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Lewis and Clark
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image: Flathead Indians
Photograph from Corbis
Flathead Indians

First Noted by Expedition
September 4, 1805

The mountainous homeland of the Flathead was in present-day Montana. In the early 19th century the Indians 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. Unlike their kin in the Columbia River valley, the Flathead did not practice skull alterations. 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 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.

The Flathead now live on a tract of land south of Flathead Lake, Montana, which they share with the Kootenai tribe.

From the Expedition Journals

"these natives have the Stranges language of any we have ever yet seen. ...we think perhaps that they are the welch Indians, &. C."
image: Flathead Indians
Photograph by Seattle Art Museum/Corbis

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