Harmon’s Histories: Early Montana newspapers carried few accounts of Native Americans

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

Recently, a reader of this column asked, “How about history from an indigenous perspective instead of a colonial perspective?”

The answer is, at once, simple and complicated.

In retirement, I became fascinated with old newspapers, archived by the Montana Historical Society on microfilm and made available through local libraries.

The premise of this column has always been a glimpse into what life was like in the past, based on those newspaper accounts from the latter 19th century in (mostly) western Montana.

That’s the simple explanation.

It becomes complicated when you acknowledge that not a single historical Montana newspaper was written or published by Native Americans – not one.

The New North-West, Deer Lodge, December 27, 1878

Yes, I’ve related a handful of stories containing a Native viewpoint, like Duncan McDonald’s accounts of the 1877 Nez Perce uprising, carried in serial form in The New North-West newspaper in 1878 and 1879.

McDonald (a son of Angus McDonald, a Hudson Bay Company fur trader) was related to Chief Looking Glass.

Those news accounts have recently been published in book form: “The Nez Perces: The History of Their Troubles and the Campaign of 1877.”

Unfortunately, not until relatively recent years has Montana had its own Native newspapers, like Char-Koosta, “the official news publication of the Flathead Indian Reservation.”

The paper’s name reflects “the last traditional leaders of the Salish and Kootenai people. Chief Charlo was the last traditional chief of the Salish people. Chief Koostatah was the last traditional chief of the Kootenai people.”

Duncan McDonald, National Park Service photo

Of course, back in the day, without Native publications, the Indian point of view was rarely, if ever, heard.

If Montana newspapers did print anything about Indians, it was (as our reader indicated) from a colonial, or manifest destiny, viewpoint – and certainly was not positive.

Here’s an example from an 1878 Missoulian editorial: “It may be a question worthy of consideration by the people of Missoula whether the continued presence of Indians about town is wholly beneficial.”

On one hand, the paper praised Natives for their usefulness in supplying services and goods to the White settlers – things like “washing and scrubbing, sawing wood, carrying water (and) pulling weeds in the summer.”

On the other hand, the Missoulian suggested these services could be “well supplied by from other sources.” It then proceeded to disparage the intoxicated Indians in town and told of some “drunken squaws (who) built a fire (next to) Tom Andrew’s stable,” and nearly burned it down.

Of the thousands of articles I’ve “clipped” over more than a decade, only one – a single news story – in Missoula’s Weekly Gazette on April 30, 1890 stands out by virtue of its (mostly) positive portrayal of a Native ceremony.

The article related to the marriage of “Lulu,” the daughter of Nez Perce Chief Mox Mox. It described the ritual,

Missoula Weekly Gazette, April 30, 1890

the gifts received, and the “sumptuous supper.”

But it also described the ceremony as “short and plain, as were also the bride’s skirts” (emphasis added). Really? Was that necessary?

While Montana had no early day Native newspapers, the country did – most notably the Cherokee Phoenix, published in New Echota, Ga., dating back into the early 1800s.

Perhaps the best attribute of the paper was the fact that the editors printed the content in the Cherokee language, side-by-side with the English translation.

That allowed both Natives and White settlers an opportunity to read and understand what the Cherokee Nation viewed as the news of the day.

Cherokee Phoenix, New Echota, Ga., March 06, 1828

Today, nationally, there are numerous tribal-run newspapers. Check out this list from Native Web.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.