The distribution of Western land mandated by the Homestead Acts resulted in a breakup of the cultural nucleus of Native Americans, and the accustomed lifestyle of many European immigrant homesteaders.The US Government’s theory was that if the land could be broken into small parcels every separate family would be more productive, and enjoy the benefits of ownership.
In fact for the immigrant homesteaders this produced a breakup of the type of community centered way of living they had followed for generations in Europe, which was to live in small towns and work the surrounding fields of the towns together.
Native Americans, the People, were wide-ranging hunters who also lived in large communities, but were forced to accept 640 acre plots for farming, to which they were unaccustomed.
The Salish were “reserved” a large part of the Bitterroot Valley, only to be later moved out of this land and replaced by homesteaders. They were then were moved to the Flathead Valley north of Missoula, where tribal members received 80 acre allotments, and forfeited the huge “reserved” federal lands in the Bitterroot Valley, which had been their ancestral home for centuries. The new “reserved” Flathead Valley land also was eventually privatized by homesteaders, some of whom coveted even the small plots of land the tribal members had individually acquired. Towns and merchant stores were built, and some of the Salish were encouraged to buy on credit. If they could not pay up they had to trade.They signed over their land allotments.
Where are the Native American tribes now? Today the Salish & Kootenai tribe’s reservation covers a large part of the lower Flathead Valley, but much of this land has become private agricultural property and homes. Only 23% of the population of Lake County, Montana is Native American.
The history of the West is tumultuous. It is difficult to comprehend the changes that took place in those years from 1862 to 1930. I was raised at the head of the Bitterroot Valley, part of that ancestral home of the Flathead Nation. Nearby my house, on the outskirts of Missoula, is a place where The People pitched their tepees. I was told that they had came down to the Valley from the surrounding mountains to spend the winter, and to dig for bitterroot. Those days are gone forever.
Have outside events radically changed your life? How does that compare to the radical changes in the West? I would love to hear your comments.