Land of the Kalispel

The Kalispel Tribe once lived in vast territory around Lake Pend Oreille. To many here now they seem to have vanished, but the traditions of this area's original people still run deep.

By Jane Fritz

I have a vivid imagination. There have been times while out paddling my canoe in the watery reaches of the Clark Fork delta after the fishermen have called it a day, or past the tall, dark trees lining the thorofare that leads to Upper Priest Lake, that I am captured by time; pulled backwards into the primordial landscape that existed before machines and metals transformed life here in Idaho's Panhandle.

During these solitary sojourns, I gain insights into a former, more generous way of life. If I stay open to my surroundings I might hear indigenous voices chanting from the forest, or see faces of old Indian people in the rock outcroppings etched by the long shadows of near-evening light. Sometimes if I squint my eyes as I pass a stretch of undeveloped shoreline, the willows will appear as tule mat lodges encircling a campfire thin with woodsmoke. It is here on the water that my imagination swells and bursts into some story of the past

An old woman watches from shore as her granddaughter paddles her canoe towards open water. She sings her prayers of protection for all the women. She knows it will take them several days to paddle down river and far across the mother lake until they come to the large river valley where the bulrushes grow. The old woman remembers her own youth and the many hours that passed gathering tules for the woven mat coverings of her band's summer lodges and winter longhouse. Singing the special gathering songs made the work go easier.

So did the canoes. Tapered at both ends like the snout of the sturgeon, the canoes allowed the rush gatherers to slip through the delta's marshy wetlands without getting stuck. But she liked to work the shallows, standing calf deep in the cool water and using her best stone knife to cut the plants. She and the others would gather them until dark. With canoes filled they would make the long journey home to their villages, camping always in new places, telling stories under a starry sky, howling back to Wolf and Coyote, falling asleep to the lullabies of Loon

Maybe the spirits like teasing my imagination, but this fantasy is also based in fact. These waters are part of the ancestral homeland of the Kalispel Indians ­ also known as Pend d'Oreilles, the name given them by French furtraders. The tribe's aboriginal territory once comprised over 4 million acres and followed the great river-and-lake system from Thompson Falls, Mont., down the Clark Fork River west across Lake Pend Oreille, and on downstream along the Pend Oreille River to Canada. Their territory also included the Priest River drainage and Priest Lake. It is estimated that at the time they first encountered explorer David Thompson in 1810, the tribe numbered close to 2,000 people, living in a number of different bands along the upper and lower reaches of the Pend Oreille lake and river.

The Kalispel were canoe people. In this great watery terrain it was the most practical way to get around. They would venture out into the mountains to pick huckleberries and to hunt, but they lived and had their villages near water.

Although summer would find the people camped anywhere they chose along the shores ­ there were literally hundreds of camping sites ­ their village sites were more stable and better protected against the long winters. Winters were spent along the Pend Oreille River near the present-day towns of Usk and Cusick, and Newport, Wash., for the Lower Kalispel bands; and Sandpoint, Bayview, Clark Fork, and Thompson Falls in Montana for the Upper Kalispel bands. The snows were usually too deep in other places to live comfortably.

Dr. Allan Smith is a retired Washington State University professor and an ethnographer who documented the Kalispel in the early 1930s. His research shows the Kalispel were an easy-going and peaceful people. They weren't a warrior society. Nor were they prone to formulating a lot of rules and rituals to live by, as were the Plains tribes farther east. The Kalispel lived more spontaneously. They shared almost all property in common ­ discovered eagle nests and creeks claimed by the placement of a fishing weir being perhaps the only exceptions ­ and there existed a specialization of work.

The tasks of daily living created cohesion among the different bands and family groups. The responsibilities of hunting and gathering were informally assigned to certain groups. One group might be caribou hunters; the woodland caribou once outnumbered the deer in the surrounding mountains, and its hide and meat were favored over elk and deer. Another group hunted deer. There were groups of fishers, root diggers, berry pickers and canoe builders.

The tules or bulrushes used for building their lodges were abundant only in the Clark Fork River delta, so those designated as tule gatherers would travel there by canoe and collect them. They would weave the tules into mats and shape them around a conical structure resembling a teepee. This work was normally done by women. The Kalispels moved frequently throughout their territory as they gathered these gifts of nature. The people shared freely; interdependence existed. Generosity abounded.

The tribe also ventured beyond the waterways, frequently traveling the well-established trails overland to visit and trade with the Spokanes to the west and the Flatheads, or Bitterroot Salish, to the east. These tribes spoke the same Salish language with variations in dialect. In Montana the Kalispel would hunt buffalo, a task made much easier after the horse was introduced. They had good relations with the Crow, a warrior tribe who lived in the Great Plains of central Montana. The Kalispel would also trade a great deal with the tribes of the Colville region to the west. Relations with the Kootenai to the north, and Coeur d'Alene and Nez Perce to the south sometimes occurred but occasionally were strained.

The Kalispel wandered this vast territory utilizing all of nature's resources and trading with the many other tribes. It wasn't always an easy life, but for the most part it was a good life.

But of course its days were numbered. Their life in harmony with nature was dramatically changed after white contact. First came the diseases they had no immunity against. Hundreds died. As waves of white settlers began to move into their territory, beginning in the later 1800s, they increasingly found themselves barred from traveling through traditional lands. The burgeoning settlement by the whites created conflicts, but unlike tribes who warred with the settlers, the Kalispel tribe as a whole never carried out hostilities against the whites.

Eventually some of the Kalispel followed Jesuit missionaries up the Clark Fork River to the Flathead Reservation in St. Ignatius, Mont. Those that stayed behind settled at their winter village site near Usk and Cusick. In 1914 formal recognition as a sovereign people was granted by the executive order of President Woodrow Wilson. A small strip of land, consisting of only 4,600 acres along the river near Usk, was given to the tribe for a home.

From the 4 million acres they knew as their homeland, the people had been uprooted, displaced and forced from northern Idaho. Their way of life was devastated. Within 100 years of that first contact with David Thompson, around 150 Kalispels remained.

'The spirit of the people probably died at that time," says Francis Cullooyah, one of the Kalispel's spiritual leaders. He wonders how his ancestors survived such dramatic losses. "I would not be able to live very well. I wouldn't be able to go through it."

Cullooyah says it was especially difficult being displaced from North Idaho. "How things would be so good if I was able to walk on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille today and say this is mine. I still say this is mine, but I'm only kidding myself. We have places we just can't go anymore." He respects the no trespassing signs that bar him from important traditional places on the lake and rivers, like the islands in Lake Pend Oreille, but it bothers him. He says his spirit suffers, and he believes most non-natives don't understand what this separation means to the Kalispel.

"In the non-Indian society there are changes being made constantly," Cullooyah says, "but as Indian people, it's the things that we need and the things that we utilize that come from our Creator that are important to us. There are a lot of differences and that's where we run into conflict."

The cultural conflicts that arose in those first 100 years after David Thompson's arrival often were rooted in misunderstanding or ignorance. The Kalispel did their best to survive the changes while maintaining traditions, but many of the old ways began to slip away. Each new generation of Kalispels adapted to European lifestyles, including destructive ones like alcohol. But even with new trials and ongoing losses, their spirituality and connectedness with nature remained strong.

After white settlement, up until the mid-1900s, the Kalispel would still travel around their former territory to hunt, fish and gather traditional foods. They would still visit the marshy country of the Lower Kalispel along the Pend Oreille River. This was camas country, where each spring the camas plants' blue flowers would color the landscape so abundantly that grassy meadows appeared as water.

The camas plant was a food source so important to the Kalispel that they were known as "camas people." The camas bulb, about the size of a woman's thumb, provided a staple food whose nutritional value exceeds brown rice. Indian women would dig for the bulbs in early and mid-summer, then roast the peeled bulbs underground with hot stones and between layers of black moss. They'd make them into loaves and cakes and store them for winter use. Today they might can or refrigerate the fresh bulbs. However, the foreign plants introduced since white settlement have out-competed the camas and sharply reduced their numbers.

Shirley Seth is granddaughter of the last formal chief of the tribe, Chief John BigSmoke, pictured in the canoe on page 19. Seth still digs what camas can be found and processes the bulbs in the traditional way her mother taught her. She has shared this knowledge with her children and other tribal members. She believes as a member of a traditional hunter-gatherer society, it's important to maintain the preparation of not only traditional foods, but medicinal plants as well. "Some of these things are falling out of our basket along the way," she says, referring to the traditional ways. "Some are left behind. Some lost completely. But some remain."

Kalispel ties with the vast waters and lands of northern Idaho remained, at least until the early 1950s. Lake Pend Oreille's shoreline continued to be a gathering place for the Kalispels in summer. Doris Kraus of Trout Creek, Mont., remembers the Indian encampments that took place near her grandparent's hay farm at the mouth of the Clark Fork River. Families from a number of tribes around the area, including the Spokane, Flathead, Kootenai, Coeur d'Alene, Nez Perce and others, would join the Kalispel near present-day Denton Slough, a traditional gathering site the whites called "Indian Meadows." Kraus remembers the Indians did a lot of fishing and drying of their catch on sticks at a warming fire near the lodges. They would also hike or ride horses up into the surrounding mountains to pick baskets and baskets of huckleberries.

Coeur d'Alene tribal elder Henry SiJohn fondly remembers those days at the Clark Fork encampments. Each year as a boy until he was 15 years old he traveled with his mother and grandmother, both Kalispels, to Indian Meadows. The women would pack up their tents, belongings and relations and travel by horse and wagon from Plummer, on the Coeur d'Alene Reservation. It would take them three days to get to the Clark Fork River delta. This ancient gathering site afforded the native peoples plenty of good fishing and tall grasses for their horses to graze. They'd visit with old friends, make new acquaintances, and barter for goods. Even weddings would take place.

"It was just like returning home," SiJohn says. "And when we return home, everything is good." He recalls a poignant ritual his mother and grandmother engaged in each year after arrival.

"They missed this place so badly that when they got here we'd unpack the tent and before we'd even put it up, they would sit on the tent and cry and wail for about 15 to 20 minutes while everybody just stood around and waited until they got through." He says their strong emotions were both in appreciation and in remembrance of earlier days. SiJohn's last summer spent in Clark Fork was in 1932. He believes those years spent at Indian Meadows were as close to a utopian lifestyle that a person could live.

But tears well in his eyes as he recounts the destruction of the meadows when the Cabinet Gorge and Albeni Falls dams were built, beginning in the early 1950s. The dams flooded the meadows, killing native grasses, cottonwoods and old growth cedar and creating the slough there today. Important religious sites like ancient rock petroglyphs were submerged. Subsequent shoreline development added to the impacts. "Nothing can ever replace what we had," SiJohn says of the loss.

Another gathering place for the Kalispel and neighboring tribes was the annual powwow grounds just east of what is now City Beach in Sandpoint. Supported by the City of Sandpoint, the annual powwows usually lasted three days with the first day spent conducting memorials, giveaways and other tribal ceremonials. Non-natives did not attend the powwow until the second day. Then there would be dancing and lots of gambling games like the traditional stick-game going on.

Some white residents would attend. Former resident John Haag remembers as a boy climbing the piled slab wood at the edge of the old Humbird Mill with a friend to sneak a glimpse at the Indian people doing their first day ceremonials. He says the Indians knew they were there, and allowed them to remain. For him, it was a peek into another culture.

But the powwows were discontinued in the early 1950s because of conflicts with alcohol. Tribe members stayed to their small reservation far downstream near Usk, and the Kalispel presence in northern Idaho diminished to virtually nothing. Their reservation hugs the Pend Oreille River, but at nine miles long and only a mile wide it is located on a clay floodplain with poor soils for agriculture. Unemployment among the tribe members was high. Alcohol became a salve for their grief, and alcoholism gripped the tribe. For the next 30 years or so, the Kalispel had a very difficult time walking the line between assimilation into white culture and retaining their traditions.

But that is changing. In the mid 1980s the tribe began a renaissance, as members began to re-embrace their heritage. Today the tribe is almost entirely alcohol-free. They are putting new energy into their traditional cultural and spiritual ways, and in reestablishing a presence in North Idaho. There's even talk about resurrecting the annual powwow in Sandpoint.

The tribe also is active in natural resource management. As part of mitigation settlements with the Bonneville Power Authority over Albeni Falls Dam, they've recently purchased the Flying Goose Ranch, 440 acres along the Pend Oreille River that will be set aside as a wildlife and waterfowl refuge. A cultural interpretive center is planned for the site. The tribe is also creating a bass hatchery that will make up for some of the lost native fish species in the Pend Oreille River. Bass fishing will bring commercial interest, which will benefit all area residents.

Shirley Seth even hopes her small tribe ­ now 240 members strong ­ will somehow reclaim some of their traditional territory in Idaho, something her people once thought impossible.

"I think of having land ­ even partial pieces of our aboriginal boundaries where the Kalispel used to be free to come and go ­ I think that would be totally amazing," she says. "It would be overwhelming for some of my people to be able to drive by Clark Fork and to say we got some of this back I think it would be a miracle almost."

The Kalispel creation legend says when Creator brought the first animals to earth in his great canoe and they touched land and Bear left his tracks on the still hardening rock, the bond between the Kalispel and the earth was forged. For the Kalispel people, it remains a sacred trust. n

Jane Fritz lives in Clark Fork, where she is a freelance writer and a radio producer whose work airs on NPR and KPBX in Spokane.

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