To the average traveler or tourist driving along the western shore of Flathead Lake, Chief Cliff looks like just another rock-faced precipice. However, to the Kootenai (Kutenai), Chief Cliff is much more than an average bluff.
If you blink, you’ll miss her.
While you drive by Chief Cliff, it’s important to keep your eyes focused on the northern face. Because for a less than a minute (going 65 miles an hour) you will see a figure carved out of the stone that resembles a woman with her hands folded silhouetted against the western horizon. You have to be looking for her or she goes unnoticed.
Locals know the lore and have probably heard many versions of the Kootenai story. Some believe it is a Kootenai princess getting ready to jump off the cliff with her baby after being banned by her father. Another story is of a chief who jumped because he believed his people were forgetting their elders. Another is of an Indian woman who turned to stone while waiting for her lover to return from battle.
Chief Cliff is located only a few miles north of Elmo, Montana, and it’s more than just a place that provides locals with a sense of mystery and lore. The Cliff and surrounding area including Black Lake are considered sacred grounds to the Kootenai Indian Tribe. This land is a part of their creation stories and history. Chief Cliff and the princess in stone are important pieces in Kootenai culture, and she does not go unnoticed to their people.
According to “Indian Legends From the Northern Rockies” by Ella E. Clark, the maiden stands at the cliff’s edge as a symbol of the story of Chief Big Knife, also known as Chief Eneas. During Kootenai history, Chief Big Knife became very concerned that his people were forgetting to respect their elders and him as chief. Instead they were making decisions without consultation. In an act to gain respect, he dressed in his traditional buckskin and headdress and adorned his horse then rode to the top of the cliff.
He made a speech to his people and rode over the edge. Chief Big Knife’s people were very sad and mourned his loss of wisdom and counsel. So, at that time it is thought they committed to always respecting their elders and seeking their guidance, which is still a practice among the Kootenai today.
The “maiden” stands in stone as a reminder to the people because she loved the chief when he was a young warrior and stands with her hands stretched out to mourn for his loss.
So, the next time you drive around Big Arm Bay, keep your eyes peeled to the north. It’s definitely a beautiful picture and a beautiful story. Chief Cliff provides yet another piece to a diverse, historical area in and around Flathead Lake.