By Lonny Hill

Editor's Note: This article was originally printed on July 16, 1999 in Char-Koosta News. The Hellgate treaty is 184 years old as of July 16, 2019. In the original article, the illustrations and names of Big Canoe and Alexander were misidentified. CKN reprinted the article as it was originally released. 

July 16, 1855, was the end of a long, hot week at Hellgate Canyon. Superintendent of Indian Affairs and Governor of the Territory, Isaac I. Stevens, representing President Franklin Pierce of the United States, had struck a treaty with the Kootenai, Salish and the Upper Pend d’Oreille and a band of Kalispels (also known as Lower Pend d’Oreille) Nation. 

Reasons why the Hellgate and other treaties were made during this time are varied. First and foremost, Stevens was given a task of clearing the way for the railroad to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. The railroad survey has been completed two years earlier. Tribes were in the way and Stevens was ordered to extinguish any claim to the land needed to finish the project.

The Hellgate treaty negotiations began when the council opened on July 9, with Stevens explaining the treaty to the chiefs and headman of the three tribes. He talked about farming and industry, and peace with the eastern tribes, and finally about packing everyone up and moving them to the Flathead River Reservation.

Both Victor and Alexander responded to the land proposal by stalling for time. They said they were happy where they were, in the Bitterroot and the Flathead respectively, and did not see why the rich and powerful white man should want all their land. Both did agree that they were eager to make peace on the prairie. 

Red Wolf, a Salish Chief, had more to say: “We gathered up yesterday, these people you see here today. Here are three nations that spoke. I think it was this way yesterday. Here is the ground I was talking about yesterday. I think myself there are three tribes here they have each their own place, they think they own my ground. I thought these three nations were going to talk about their own lands. Now I hear the governor. My ground is all cut up in pieces. I do not think it is right to talk about land. I think of the three nations, this land, Council Groves belongs to the Flatheads. There is another place over yonder (north) across the mountains that belong to the Pend d’Oreille. I do not know where the land of the Kootenai is. It is a long distance off. I made up my mind yesterday. I believe we do not agree. I thought we had two places, this ground for the Flatheads, that across the mountains for the Pend d’Oreille. We will go back to have another council.”

“The first day of negotiations broke off in a stalemate, all concerned were frustrated,” Doty writes. 

The following day the council reconvened with Stevens asking the chiefs to “...speak out your minds fully.”

The great Pend d’Oreille War Chief Big Canoe did just that in the following speech. Doty’s notes indicate that Big Canoe chided his chiefs saying, ‘’When we, your people talk, you tremble, ashamed of yourself. Are you afraid of him (pointing to Stevens)? We are not talking bad, we are council-ing.” Big Canoe turns to Stevens saying, “It is our land...when I first saw you, you white man, I would tell you take this piece, it is our land. When you came to see me I believed you would help me. If you make a farm I would not go there and pull up your crops. I would not drive you away. If I go to your place on your land and say give me a little piece I wonder would you say ‘’Here, take it.” This is the way with you white man. I expect that is the same way you want me to do here. You want to settle here, me with you.” He continued, “Here you are going back and forth on our land. Go back to your country. When my old people long ago first saw you, we were friends. We never spilt the blood of one of you. I am the same; I never saw your blood. I wish the white to stop coming. You come and talk about my country, then you say we are very poor. You just talk as you please to us. Perhaps you will put me in a trap if I do not listen to you, you chiefs, white men. Talk about treaty, where did I kill you, when did you kill me? What is the reason we are talking about treaties, that is what I said. We are friends. You are not my enemy. When I shoot you with your own powder and ball. Our old people, when they saw you, knew what powder and ball was and never tried to frighten a white man with it. Where have we made difficulty with the whites? You white men, there are your eyes lying all over the table. This is the reason you are smart, you always look at your papers. I do not want you to impose upon me. I am what you, white men, like yourself. You will never see in your papers the Flatheads or Pend d’Oreilles have killed any of you. When my enemies charge upon you (white trappers), here I am behind with your powder and ball. That is the reason we are fast friends. I thought nobody would talk about land (at the council), or would trouble me. I do not know your minds, you white men. I will stop talking. I am thinking I am talking saucy. I have got a good deal more to say. I am tired now.”

Big Canoe, who was highly respected by all the tribes, had laid it out for Stevens and the council. He pointed out that there was no reason for a treaty between the tribes and the U.S. government since they were friends. He shrewdly noted that Stevens would not be willing to give the Indians part of his own land, so why should the Indian give up any of theirs. Doty wrote of this exchange that Stevens ignored Big Canoe, but the chiefs did not. The council adjourned for the second day. 

On July 11, Stevens asked the Head Chiefs Victor, Alexander and Michelle if they had decided on a reservation. Victor responded that he and his people were “content with the (Bitterroot) valley.” Alexander said that he...”preferred the Flathead River area because his crops were there and that is where his people gathered berries and roots.” Michelle told Stevens he had come to the council “to listen to what they would say. That is why I do not talk.”

In frustration, Stevens adjourned the council for the third day, giving them one extra day to “...think the matter over among yourselves and decide.”

They gathered again on July 13 with all sides having, as Doty put it, “hot tempers.” Alexander held firm about staying in the Flathead, and accused Stevens of ‘’talking sharp, like a Blackfoot.” Stevens tried playing Victor and Alexander against one-another. Doty’s writings confirm that he offered Alexander the Flathead River Reservation if he would sign the treaty. Victor objected, noting that he had not accepted the Flathead, and was told by Stevens, “When I call upon you to sign, you can make your objections.” Victor answered angrily, “I was taking to you and I told you no.” Doty said that Stevens flared back, “Or is not Victor Chief? Is he as one of his people has called him, an old woman? Dumb as a dog? If Victor is chief, let him speak now.” 

Victor ignored the insult and carefully explained to Stevens that his people wished to remain in the Bitterroot and that Alexander’s people seemed to prefer the Flathead.

Red Wolf added, “My father’s land is below, my mother’s country is here. The Kootenai are my relations. This is my opinion. They (all three tribes) dislike to leave their country.”

Bear Track, another Salish chief, explained the reluctance of his people to leave their homes, “I do not know what to do if my father tells me to go away. There are my old people, when they rise. I rise. I looked at my children. What will I do with my children? What will they do? It appears to me there is not enough room at the Mission (Flathead). My country is about as large as my fingernail. I look at my nail, if I break it, it will not be good. This is my mind and the reason my heart is heavy.”

Governor Stevens attempted to salvage the fourth day of council, but Victor walked out and would not return the following day.

Two days later, July 16, Victor returned with a solution he felt would break the deadlock, “If you want, we will send this word to the Great Father, our Chief, come and look at our country. Perhaps you will choose that place if you look at it. When you look at Alexander’s place and say the land is good. And say, come Victor, and then I would go. If you think this above is god land, then Victor will say come Alexander. Then our children will be well content. This is the way we will make the treaty, my father.”

Doty writes that Victor was a shrewd diplomat. He realized the Great Father from Washington would not come all the way out to the western mountains to look over the two reservations, and felt that his compromise was actually assuring both the Salish and Pend d’Orielle their homelands.

Alexander saw what Victor was doing and agreed to having the Great Father make the final decision. He added, “Michelle told me, if you go this was (to the Bitterroot) I will not go. The Pend d’Orielle may be the same way. They have no horses, they have only canoes.”

Stevens accepted the compromise as a way of getting the treaty signed and getting out of a ticklish situation. Doty writes, he explained to the chiefs his interpretation of the offer: “My children, Victor has made his proposition. Alexander and Michelle have made theirs. We will make a treaty for them. Both tracts will be surveyed, if the mission is the best land, Victor shall live there. If the (Bitterroot) valley is the best land, Victor shall stay here. Alexander and Michelle may stay at the Mission. I cannot think that the President will think it good. The President will think it very strange that Alexander and Michelle are not willing to leave it to him. I will, however sign the treaty with them. If the President thinks it good, then we shall carry it out... if he thinks it not good, then we shall not carry it (the treaty) out. I am now ready to sign.”

Stevens left the impression the great Father would look at both reservations and dangled the strong possibility of two reservations. The signing started.

Victor and Michelle placed their X mark first, writes Doty. When it was Crawling Mountain’s turn, the pen was refused.

Crawling Mountain, known to the whites as Moses or Moiese, was a strong and intelligent sub-chief of the Salish. He told Stevens that he did not care whether the treaty called for one or two reservations, the only reason for the council was for making peace on the plains and this was not assured in this treaty.

“My brother is buried there,” he said, referring to the Bitterroot Valley, “I do not think you would take the only piece of ground I had. Here are three fellows (the head chiefs), they say get on your horse and move, they never say talk. If you would give us a large place, I would not talk if I go in your country and say give me this. Will you (Stevens) give it to me? Now their mouths are all shut. Sewed up. Last year when you were talking about the Blackfeet you were joking. You pulled all my wings off and let me down. You Stevens, left a man here who said they will never talk about this land, they will help you against the Blackfeet. This is the reason we all came together. I have nothing to say about selling the land.”

The treaty without Crawling Mountain’s signature, was signed, sealed and delivered to Washington.

Four years later it was ratified by the United States Senate. The President never visited either reservation site. Neither was either site surveyed prior to ratification. Yet, in 1871, another Great Father, Ulysses S. Grant, ordered the removal of the Salish from the Bitterroot. Not because he had decided the Flathead was best suited for the people, but because the railroad and white settlers wanted the Salish homeland.

Father Adrian Hoecken, of the St. Ignatius Mission, attended the days during the latter part of the treaty council. He later had this to say about the controversial Article XI of the Hellgate Treaty of 1855: “When, oh when, shall the oppressed Indian find a poor corner of the earth on which he may lead a peaceful life, serving and living his God in tranquility, and preserving the ashes of his ancestors without fear of beholding them profaned and trampled beneath the feet of an unjust usurper?”

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