Jack McNeel
The Mission Mountain Wilderness fill the skyline from the National Bison Range

10 Things You Should Know about the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes

Jack McNeel

The region is gorgeous. The high alpine mountains of the Mission Range frame the eastern border with patches of snow lasting much of the summer. The valley is broad with small towns bordered by ponds, lakes, and rivers. Flathead Lake, the largest natural lake in the west, forms part of the northern border of the reservation. The Flathead Reservation, home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai people is remarkable for its beauty and for the vast array of wildlife which shares its home.

While it’s nearly 1.3 million acres ranks 17th in size for all reservations and is larger than the state of Rhode Island, their ancestral homeland was once over 20 million acres. The Hellgate Treaty of 1855 reduced that area to its present size.

The population of the tribes is roughly 7,500 members with about two-thirds living on or near the reservation. Ten councilmen make up the tribal council. Two districts provide two councilmen each and the other six districts have one each. Vernon Finley is the current chairman.

Within reservation borders are two national areas of note. The National Bison Range of 20,000 acres with roughly 500 bison is in the center of the reservation. It’s hoped that management of the range can soon be transferred to the tribes. Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge is a wetland complex and one of Montana’s Wildlife Viewing Sites. These wetlands have also provided the habitat for reintroduction of trumpeter swans which began in 1996 and have progressed since with increasing success. This area has also become a hot spot for observing predatory birds during winter months.

In 1934 they were the first tribe to take advantage of the terms of the Indian Reorganization Act with the promise of genuine authority over lands under their jurisdiction.

Visitors frequently ask about ‘Indian wars’ but the truth is that the tribes never went to war against the United States, despite being invited to join campaigns by other tribes.

ICTMN talked with Rob McDonald for the tribe’s thoughts of items that should be known about the Flathead Reservation and its tribes. The McDonald name has a long and respected history on this reservation and Rob is the tribe’s Communication Director.

Hydroelectric power – The Confederated Tribes of the Flathead Reservation have been dealing with Pennsylvania Power and Light for purchase of Kerr Dam located on the Flathead River. It’s 541 feet long and 54 feet higher than Niagara Falls. “This fall the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes (CSKT) will become the first tribe in the nation to wholly own and operate a hydroelectric facility,” McDonald explained. “That facility is known as Kerr Dam. On September 5 we will get the car keys to the facility and will become producers and marketers of over a million kilowatts of electricity.”

The hydroelectric plant located just below Kerr Dam (Jack McNeel)

Wilderness– “In 1979 we established the Mission Mountain Tribal Wilderness. We’ve added additional acreage to it since.” This is the only true tribal wilderness in the country and supports populations of such animals as grizzly and black bears, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, two species of deer, elk, and many smaller species.

Mission Mountains rise behind a pond on the reservation (Jack McNeel)


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