Reflections on Water 

Water Rites

As the Flathead Reservation prepares for a new era, its history, politics and future converge on a single element

In the beginning, according to Salish and Kootenai stories of creation, Coyote made the Earth safe for humans, and the Sun and Moon transformed all beings who chose to live on the planet into physical forms, granting each one a domain with a corresponding role. The Creator provided the People with plants, fish and game, and gave every object its own spiritual identity. Animals and people spoke the same language and were equals who required mutual respect and care.

Life in what is now known as Western Montana was lived according to the seasons. The people harvested Bitterroot plants in the spring, traversed the Rockies to hunt buffalo on the plains in early summer, returned mid-summer to collect huckleberries and camas, hunted elk in the fall, and finally settled in for the long winter when elders entertained the youth with stories passed down through generations.

This was the typical existence for the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d'Oreille people-separate but neighboring bands of tribes who now reside together on the Flathead Reservation-until the Hellgate Treaty was signed in 1855. Since then, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have been fighting to maintain their cultural identity and increase their political sovereignty.

Chad Harder
The Joint Board of Control which represents the irrigators on the Flathead Reservation, has brought a succession of court cases in an attempt to usurp tribal power.


Now, as the century and millennium draw to a close, the tribes are increasingly asserting their rights in a more contemporary forum-the courtroom-in order to turn the language of the Hellgate Treaty from a tool of confinement into a means of self-determination. Over the next few years, many crucial issues will be decided, but one in particular-the ongoing battle to protect water resources-promises to be at the forefront.

Further signaling the end of an era was last week's sudden passage of Tribal Chairman Michael "Mickey" Pablo, who died suddenly at age 51 of an apparent heart blockage, a complication from recent knee surgery. Pablo was a widely respected leader who served as a tribal council member since 1983, spending almost a decade on and off as chairman. An undaunted proponent of tribal sovereignty, Pablo helped the CSKT achieve vast strides in self-governance. He leaves behind sizable shoes to fill, and it remains to be seen who will accept that challenge during this fall's tribal election season.

But what is certain is that all of the political struggle that we see today is inseparable from what has happened in the past, specifically early this century, when the Allotment Act ushered in a throng of homesteaders who forever changed the face of the Flathead Reservation.

Since that time, about two-thirds of the land on the reservation has been owned by non-Indians. Today, tensions persist between tribal members and non-tribal members, the result, says assistant director of the Flathead Culture Committee Tony Incashola, of the fear that comes from lack of understanding. The tribes see the land and water as sacred and in need of stringent protection; the descendants of homesteaders see their ranches as a generations-long way of making a living which requires water that they should have the right to control.

Litigation has gone in the tribes' favor more often than not, a factor that both sides are very aware of. And those in the tribal government say if they come to the courts armed with data and precedent, they will continue to win. If the tribes negotiate successfully with the state to gain authority over the millions of gallons of water flowing in rivers, lakes and streams on reservation land, life in the shadow of the dominating Mission Mountain peaks will inevitably change for everybody.

The Flow of History

Tony Incashola was born and raised on the Flathead Reservation. He has only lived away from home for two years, when he fought in Vietnam. At 52 years old, he has contemplative eyes and a full head of silvery hair. He has been a part of the Flathead Culture Committee for 24 years, almost since its inception. He considers his words before he speaks them in a soft voice.

"When I was growing up," he says, "I was taught by my grandparents to respect all living things, because of our dependence on each other. That's the biggest challenge, to maintain those values and give them back to the children. Without those values, you're lost in society, you're in a pot with everyone else. That was the intent of the government, to make everyone the same, and that has brought Indian nations throughout the county to their knees."

In the days when the entire Western Hemisphere was an Indian nation, the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d'Oreille people inhabited 22 million acres of what is now Western Montana, Idaho and Eastern Washington. Unless it was winter, they didn't camp for more than a few weeks at a time, moving in a pattern that was determined by which plants were being harvested and which animals were being hunted. Every facet of life was conducted with great care, so as not to upset the balance and harmony of the natural world.

The ancestral home of some of the Salish people in the 1800s was the Bitterroot Valley, which is where Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery encountered them in 1805. The arrival of the American explorers was a harbinger of rapid change. The Bitterroot Valley was next visited by fur traders and then the "black robes," Jesuit missionaries intent on converting the tribes to Catholicism.

In 1853, Isaac Stevens, the newly elected governor of Washington Territory (of which modern day Montana was a part) passed through the Bitterroot Valley and determined the Indians to be amenable to signing a treaty.

In meetings two years later at Council Grove, an interpreter misquoted Chief Victor as saying he was of two places, the Bitterroot Valley to the south and the Jocko Valley to the north, and willing to live in one of the two areas, although, in fact, each of the tribes represented at the meeting expected to keep its own land.

After eight days, the Hellgate Treaty was signed and Victor was appointed chief of the confederated nation of Salish, Kootenai and Pend d'Oreille. One of the treaty's articles assigned land near St. Ignatius Mission to the Kootenai and Pend d'Oreille, and stipulated that the Salish shouldn't have to move until the government surveyed the two proposed reservations.

The tribes attempted to live life as they always had, moving with the seasons, but the pressures of white settlement made it difficult. They distrusted the immigrants, who wanted land in the fertile Bitterroot. In 1871, President Grant finally ordered the removal of Chief Charlo's band from the Bitterroot to the Jocko Valley. Charlo refused and held out for the next 20 years, until his people's hunger led him to finally move north.

Chad Harder
Tony Incashola, a member of the Flathead Culture Committee, says, "We need each other's help to maintain the gift given to us by our ancestors."


These events, says Incashola, were the first steps towards tribal dependence on the federal government and the undoing of tribal sovereignty.

"Our rights have been diminishing," Incashola explains. "To control is to destroy, and that's what the government tried to do. We had a different value system, and therefore we were an obstacle to what was of value to them, which was to own and control resources. To defeat us, they took away our resources. That's what happened, they took away the buffalo and put us on a reservation."

The Flathead Reservation encompasses about 1.2 million acres, including the southern half of Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater body of water west of the Mississippi. The Mission Mountains loom in silent force, their jutting crags standing sharply against the sky. The valley floor is a checkerboard of farms and ranches, with most of the land devoted to grazing.

Besides the lake, water is seemingly everywhere. Driving north on Highway 93 from Missoula, one encounters the Jocko River in Arlee and the Ninepipe Wildlife Refuge further up the road. Around the bend just north of Ravalli, waterfalls can be seen tumbling down the mountainside during the hottest months of summer. The rest of the year they are capped with snow. On the reservation's interior, the Flathead River flows out of Flathead Lake and meets the Clark Fork near Dixon.

"Water is life," Incashola says. "It's vital to human survival, and the purer it is, the stronger its effect on us."

Irrigators and Indians

Societies have always been built around water sources, and the Flathead Reservation is no different. Clayton Matt, CSKT's water administration program manager, says that from a tribal perspective, water and other resources are to be protected in such a way that in seven generations the quality will remain the same.

"I was told by my father, who was told by his father, 'This place is for you.' The philosophy has always been protection for future generations," Matt asserts. "To perpetuate as a people, you don't just exploit a resource until it's gone. We figure out ways of taking what we need so the resources are there for us in the future, because it may be all that we have."

Matt is respected in the community for a lot of reasons, not the least of them being the Master's Degree he holds from the University of Arizona. He's very serious about the job he does for the tribes, and is equally savvy about the laws of water.

"If we take care of the water, the water will take care of us. That's one thing that was true in the past and is true today. It says a lot about who we are, why we are still here and why we'll still be here in the next millennium."

Matt says water issues on the reservation are the same elsewhere in the West-who has access to it, how much they get and how much it costs. CSKT is preparing to enter negotiations with the Montana Reserved Water Rights Commission, a nine-member division of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation established in 1979 to help adjudicate water across the state.

Both the state and the CSKT hope to avoid litigation, but neither is expecting the talks to be brief. Matt estimates it will be a "multi-year" process. Of particular concern is the management of the Flathead Irrigation Project, currently handled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Carrying water from diverted streams to reservoirs and canals, the irrigation project serves 127,000 acres in three districts. Fights have been brewing for a number of years, as the Joint Board of Control, which represents the water users, has brought a succession of court cases in an attempt to usurp tribal power. About 85 percent of the water users are non-Indian. Matt says the irrigators have yet to win a suit.

The strife between Indian and non-Indian residents of the Flathead Reservation can be traced to the Hellgate Treaty, which first reduced the tribal land base to one-twentieth of what was previously utilized and forced tribal members to reorient the way they lived virtually every aspect of life.

"If you look at the treaty, it begins to lay foundation for the current structure," Matt says. "The government saw the land here in terms of ownership the moment that document was created."

He points to a survey map on the wall of his office. Tribally owned federal trust land is in dark green. Fee patent land, or privately owned land, is in light yellow. The map has concentrations of green around the perimeter of the reservation's border and near the Elmo and Big Arm areas that line the southwest corner Flathead Lake. Most of the valley, the most desirable agricultural land, is yellow.

"If we could go back in time with our fancy GIS equipment and make a map, what color do you think you would you see? In 1855, all land on the reservation was tribal land."

Communal land ownership was abolished with the 1904 Allotment Act. Responding to the demands of settlers, Congress signed a bill requiring tribal members living on reservations to sign up for individual tracts of land. The concept was foreign to the tribes, who had been living collectively for thousands of years.

Chad Harder
Since communal land ownership was abolished 95 years ago, most of the Flathead's most fertile land has become privately owned.


"Before the Allotment Act, federal policy set aside trust land for Indians to have and use," Matt says. "Allotments began the process of having to say, 'This is mine.' That was just a few years ago in real time."

After the reservation was "cut into checkers," the remaining land was declared surplus and thrown open to white settlement under the 1910 Homestead Act. The popular view among whites at the time was that the tribes couldn't possibly need so much land, and that by not farming it, the potential pastures and crop fields were simply being wasted. But, to a people who relied on the land's wild bounty for survival, plowing it up to make a field would be akin to drilling a well next to a runoff-fed freshwater spring.

Matt says irrigation came hand in hand with allotments and homesteading. Historically, irrigation was ostensibly implemented to assist the native people in becoming farmers. But it wasn't uncommon for a person to pay a debt as small as $80 to the mercantile by giving up their alloted tracts. Over time, much of the land converted to non-Indian owners.

After constructing the irrigation project, the government wanted reimbursement for the cost of creating the water diversions, so they began charging irrigators a fee to pay the debt. Alloted land was further surrendered to pay off irrigation debts. Matt says that although the debt is still not paid off, over 50 years later, irrigators continue to complain that the fees are too high.

Adding to the frustration of the tribes, the irrigators are subsidized by Kerr Dam, a massive structure built on the Flathead River in a place that used to be a large, revered cascade called the "Place of Falling Waters." Named for Frank Kerr, the former president of the Montana Power Company, the dam was built in the early 1930s and is MPC's largest hydroelectric project. The dam supplies power to over 25,000 homes, and anybody who pays a light bill in the area is paying a percentage of the debt of the irrigation project's construction.

In the 1980s, CSKT challenged MPC to operate the dam. The tribes won and will be co-licensees with MPC until 2015. Then they'll assume full control of the dam and the profits it generates. MPC spokesman Cort Freeman declined to estimate just how high that figure is, except to say that Kerr produces 1.1 billion kilowatt hours of power each year.

Still, many tribal members are concerned that the money could be more of a curse than a blessing: If the revenues are spent on things like education and housing, they say, only then will the dam become a symbol of regeneration rather than a continuing emblem how non-Indian life was imposed on tribal members.

Despite the breaks that the water users seem to be getting, they insist they can do a better job managing the irrigation project than the Bureau of Indian Affairs, though Matt disagrees. Rather, he sees their claims as an ongoing attempt to wrest control away from tribes and the federal government.

However, Matt says, that's an unlikely result. Most of the dams and diversions are on tribal land, which means the tribes will have a say in what happens with the irrigation project. Also tied to irrigation is the integrity of the water itself. The tribes have already won a major victory in court concerning in-stream flows. In 1986, a judge decided in favor of maintaining a certain level of water in streams to protect fish, effectively limiting how much water can be drawn out for irrigation purposes.

Matt says regardless of who manages the irrigation project, steps must be taken soon to rehabilitate it, since it has been deteriorating in recent years. He feels part of the reason for the dam's decline is that the BIA has its hands full with administrative duties and appeasing non-Indian users' demand for low rates.

"At this point, the users say turn it over to them and that's it. They don't suggest any new or improved operations. ... Water delivery needs to be more efficient, we need to account for and measure water being used, we need to implement drought and flood plans, and decide who has priority."

Matt wants to see the BIA continue to manage the project, but says if necessary, the tribes have the option of contracting to operate it, as they have already done with Mission Valley Power. With the irrigation project and other water issues, he says the tribes are prepared to pursue litigation based on specific language in the Hellgate Treaty, a strategy they've used to their success in the past.

"We view these issues as trust resource issues," Matt says, adding that in the 1950s, the federal government admitted they violated the Hellgate Treaty by opening the reservation up to homesteading. "They represent continuing efforts by the tribal government to strengthen sovereignty. There are elements of change that will continue to go on."

Turning the Water Wheel

Tony Incashola is pleased that the tribes have begun to form cooperative relationships with the federal government when it comes to managing natural resources. He sees life like a May Pole, with the different ropes hanging from the pole representing the many different people and ethnic groups who inhabit this planet and the roles they play in each other's lives.

As we all turn the wheel, Incashola believes, we all hold a piece of rope, and that if we're intent on destroying each other and letting go of the rope we carry, the pole will eventually become unbalanced and topple over. This view of interdependency can be used to illustrate the tribes' need to protect water and all that it encompasses, for what is seen as the good of the entire planet, even those who don't realize water's value quite the same way. The May Pole metaphor also explains why the tribes desire collaboration with non-Indian reservation residents, but not to the point of sacrificing anything more than they already have in the past.

"We need each other's help to maintain the gift given to us by our ancestors," he adds.

Incashola also worries that people have become too accustomed to modern life to keep up with traditional values. He's concerned that his people have become too reliant on others to teach their children, leaving the job to those who don't understand the tribes' cultural heritage. And possessing that missing knowledge, and the sense of identity that comes with it, is really the beginning of true sovereignty, both as individuals and as a nation.

"We need to look beyond, and water is certainly a part of that circle," he emphasizes. "If we knew our responsibilities here on Earth and shared our responsibilities, there would be no need for water rights. We'd make sure the water continues to flow, and use only what's needed. In reality, water doesn't belong to anyone.

"Our life spans are very, very short. There's no time to develop ownership, but to maintain resources and care for the next seven generations. That should be the goal-not what I can acquire, but what I can leave."

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