1846 Paul Kane (1810–1871) Flathead Woman and Child
The mountainous homeland of the Fathead's original territory extended from the crest of the Bitterroot Range to the Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains and centered on the upper reaches of the Clark Fork of the Columbia River. In the early 19C they lived in the Bitterroot River valley, although later by treaty they moved to northern Montana.
As with other tribes, such as the Gros Ventre, the name Flathead is a misnomer. It is reported that unlike their kin in the Columbia River valley, the Flathead did not practice skull alterations, although, the painting above seems to represent the opposite. It is possible that their name came from the sign language for their tribal name, Ootlashoots—pressing the hands on both sides of one's head, as if flattening it.
The Flathead were the easternmost of the Plateau Indians. Like other tribes that regularly traversed the Rocky Mountains, they shared many traits with nomadic Plains Indians. The Flathead acquired horses in great numbers and mounted annual fall expeditions to hunt bison on the Plains, often warring with tribes that were permanent residents of the area. Traditional Flathead culture also emphasized Plains-type warfare and its honours, including staging war dances, killing enemies, counting coups (touching enemies to shame or insult them), kidnapping women and children, and stealing horses.
Before colonization, the Flathead usually lived in tepees; the A-framed mat-covered lodge, a typical Plateau structure, was also used. Western Flathead groups used bark canoes, while eastern groups preferred the round bison-skin vessels known as bullboats that were typical of the Plains. Fishing was important among the Flathead, as it was among other Plateau tribes.
Traditional Flathead religion centred on guardian spirits, with whom individuals communicated in visions; a spirit could bring good fortune and health to the person it guarded or disease and misfortune to others. Shamanism was also important to traditional religious and healing practices.
The Flathead had close ties to the Lemhi Shoshone, and even spent part of the year with them. Their traditional enemies were the Blackfeet, who prevented the Flathead from expanding their territory eastward. These two tribes were in ongoing struggles when Lewis and Clark first arrived in the region.
The Lemhi Shoshone had told the expedition they might encounter the Flathead as they passed through the Bitterroots. But it was quite by accident that the meeting happened. A Flathead chief, Three Eagles, saw the expedition first and returned to his group to warn them of the approach. When the Corps finally came upon the 33 lodges, they found themselves warmly greeted by the Indians.
Lewis and Clark noted that the Flathead resembled the Lemhi Shoshone in clothing, hairstyle, and actions, but differed greatly in language. At one point John Ordway, one of the expedition members, wondered if the language difference indicated that the Corps had located the mythical lost Welsh Indians. The myth said that long-lost Welsh Prince Madoc discovered America before Columbus. From the Lewis & Clark Expedition Journals, John Ordway wrote, September 4, 1805, "these natives have the Stranges language of any we have ever yet seen. ...we think perhaps that they are the welch Indians, &. C."
The Flathead now live on a tract of land south of Flathead Lake, Montana, which they share with the Kootenai tribe.