On September 4th 1805, a large band of Salish people was encamped at one of the traditional places in the upper Bitterroot Valley—a place called Kwtí x̴ P̓upƛ̓ mễ , meaning Coming Out into a Big Open Place. Non-Indians know this place as Ross Hole, the large upland prairie on the East Fork of the Bitterroot River, in what is now western Montana. On that day two hundred years ago, our people were gathered there as countless generations of ancestors had before them. Dozens of lodges, some 400 people, and more than that number of horses, were enjoying the warm, sunny days and cold nights in that high open valley at the western base of the Pintlar Range. Since it was September, they would be harvesting x̴ x̣ w x̴ó—chokecherries—which grew in great profusion in the area. The women would pound the cherries with stone hammers, form the mush in patties, and then dry them and store them for use as food through the long winter. The people would also be gathering stečcxw—red osier dogwood berries—and pasturing their fine horses on the abundant grass of Kwtí x̴ P̓upƛ̓ mễ , before moving on toward the plains for the fall buffalo hunt.
While the Salish were camped at Kwtí x̴ P̓upƛ̓ mễ , the scouts spotted a group of strange men approaching. Our people later learned that these strangers were the members of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
In most non-Indian accounts, the expedition's arrival marks the beginning of the history of Montana. But as we will see in the pages that follow, Lewis and Clark were much less discoverers than visitors, venturing into the territory of a sovereign native nation—a tribal world that was older, richer, and more complex than they could have possibly imagined.