Uncover Missoula Fails to Recognize the True History of Missoula

According to an article in “Uncover Missoula, “a publication of the Missoulian newspaper the city’s history began in 1860 with a settlement known as Hell Gate. The standard article included in the past two editions failed to recognize important events relating to American Indians and their deep historical connection to Missoula.

According to the Flathead Watershed Sourcebook Archaeologists have found sites in the South Fork of the Flathead River that indicate people have been living in Western Montana as far back as the end of the last ice age (10,000 years ago). Ancient stories of the Salish and Kootenai people tell of living in this area 40,000 years ago. To say that Missoula’s history begins in 1860 is misleading. That’s like saying gravity began when the apple fell on Isaac Newton’s head. Newton was simply pointing out that gravity exists, in the same way that C.P. Higgins and Francis Worden pointed out to settlers that Missoula was a great place to live. Indeed, it had been a great place to live for many tribal nations for thousands of years. However, Native people were forcibly removed from this region and relocated to reservation lands throughout the state of Montana.

American Indian tribal communities clearly have had significant and sustained relationships with the area of Montana currently known as Missoula. Historical portrayals to the contrary are not only inaccurate, but they are disrespectful, ethnocentric and potentially hurtful to tribal communities – including the Salish tribe, whose language provided the original word that has been altered into “Missoula.”

According to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes website Salish-speaking tribes (the Séliš and the Qĺispé) and a Kootenai-speaking band (the Ksanka – Ktunaxa) occupied a huge territory covering Western Montana, parts of Idaho, British Columbia and Wyoming, It was in Missoula where they dug bitterroot (sp̉éłm) and fished for bull trout (aáyčst) in the icy cold water of the Clark Fork River (nmisuletkʷ)[1]. Indeed, the Salish place name for the Missoula area is nłˀaycčstm, which translates literally to “Place of the small bull trout.”

The picture painted in the “Uncover Missoula” article portrays early pioneers in Hell Gate, Fort Owen, and St. Ignatius as the few humans strong enough to live in a harsh and “unknown” land. American Indians had been living in these places long before outsiders came to live in this region.

After the area began to see more White settlement, especially from missionaries and homesteaders, local tribes faced increasing pressure to change their means of subsistence, their religion and to give up their traditional homelands. Agricultural and industrial development in the 1880s put heavier demand on resources like water and land that had once been plentiful.

When Chief Charlo’s band of the Bitterroot Salish were forced to march to the Flathead Reservation in 1891, the region’s tribes began to see a whole new level of cultural erosion. Indian children were taken by force from their families and placed in boarding schools (for example, the Ursuline Academy in St. Ignatius) where they were forbidden to speak their Native languages or participate in their traditional tribal spiritual practices.

History is, for the most part, written by the conquerors, and the history of American Indians is often whittled down to the simplified version of settler versus Indian as taught in elementary schools. The chopping of Native history from basic education demotes an entire people’s history to second-class status. When we treat a people’s history as second class — or even worse, deny it all together — we continue to marginalize tribal people and systematically treat them in unequal and possibly discriminating ways. If the news media desires to educate their readership on Missoula’s history accurately, American Indians must be acknowledged, and their history valued. We hope future issues of “Uncover Missoula” will portray an inclusive history of not only the White settling of Missoula, but also of local tribes and their history in the Missoula area.

This commentary is a product of the racial justice initiative of the YWCA Missoula. Our goal is to promote racial justice in Montana through timely, informed, news-based education. For more information about the racial justice initiative, visit This is Juliana Rose, the Racial Justice Intern with the YWCA. Thank you for listening.

By Juliana Rose, YWCA Missoula Racial Justice Intern

This commentary aired on Montana Public Radio on Friday, Oct. 11
(Click here to access the archived podcast of this newscast. Juliana’s commentary begins at 22:59)

Links Referenced:

“New evidence puts man in North America 50,000 years ago”

Louis Adams and Tony Incashola (two Salish elders) interviews

“Montana Indians, Their History and Location”

[1] Also thought to be the origin of the name Missoula. Root is suuˀ – subsided water. (Pete, T. , 2010, seliš nyoˀnuntn: Medicine for the Salish language. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press.)

[AO1] Find correct pronunciation or read for radio as, “Indeed the Salish place name for the Missoula area translates to ‘Place of the small bull trout.’”