The Salish-speaking aboriginal Kalispel Indians, numbering about 3,000 souls, occupied a narrow region that extended 200 miles west from Montana's Flathead lake, through Idaho and into Washington State. The bountiful plateau territory, which included mountains carpeted with forests, and the river, furnished the tribe with plentiful fish, other wildlife and plants for their subsistence. They were fishers, hunters and diggers. Other tribes called the Kalispel "lake and river paddlers," or "camas people" (camas being "Indian bread," a starchy root).
They resided principally in lodges and moved from one location to another where they could most readily gain access to sustenance. They dug couse (kowsh) root, bitter root and wild onion in the springtime. They dried the couse and bitter root; they mixed the wild onion with black moss and baked it under hot stones. In mid-May the Kalispel sought camas roots in meadows, which they dug up, baked and dried in the sun. They also gathered and dried berries and cherries, which they stored for the winter. Around July the Kalispel harvested an annual supply of salmon that they preserved by drying. Following the harvest, they took to the mountains to hunt.
The first contact with non-Indians was likely with explorers and fur traders. The Kalispel were called the Coospellar by Lewis and Clark in 1805, and later they came into contact with Hudson's Bay Company traders. Beginning in 1844, Roman Catholic priests arrived to establish missions and work with the Kalispels. In the face of burgeoning white settlement in the region during the mid 1800s, the tribe strove to protect their way of life.
At the behest of the federal government in 1855, the Upper Kalispels ceded their ancestral lands and relocated onto the Jocko Reservation in Montana. The Lower Kalispels, however, declined to relinquish any land, preferring to press for an accord that would entitle the tribe to remain on their home territory.
During the late 1800s, while the majority of other tribes were being relegated to new reservations, the Kalispels had virtually no contacts with the federal government. In 1872, the Congress did draw up a treaty, but the tribe declined to sign it because of its unsatisfactory conditions. By 1874, the Kalispels were left without legal protection after Congress had ceased to draw up treaties with tribes.
By 1875, the tribal population had diminished to fewer than 400 persons. Increasing numbers of land-hungry white settlers showed up from the 1880s to the first decade of the 20th century. Many of them filed claims under homestead laws that gave them supposedly legal entitlement to land that was previously home to many of the tribe. The Kalispel were eyewitnesses to the confiscation of their land, but were powerless to stop it. An additional contribution to the breakdown of tribal integrity during the period was the incipient spread of alcohol supplied by non-native sources.
A reservation for the Kalispel (without a treaty) was ultimately established by an executive order of President Woodrow Wilson in 1914. They were relegated to a relatively puny 4,600-acre parcel of mountainside and flood plain along the Pend Oreille River, which failed to sustain the tribe. In 1924, to promote farming, the federal government divided the reservation into 40-acre parcels that were alloted to tribal members. However, the hillside and floodplain land proved stubbornly resistant to cultivation.
Well past the middle of the 20th century, impoverishing conditions, aggravated by white prejudice, prevailed on the reservation. They included an average annual income of $1,400 due to lack of jobs and other gainful opportunities, and substandard housing with few amenities. Nevertheless, the tribe sought innovative ways to create opportunities for its members.