"Where did the Salish first come from? We know only the story our old men told our men down from the beginning: the first Salish were driven down from the country of big ice mountains, where there were strange animals. Fierce people who were not Salish drove them south. So in our stories our people have said, 'The river of life, for us, heads in the north.'
After many generations, the Salish held the grounds from way west, eastward, and past the red-paint caves near Helena." -Flathead/Salish elders interviewed by Bon Whealdon in 1923, quoted by Ella Clark in her book "Indian Legends from the Northern Rockies" (University of Oklahoma Press, 1966, p. 107).
I read this passage in my teens, in the 1970s, when I read all the mythology and Indian history I could. I always wondered, where are these red paint caves? Years later I learned of various red paint (iron oxides, etc.) deposits in the area, along the banks of the Missouri near Townsend, and further away, along some of the road cuts between Helena and Missoula, yet I never heard of any "red-paint caves near Helena," and no one I talked to had either.
When I worked for the Helena National Forest as an archaeologist in the early to mid-1990s, I found a cave in one of the gulches of the Big Belt mountains. Most cave entrances in the Belts are above eye level, but this one was down below the road and looked to be a long crack under the cliffs inclining downward, with lots of loose eroded material sloping down into the cave. I went down, as it was walkable, more like a very large rockshelter really. I always hoped to locate human activity in such places, as that was my job, to document these places.
Once I slid my way down onto the cave floor, I noticed there was a screen set up there, as if someone had been doing archaeology, through there was no record of any such efforts, at least not since the Canyon Ferry surveys of the 1950s by Richard Forbis and Carling Malouf. It was dim of course, but the floor was stable, the room was long and of decent size if my memory serves me correctly, though the ceiling was low. I could see the cave continued back and downward into blackness. Not being a spelunker and aware of cave hazards, I backed off and made my notes, and told myself I would return with some folks and investigate further. Work however had other priorities, and I never returned.
This week I was reading James A. Teit's "The Flathead Group," an extract from "The Salishan Tribes of the Western Plateaus" (45th B.A.E. Annual Report, 1927-28)...On page 340:
"A famous spot for obtaining red paint in the Flathead country was at a'pel yu'tsamen ('possessing red paint'), near Helena. The paint was obtained from a large, long cave under a cliff. As the paint rock was at the head of the cave, and it was quite dark inside, a rope was tied to the waist of the man who went in, so that he might readily find his way back. When the head of the cave was reached the searcher felt with his hands and pulled down blocks of the decomposed rock, returning with as much as he could carry. When he came out he divided the paint among the people, who put it into hide sacks. Long ago the best quality of paint rock from this place was exported by the Helena people to neighboring tribes. After the introduction of horses, parties of Flathead and their allies [their later historical allies included the various Salishan groups, Nez Perce, and sometimes the Shoshoni] gathered paint at this place when passing or hunting near there. It is said that several men lost their lives or were injured in this cave by rocks falling on them. There was also a belief that this cave could open and shut at will, and that several men had been killed by it." (p. 340).
Was this cave I entered the red-paint cave of the Flathead/Salish tradition? Perhaps. The description of the cave is right. The gulches in this area are full of pictographs painted in red on the cliffs. Most of these seem to be related to the vision quest vigil, where the seeker fasted in a lonely place in hope that a spirit-power (Salish: "sumesh") would take pity and grant medicine (spiritual power/ability) to the seeker. Perhaps not. But the caves still await discovery.
I located several interesting places and had a few odd experiences during my job as an archaeologist in the Helena National Forest and over the next few posts, I will relate some of them here. I shall not pinpoint the locations exactly, because people tend to vandalize what they don't understand.