10 Things You Should Know About the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho

10 Things You Should Know About the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho

The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho is located in the northern tip of Idaho a few miles south of the Canadian line along the Kootenai River. The river has always been of extreme importance and fish from here were a mainstay of their diet. Kootenai Falls is still a sacred place.

Their oral history tells they were created by Quilxka Nupika, the Supreme Being, and were here to keep and guard the land forever, something they still strive to do.

The tribal shield reflects their history. The three moons represent a former chief and legendary leader: Chief Three Moons. Their non-treaty status is represented by an unsigned treaty and an empty arrow quiver. The Idaho map is wrapped in a red ribbon reflecting their ongoing relationship with the state. The seven feathers represent the seven bands.

ICTMN talked with tribal chairman Gary Aitken Jr. who discussed the following list of 10 things he felt others should know about the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho.

Seven bands – Aitken explained that seven bands made up the Ktunaxa (or Kootenai) Nation. “There are five bands in Canada, one in Montana and us here in Idaho. We’re all interconnected. There are slight differences but we all understand each other.” He spoke of slight cultural differences. “There are more elk on the Canadian plains but we lived on and used the river a lot. We fished and hunted more deer and ducks.”

Jack McNeel

Language – “The Ktunaxa language is an isolate, a very unique language. It’s one of seven isolates in the world.” Aitken explained. “All the bands once spoke that language and still do. There are regional differences, like slang, but we fully understand each other.” The tribe is currently developing a computer program to help teach the youngsters with the blueprint of a language program used by the neighboring Kalispel Tribe. “I didn’t grow up speaking our language,” Aitken said. “My dad understood it but didn’t speak it. What I learned I learned from curiosity asking my grandmother. My children in turn, we’re in a race. I believe they know more than me. It’s sad it dwindled so far down but at the same time it’s looking up.”

Jack McNeel

War of 1974 – Why would the tribe, with less than 70 members, declare war against the United States? “We were in dire straits at that time,” he said. “People were dying from all sorts of things. We had elders that died of exposure and people living in such dilapidated houses the winter winds came through the cracks, like being outside. Conditions were deplorable. My grandmother, Amy Trice, was chairwoman at the time. They needed to do something. It was a big cry for attention, to say ‘look at our plight.’ We try to do things you ask us to do but don’t have the wherewithal to keep doing these things.’ We couldn’t wait any longer. It was meant to be a cold war, a peaceful war, but people were dedicated to the cause and knew it would bring on a backlash and could end up taking lives. So we declared war. It was a war of the pen. A lot of the locals were scared and upset. A lot of tribal members sent their families away because they were afraid for their well being. We had a lot of support from the American Indian Movement. Russell Means came over with some of his group. But it ended well. President Ford deeded us our 12.5 acres at the Mission where we stayed. That’s where we started. We got our recognition and were able to get the land base which allowed us to get more services. It was a turning point for our tribe.” The tribe now owns about 2,500 acres. Kalispel Tribe, Amy Trice, American Indian Movement, Russell Means, Hell Gate Treaty of 1855,

Jack McNeel

Homeland – The Hell Gate Treaty of 1855 divided Oregon Territory. What is now Montana was considered part of that territory. Governor Stevens wanted to place several tribes, including the Kootenai, on a single reservation in Montana. Aitken explains how this impacted the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho. “We’re considered bound by that treaty but none from our band went over to sign it. We never left but stayed in our homeland here. They ended up putting the mission here on one of the islands we initially camped on. This has been our area since time immemorial. Through various swindles and bad deals the majority of our land base was lost and given to individuals during the allotment era. The St. Michaels Mission here was one of the main things we had left. We take pride in the fact we’ve never left. Despite the challenges we remained in Bonners Ferry and eventually transformed the community for the better.”

Jack McNeel

Sturgeon In 1991 the Kootenai Tribe built a sturgeon hatchery, the first such hatchery in Indian country. “Sturgeon have always been very important both spiritually and as subsistence for us,” Aitken explained. “The Kootenai River white sturgeon is unique to others. In 1994 they were put on the Endangered Species list. Our eventual goal for all our restoration is cultural harvest and significant use. We’ve made a lot of headway. We’ve learned everything we can from others who work with sturgeon but we’re writing the book on these sturgeon. We help them as much as we can.”

Jack McNeel

Burbot – Burbot, also known as fresh water ling, also had long time importance to the tribe. They have also been drastically reduced due to changes in their environment from dams and land use alteration. In October 2014 the tribe opened a new hatchery aimed at rearing and releasing burbot as well as sturgeon, the first hatchery in North America designed specifically for raising burbot on a large scale for reintroduction. “Last fall was our first release. Our new hatchery at Twin Rivers is at the confluence of the Kootenai and Moyie Rivers. Children did the release and anyone from the tribe who wanted to join in the ceremony for our first release, praying over them.”

Jack McNeel

Collaboration – Aitken explained how collaboration with local and federal officials has greatly improved relationships and allowed many programs to succeed. “We were opposed, even violently, with almost everything we proposed to do for the community. A lot of things were based in prejudice and ignorance. It came to the point we realized to get anything done we had to find out what we could agree on and move forward. We signed a joint powers agreement in 2001 with the city and county. It allowed us to work together and opened many doors. Working together has helped tremendously for funding different projects.”

Jack McNeel

The Kootenai Valley Resource Initiative (KVRI) was formed and co-chairs are the Bonners Ferry mayor, a Commissioner for the county, and the chair of the Kootenai Tribe. “It’s really provided a blueprint on how to get things done. We’re ready to work and ready to get projects done. It’s like we’re leaders of the new school in regard to collaboration and we hold that very proudly.”

Habitat restoration – “It started with sturgeon and burbot but we quickly realized the limiting factors were lack of habitat, nutrients in the water, lack of natural rearing areas, lack of flood plains, all because of dikes and dams. We went back to our understanding of nature where everything is connected from the oceans to the mountain tops. We had to look at it holistically because the system was failing. We’ve repaired and revitalized areas to give more habitat. We’ve created habitat where fish can hide and be safe. We’ve taken places in the river that were sloughing off and reconditioned them so they’re beneficial. Over the last five years we’ve done a major project each year. We’ve recently created what we call ‘pool ladders’ by dredging a series of pools up the river where sturgeon can rest and feed as they move to better substrate to lay their eggs.”

Jack McNeel

Inn and casino – “The Inn was started in 1986 and in 1996 we broke into gaming. It’s been a real boon for us and a real pride because we always wanted to maintain a 5-Star feel yet keep the home town atmosphere and accessibility. It’s provided income and is a big part of the community. Between that and the hatcheries we’re the largest employer in the community. We want to give to our community and when we are thriving with gaming, our resort, restaurant and spa, it helps us be able give back more. We’ve given almost $2 million to the school district here. It’s something we’re very proud to do.”

Jack McNeel

Sturgeon nose canoe – “The canoe was unique to our region, unique to our tribe. It’s also been called the Kootenai canoe,” Aitken explained. “It’s very similar to the Kalispel canoe but ours go all the way down to a point.” The nose shape comes from the shape of a sturgeon and this enables the canoe to more easily glide through rushes. None have been made here in many years but plans are to have a Ktunaxa canoe builder come from Canada and teach others here how to build them to help keep the culture alive.

Jack McNeel

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