Finally, Close to Painted Rocks

Every time I go to the lake I am aware that I am passing through land that belongs to The Flathead Nation, the Salish, Kootenai and Pend Oreille peoples. This is not my land; it is theirs. Their roots in this landscape reach into the ground of at least 7,000 years of history and their stories reach back to a time before that. As I travel to the lake and pass over its waters, I wish I had a way of making a deeper connection with the people of this place. In an effort to make contact with the history of these people I have tried many times to approach Painted Rocks, a pictograph site on the west shore of the lake. Whether I am paddling north or south I often find that the waves in this area of the lake seem to be focused on the cliff where these red markings can be found. In these conditions waves bounce off the cliff at odd angles and create a complicated, chaotic sea. Or, even if the waves are calm, wakes from passing boats make this a somewhat hazardous place for a kayaker to slip the paddle under a deck line to pause and wonder.

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One Monday evening, however, when a friend and I had made arrangements to camp on Cedar Island, just south of the cliffs, the lake was so calm that we could safely approach the cliffs and their enigmatic markings. We were able to touch the wet dark rock under the limestone cliffs overhead and look as long as we pleased.

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To untrained eyes it appears as if the cliff bears depictions of bison, perhaps bison headdresses, and tick marks, possibly indicating kills or visits to this site. A book by Sally Thompson, the Kootenai Culture Committee and the Pikunni Traditional Association, People Before the Park, makes very clear that bison were “real food” to the Kootenai. Despite the risks, they made seasonal treks over the mountains into bison country east of the Divide to obtain the kind of protein that would sustain them through long winters west of the mountains. No wonder bison appear on these walls.

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Thanks again to Sally Thompson, an anthropologist and ethnographer, I was directed to Legends from the Northern Rockies by Ella Clark. The book contains stories related to this area and a Kootenai story about Painted Rocks in particular. For anyone curious about this area and the deep memories of its original inhabitants, this story may be meaningful. Amazingly, it recognizes a time before and after the geological cataclysm of what we call Glacial Lake Missoula. I especially enjoy the humor in the characterization of Rabbit. In Clark’s words:

This myth about them (Painted Rocks) was recorded from William Gingrass. His Kutenai name, given him by his great-grand-mother, means “Grizzly Bear War Paint.”

 After the great flood long ago, no human beings were left in this country. But the spirits were left. Some of them were in the form of animals. They gathered together on a bench of land above where Flathead Lake is now. At that time there was no lake—just a big river coming down from the north. It wound around and flowed down through where the Hot Springs are now. All that country was under water; you can see the water marks yet on the east side of the Lone Pine country. A little stream flowed at the south end of the present lake. A long time after this story, Yawonick, something that lives down below the water, came up from the bottom of the river and changed its course. Then the lake was formed.

When the great flood went down, the spirits held a council there on the shelf above the old river. They had heard that new people were coming, and they knew they should decide what to do when the Indians arrived. While they talked, one spirit kept watch.

“The people will come in canoes from the north,” said the chief of the spirits. “We must have everything decided when they come, as to how we can help them. Each of you will have to have a special song that will help people. You will sing it and then put your picture or your name on these big rocks.”

“But why should we put them up here?” asked on spirit. “They will be so high that they will be hard to get to or even to see.”

“That is what we want,” replied Nupeeka, the chief of the spirits. Nupeeka means “spirit”; in the old days he was a kind of teacher also. “We want the people to go to the high places when they seek spirit power. Seeking power will be too easy if they can find it in the low places. They will have to climb to get to the spirit pictures and the writing in the high places.”

So the spirits sang their songs and painted their names in pictures on the rocks. The first Dawn of the Morning sang the first song and put his sign highest up on the rock; that spirit gave the strongest power. The spirits of Grizzly Bear and Cougar and Eagle—they sang their songs and painted their pictures. Each of them gives strong power. All the other spirits sang their songs and put their writing on the rocks—all except Rabbit. He just hopped around.

At last the lookout called, “We must end our meeting. I see the new people coming around the bend.”

“But I haven’t made up my song yet!” exclaimed Rabbit. “I haven’t a song yet and I haven’t painted my picture.”

“It’s too late now,” the other spirits told him. “The people are landing below the Painted Rock.”

So Rabbit was left out entirely. He has no power song. He gives no power to people seeking spirit power. He can do nothing but hop around.

The new people landed below the Painted Rocks, near where Rollins is now, in the Big Lodge country. It is called the Big Lodge country because of a vision two men had many years ago. Each of them saw in a vision where he should put up a lodge for a Sun Dance, for a sacrifice to the spirits. When they followed their dream, they came to the same place; each had seen the same spot in his vision. So they put one big lodge there for the two groups of people.

The harder a person had to work to get to the place for the power quest, the higher the spirit power he obtained. The spirit who appeared to a person in a vision recorded on the rocks how many days and nights he had been there and what power had been given him (149-151).

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Like first peoples, I, too, have had to work to get close to Painted Rocks, to the deep history the site depicts and to the long, almost geological memory of the people or spirits who left their marks here, recording and celebrating a time even before the lake.

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