Indigenous Place Names

Share this article:

by Skip Via

If an enterprise or place name here in the valley doesn’t begin with “Glacier,” there’s a good chance that it begins with “Flathead.” We live in Flathead County, in the Flathead Valley drained by the Flathead River. There’s Flathead Valley Community College, Flathead High School, Flathead National Forest, Flathead Lake, the Flathead Beacon…

But where exactly does that name come from, and what does it mean? There’s a clue in the Flathead County Seal, but there is much more to the story.

The area we now know as the Flathead Valley was indigenously populated by various peoples from the Salish ethnic/linguistic group. The Salish people lived in the Canadian and American Pacific Northwest, including the current states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia. There are twenty-three documented Salish languages, five of which are extinct–no longer spoken by anyone–and the remaining are endangered. The term “Salish” is derived from Séliš, the name that the indigenous people of the current Flathead Valley area used for themselves. In current use, “Salish” is often applied to all speakers of Salishan languages.

The Salish are divided into four major groups: The Bella Coola or Nuxalk (Bella Coola river basin of British Columbia), the Coast Salish (coasts of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon), the Interior Salish (Cascades to the Continental Divide), and the Tsamosan (Olympic Peninsula, Washington). The Interior Salish may be further divided into two main groups: Northern (or Upper) Salish and Southern (or Lower) Salish. The Southern Salish peoples included the Pend d’Oreille (Qalispé), the Coeur d’Alene (Schi̲tsu’umsh), and the Bitterroot Salish (Séliš, or Flathead). These tribes are now recognized as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation.

The Flathead people were the easternmost of the Salish peoples and were the first to encounter and have relationships with white settlers from the United States. Their ancestral range began near present day Billings, MT and stretched to Washington, but they were forcibly moved to the Flathead Reservation west of the Continental Divide. How the term Flathead came to be applied to the Séliš is a matter of some disagreement. Although there were Salishan tribes that practiced artificial cranial modification (deformation), the people known as the Flatheads did not do so. Some speculate that the term was used to differentiate the Séliš from other Salishan peoples who practiced a form of cranial rounding by binding with cloth. Others think it was mistakenly and haphazardly applied by European settlers.

In the early days, the Flatheads (Séliš) traversed the Rocky Mountains and traded for horses and other goods, hunted bison on the plains east of the mountains, and engaged in warfare with the Blackfeet people, in which the more peaceful Séliš were at a distinct disadvantage. The Treaty of Hellgate, signed in 1855 but not ratified by the US Congress until 1859, was sought by the Séliš as a way to, if not make peace with the Blackfeet, at least engage in their bison hunts with some protections. From Wikipedia:

The economy of the Salish, Pend d’Oreille, and Kutenai tribes was based on a seasonal round with annual journeys across the continental divide to hunt. These hunts meant dangerous travel into enemy Blackfeet territory, and Blackfeet attacks ravaged the hunting parties, leaving casualties in their wake. The Salish wanted intertribal peace and the right to hunt bison on the plains without being attacked. As white fur traders and trappers moved into the Rocky Mountains in what is now Montana, the Salish, Pend d’Oreilles, and Kutenais made informal alliances with them against enemy Blackfeet and other Plains tribes. They were pleased at Stevens’s invitation to the treaty council and expected to talk about intertribal peace. Stevens had little interest in intertribal peace, however. His goal was to convince the tribes to cede their lands and move to a reservation.


The promises made to the Flathead people were not kept. Promised annuities did not start arriving for four years after the treat was signed, and the verbal offer of military protection was never honored. The Bitterroot Séliš (Flathead people) tried to remain in the Bitterroot Valley, but eventually the tribe was forced for economic and political reasons to relocate to the Flathead Reservation.

Finally, a word about the Pend d’Oreille (Qalispé) tribe. Pend d’Oreille (“hangs from the ear” in French) was a term used by French trappers and missionaries for the Qalispé with reference to the large earrings worn by tribal members. “Kalispel” is the anglicized version of the tribe’s endonym Qalispé, meaning “camas people.” The bulb of the camas flower was a staple of the tribe’s diet. A girl was assumed to be of age to marry when she could tell the difference between the toxic death camas bulb and the edible blue camas bulb. The term “camas” appears in many place names in the area.

The Qalispé (Kalispel) were divided into two groups–the Upstream Kalispel (who are usually referred to now as the Pend d’Oreille, who lived along the Clark Fork river) and the Downstream Kalispel, or “the people living along the broad water.” That broad water was of course, Flathead Lake, and it’s fairly obvious where the town of Kalispell got its name.

Author’s note: The human history of our little valley stretches back at least 12,000 years as people began to settle the Pacific Northwest after the last of the glaciers retreated. I hope to use this space to explore more of the indigenous history of the valley. The stories are rich and complex–so if anyone out there has any insights to contribute, I’d be most appreciative. The more we know, the more we learn.

Some resources:

Share this article:
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments