Exhibit examines treaty, and the people who signed it

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PABLO, Mont. - Few documents have had more impact on American Indians than the treaties they signed with the United States government. An exhibit here looks at accounts of the making of the 1855 Hell Gate Treaty that created the modern Flathead Reservation in Montana - and reproduces fascinating sketches of the Indians that were party to it.

"Salish Faces: Leaders of the 1855 Hell Gate Treaty" will run at least through the summer at the People's Center here. It features written excerpts from the book "In the Name of the Salish & Kootenai Nation," edited by Robert Bigart and Clarence Woodcock, and reproductions of sketches made of tribal leaders in 1854 by the German-born artist Gustavus Sohon, who was traveling with an exploring party.

While the details of the treaty are fascinating and depressing, it is the gallery of portraits that makes this exhibit and book exceptional. The Indians portrayed are powerful and remarkable-looking men, from the braids in their hair to the jaunty hats many of them wore. The Salish second chief, Moise, for instance, was described as wearing "a large red scarf, which he wore after the fashion of the Marshals of France." These men are far better realized in these drawings than in the abysmal interpretations into English taken down at the council (Sohon himself was one of the interpreters).

Accounts in the book (published by the local Salish Kootenai College) indicate that when the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d'Orielle tribes met with Washington territorial governor Isaac Stevens in July 1855, they were interested in talking about protection from the raids of the neighboring Blackfeet tribe. Gov. Stevens, though, had a more ambitious agenda - the quick cession by the tribes of 21,000 square miles of what is now western Montana but was then eastern Washington.

The accounts of the contentious 10-day treaty council were written by white men, but even so they portray the bewilderment and anguish of the Indians, four separate nations (there were two tribes of Pend d'Oreilles, but only the Upper tribe came to the council) being herded onto one tract of land.

Nor could the three chiefs, Victor of the Salish, Alexander of the Upper Pend d'Orielle and Michelle of the Kootenai, agree on where the reservation should be. Victor, according to the book, favored the Bitterroot Valley where he lived, while Alexander and Michelle wanted the present location of the reservation, which was nearer to them.

In the end, Victor, although he signed the treaty, never did remove himself and his people from their ancestral lands, to which the Salish people retain ties to this day.

The book reveals the treaty to have been a swindle, with the tribes receiving false promises and about a tenth of what the land they ceded was worth. A century later, they obtained some redress through legal proceedings, but were cheated again by being repaid in 19th century values.

Valuably, the book reproduces some letters from outraged local federal officials that seem to reveal that the tribes were also swindled out of goods promised them in the treaty and that many of the goods they did receive were spoiled or unsuited to their needs.

The grim but unfortunately all-too-common details of the bad faith behind the treaty, however, are not what a viewer or reader is likely to remember from the exhibit. Rather it is the faces of the Indians, rescued from obscurity, and sketched in the last year before they treated with the United States - faces of leaders like the chiefs Victor and Alexander, Moise, Ambrose, Adolphe, Insula and Bear Track. The editors note that many of these men were born before white contact and some of them met the explorers Lewis and Clark when the two American adventurers passed through their territory.

The museum is also featuring an exhibit called "Among the Flathead in 1950," featuring a series of photographs taken by Barbara W. Merriam. She is now a retired consulting psychologist living in Missoula, Mont., but in 1950 she and her husband, Dr. Alan P. Merriam, were making a study of music on the Flathead.

Her photos are sharply observed, unsentimental renderings of individual Indians, artifacts (a hand drum, white buckskin prepared for stretching, bones and sticks from a stick game, a flute, a spoon), and ancient pow wows.

The museum also has a permanent exhibition on the tribes and a gift shop, where the book on the Hell Gate Treaty is for sale.