perennial has creeping rhizomes for roots. Mainly used as a medicinal plant, it has been made into tea to cure colds as well as to treat mouth and throat infections caused by dental caries and gingivitis. Also, poultices of the plant for skin infections and minor wounds. Another beneficial use is it is a carminative herb to treat excessive flatulence.

Species List 

  • Arrow Leaf Balsam Root (Balsamoriza sagittata
  • Blue Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia)  
  • Chickweed (Stellaria media)
  • Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana
  • Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium
  • Hairy Golden Aster (Heterotheca villosa
  • Jacob's Ladder (Polemonium caeruleum
  • Lily of the Valley (Smilicina Stellata
  • Meadowrue (Thalictrum occidentale
  • Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii)
  • Bee Balm(Mondarda fistulosa
  • Wilcox penstemon (Penstemon wilcoxii
  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium