Along the western shore of Flathead Lake, near West Shore State Park, are the “Painted Rocks” – rock cliffs with early Native American pictographs (rock paintings) and petrographs (carvings).
Like ancient cave paintings, these pictographs and petrographs remind us of life thousands of years ago.
Many people believe that the Salish Indians made these pictographs, which is just partly true.
The original paintings are believed to be about 3,000 years old. It is believed that the Salish started adding to the pre-existing pictographs beginning about 700 to 800 years ago. And it is believed that the Salish made their last additions sometime between 1700-1900.
And to put things in historical perspective, the pictographs were made thousands of years ago, modified within the last several hundred years, and weren’t widely discovered in science or the media until about 1908.
It seems that the Salish may have discovered the pictographs since they held similar beliefs as the unknown original creators. The unknown predecessors and the Salish both held the belief that cliffs near water were sacred places.
And while the Salish did not originally create the pictographs, they later added their own ideas and depictions to the already existing ones, likely also in a manner of worship or ritual.
It is believed that the Salish people would worship or perform rituals at the cliffs. And while engaged in prayer or vision, they may have conjured a sign or a symbol, which they then added to the pictographs to the cliff wall. So for example, if a Salish envisioned a bison during a ritual, they may have added another bison to the cliff wall.
The paintings on the cliffs depict animals, people, objects, and “tally marks” – one of the most common designs in pictographs found in western Montana. Anthropologists perceive that the tally marks may serve an important function, such as identifying the number of objects, or identifying the order of a ritual or task.
Even though only a few pictographs are clear, and are mostly imperceptible overall, they are nonetheless fascinating. And equally fascinating is thinking about how the pictographs actually got where they are: on the side of the cliffs, visible only from the water.
So to view the Painted Rocks, you’ll need a boat.
If you don’t have one, you can rent a kayak from Lakeside Ski and Sports. And you can even take the “Painted Rocks and Cedar Island” tour with Sea Me Paddle Kayaking Tours. Both are located right along U.S. Highway 93, in “downtown” Lakeside.