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Pend d'Oreille Warrior Woman


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From Changing Ones by Will Roscoe

The Salish-speaking Pend d’Oreille (pronounced Pawn duh-RAY; also known as the Kalispel) and Flathead (or Salish) of western Montana illustrate all the patterns of women’s participation in war that are found among tribes of the Great Plains—from ceremonial roles to participation in battles to ongoing roles as warriors and leaders.


Kuilix in a drawing by the Jesuit missionary Nicolas Point

The Jesuit fathers Pierre Jean De Smet, Nicholas Point, and Gregory Mengarini arrived in Montana in 1841 intending to “reduce” the Flatheads and Pend d’Oreilles to missions (much as their brethren had done among the natives of Paraguay). Instead, they found themselves accompanying their would-be converts on treks to the plains to hunt buffalo and fight their enemies. The tribes, for their part, welcomed the missionaries, hoping they would provide them with supernatural aid. But when the Jesuits began to scold them with “fatherly rebukes” and “exhortations” because they continued to give “themselves up to their old war-dances, to savage obscenity and to shameless excesses of the flesh,” attitudes quickly changed. As relations worsened, the Flatheads refused to sell the priests provisions. In 1850, St. Mary’s mission in the Bitterroot Valley was abandoned.


The Jesuits were especially baffled by the active role of Flathead and Pend d’Oreille women in warfare. Women joined dances dressed as warriors, and they frequently entered battle. As De Smet observed in 1846,

Even the women of the Flathead mingled in the fray. One, the mother of seven children, conducted her own sons into the battle-field. Having perceived that the horse of her eldest son was breaking down in a single combat with a Crow, she threw herself between the combatants, and with a knife put the Crow to flight. Another, a young woman, perceiving that the quivers of her party were nearly exhausted, cooly collected, amidst a shower of arrows, those that lay scattered around her, and brought them to replenish the nearly exhausted store.

At least one Pend d’Oreille woman distinguished herself in war and appears to have been a recognized leader. Her native name was Kuilix, “The Red One” (or “Red Shirt”), referring to a bright red coat she wore—probably part of a British military uniform. She was known to whites as Mary Quille or Marie Quilax. Father Point drew and painted her, and described her in his journals and letters. He relates an occasion in 1842 when a small group of Pend d’Oreilles came upon a large party of Blackfoot and attacked them. When the sounds of gunfire reached the Pend d’Oreilles camp, the other warriors rode out to join the fray. According to Point:

The first Pend d’Oreille to dash out at the enemy was a woman named Kuilix, ‘The Red One,’...Her bravery surprised the warriors who were humiliated and indignant because it was a woman who had led the charge, and so they threw themselves into the breach where nature’s shelter had protected the enemy. The Blackfeet immediately shot four shots almost at point-blank range; yet not a single Pend d’Oreille went down. Four of the enemy—some claim it was only two—managed to escape death by hiding in the thickets, but the rest were massacred on the spot.

Kuilix was also present at a battle with the Crows in 1846. According to Point, “The famous Kuilix...accompanied by a few braves and armed with an axe, gave chase to a whole squadron of Crows. When they got back to camp, she said to her companions, ‘I thought that those big talkers were men, but I was wrong. Truly, they are not worth pursuing.’”

Point’s illustration of the episode bears the caption, “A woman warrior’s swift about-face left the enemy stupefied.” According to Point, Kuilix was “renowned for intrepidity on the field of battle.” De Smet referred to her as the “celebrated Mary Quille,” and an engraving of her based on Point’s drawing appears on the title page of his 1844 Voyages aux montagnes rocheuses.