By MAGGIE PLUMMER
It presides over the “big arm” of Flathead Lake, a looming sentinel above the town of Elmo. Chief Cliff is a sacred monument to the Kootenai people who live near its base. The imposing, 150-foot cliff is a key player in Kootenai creation stories.
In fact, hundreds of stories float around the impressive cliff formation like hawks riding hot air currents. The legends are passed down through Kootenai families. Elmo’s drumming and singing group is named after the cliff, and so is the town’s volunteer fire department. The most common Chief Cliff tale is this: the soaring rock is a princess who waits for her love, who went off to battle and never came back; persistently, patiently, she stands looking for him, waiting and waiting. People say that about a third of the way down the big cliff, they can see an Indian maiden reaching out her hand in sorrow.
My favorite view of Chief Cliff is from the Walstad fishing access site near Big Arm. It’s a great place to swim and wade and sit and stare. Across the water sits the cliff, reflected in the lake’s clear waters.
Geologists say that the dramatic landmark is what’s left of an ancient riverbed that ran along the edge of a glacier. The stream rippled down right where the ice met the mountain, carving out a channel. The river disappeared with the melting ice, approximately 10,000 years ago.
There are some who worry that the cliff itself will disappear one of these days. Chief Cliff is currently listed on preservemontana.org as one of Montana’s most endangered places. Although the top of the cliff is tribal land, the property below it is privately owned and being used as a rock quarry. The rock mining has involved blasting with dynamite and taking out thousands of tons of building stone. Tribal members are troubled by how rapidly the quarry below the cliff has been expanding. They see it as a mutilation of land that is sacred to their history. The people in Elmo say they can feel the earth shake when the miners blast the rock. They wonder: will the blasting bring their sacred cliff tumbling down one of these days?
The Save Chief Cliff organization has been pushing to stop mining near Chief Cliff. They hope to preserve the sacred cliff by somehow preserving or acquiring the land, and by increasing people’s awareness of the tall cliff’s importance to the Kootenai.
Here is the full Legend of Chief Cliff, adapted from Indian Legends from the Northern Rockies by Ella E. Clark (1966, University of Oklahoma Press):
“Many years ago Chief Eneas, also known as Big Knife, was becoming very concerned. He felt he was losing control of his tribe. A sub-chief was also ignoring the old chief. The sub-chief was giving orders and was not asking for guidance from the chief and the other elders. The old chief was heavy-hearted because of the changing ways and the young people’s neglect of him and the elders.
“One summer, while the tribe was playing games and dancing, the old chief thought about how he could get his tribe’s respect again. He dressed in his best buckskin and headdress, decorated his horse in a buckskin saddle and blanket, and rode his horse proudly to the top of the ridge of the cliff. ‘Hear me, my people,’ he said. ‘My heart is heavy with grief. You have forgotten the teachings of your elders. You have forgotten their brave deeds and generous acts. Only ill luck and misery will come to those who forsake the laws and teachings of the elders of the tribe. Knowing that, I make this one last effort to remind you of the bravery and wisdom of your grandfathers.’
“When he was finished speaking, he turned his horse and began to walk away down the ridge. Suddenly, he wheeled his horse around, tightened the reins, and forced his horse at full speed over the cliff to the rocks below. The women started the death wail as the men carried the chief’s tangled body off the horse and rocks.
“At the burial they spoke of the chief’s courageous deeds, his never-ending kindness to his people, and his loyalty to the tribe’s laws. ‘We must never forget the old ones or their wisdom and counsel,’ they said. To this day the Kootenai remember to treat the old people with respect and kindness.
“It is said that several years after the death of Chief Eneas, one of the members of the tribe was looking up at the cliff and noticed the silhouette of the young maiden the chief had loved when he was a young warrior. The maiden can be viewed with her hand reaching out, still grieving for the old chief who gave his life to restore the wisdom and love to his tribe.”
Maggie Plummer is a writer and editor who lives in Polson with her black lab Peaches. She likes to write about anything and everything. In fact, Maggie has just published her first novel about an unusual topic – 1650s Irish slavery in the Caribbean. Entitled Spirited Away – A Novel of the Stolen Irish, the book is available on Amazon.com in trade paperback and Kindle editions. Find Maggie’s author page at: