Colville (Native Americans of the Plateau)

Colville is a name derived from the Colville River and Fort Colville (a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post), which in turn were named for Eden Colville, a governor of the company. Whites also called these Indians "Basket People," after their large salmon fishing baskets, and "Chaudiere" (kettles), after depressions in the rocks at Kettle Falls and a corruption of their self-designation, Shuyelpee. They were culturally similar to the Okanagon and Sanpoil Indians.

Location In the eighteenth century, the Colville Indians lived in northeastern Washington, around the Kettle and Columbia Rivers. Today, most live in Ferry and Okanogan Counties, Washington, and in nearby cities and towns.

Population The eighteenth-century Colville Indian population stood at roughly 2,000. The Colville population reportedly declined to six or seven in 1882. In 1990, 3,782 Indians lived on the reservation.

Language Colville Indians spoke a language from the Okanogan group of the Interior division of the Salish language family.

Historical Information

History As early as 1782, a smallpox epidemic destroyed large numbers of Colville Indians. Colville Indians became involved with the fur trade shortly after the arrival in the area of the first non-Indians around 1800. By the mid-nineteenth century they were suffering from a sharply declining population and a deteriorating way of life due to new diseases,anti-Indian violence, land theft, and severe disruption of their subsistence habits. Missionaries arrived in 1838. Non-Indian miners flooded into the area in the mid-1850s. Colvilles did not participate in the wars of that time.

This woman is wearing a Hudson's Bay blanket, a popular trade item for the Colvilles. The name of this tribe is derived from the Colville River and Fort Colville, a Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) trading post, which in turn took their names from Eden Colville, an HBC governor.

This woman is wearing a Hudson’s Bay blanket, a popular trade item for the Colvilles. The name of this tribe is derived from the Colville River and Fort Colville, a Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) trading post, which in turn took their names from Eden Colville, an HBC governor.

Two Colville reservations were established in 1872 for local nontreaty tribes. One, created in April, was considered by local whites to have too-fertile lands, so another reservation with less desirable land was established in July. The early reservation years were marked by conflict with non-Indians and among the tribes. Many Colville Indians converted to Catholicism in the later nineteenth century. In 1900, they lost 1.5 million acres, over half of their reservation. Even so, non-natives continued to settle on the truncated reservation in large numbers until 1935.

The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation were formed in 1938. The government restored some land in 1956. The tribe divided over the issue of termination through the 1950s and 1960s but ultimately decided against it. The tribe won significant land claims settlements in the later twentieth century.

Religion Colvilles believed in the presence of spirits in all natural things, animate and inanimate. Individuals sought guardian spirits and their associated songs through the traditional means of singing, fasting, praying, and performing feats of endurance. Prepubescent boys generally undertook a series of one-night vigils. Shamans’ especially powerful spirits allowed them to cure illness and perform other particularly difficult tasks.

The five-day first salmon ritual, held under the direction of the salmon chief, was the most important ceremony. Other important religious occasions included the midwinter spirit dances and the first fruits rite. The midwinter dances served the additional purposes of bringing people together and releasing winter tensions.

Government Autonomous villages were each led by a chief and a subchief; these lifetime offices were hereditary in theory but were generally filled by people possessing the qualities of honesty, integrity, and diplomacy. The authority of chiefs to serve as adviser, judge, and general leader was granted mainly through consensus. As judge, the chief had authority over crimes of nonconformity such as witchcraft, sorcery, and assault.

An informal assembly of all married adults confirmed a new chief and oversaw other aspects of village life. All residents of the village were considered citizens. Other village leaders included a messenger, a speaker, and a salmon chief (often a shaman, with the salmon as a guardian spirit, who supervised salmon-related activities). By virtue of their ability to help or hurt people, shamans also acquired relative wealth and power from their close association with chiefs, who liked to keep them friendly.

Customs Colvilles regularly intermarried with other Salish people. They also very occasionally practiced a form of potlatch. Local villages had associated, nonexclusive territories or subsistence areas. Winter was a time for visits and ceremonies. During that season, women also made mats and baskets, made or repaired clothing, and prepared meals while men occasionally hunted or just slept, gambled, and socialized.

Pacifism, generosity, and interpersonal equality and autonomy were highly valued. Girls fasted and were secluded for ten days at the onset of puberty, except for a nighttime running regime. The exchange of gifts between families constituted a marriage, a relationship that was generally stable and permanent. Corpses were wrapped in tule mats or deerskin and buried with their possessions. The family burned the deceased’s house and then observed various taboos and purification rites. Mourners cut their hair and wore old clothes.

Dwellings Traditional winter dwellings were semisubterranean, circular pit lodges, with grass, brush, and earth covering a pole frame; they had flat or conical roofs. Entrance was through a ladder in the smoke hole. In the late prehistoric period, the people began building rectangular tule-mat houses. Each of the two to eight families in the house paired off to share a fire in the center of the building.

Diet Food was much more often acquired by the family than by the village. Fish, especially salmon, played a central role in the diet (groups were able to net up to 3,000 a day at Kettle Falls). Men caught four varieties of salmon as well as trout, sturgeon, and other fish. They fished from May through October. Although women could not approach the actual fishing areas, they cleaned and dried the fish. Dried fish and sometimes other foods made up much of the winter diet. People generally ate two meals a day in summer and one in winter.

Women gathered shellfish, salmon eggs, bulbs, roots, nuts, seeds, berries, and prickly pear. Camas was eaten raw or roasted, boiled, or made into cakes. A short ceremony was performed over the first gathered crop of the season. Men hunted most large and small game in the fall. They prepared for the hunt by sweating and singing. Meat was roasted, boiled, or dried. Women came along to help dress and carry the game. Men also hunted birds and gathered mollusks.

Key Technology Twined and coiled basketry items were heavily represented. These included utensils, cooking tools, containers, bags, and hats. Some items were decorated with geometric designs. Women sewed tule mats with Indian hemp. Hunting tools included spears and the bow and arrow. People also used sandstone arrow smoothers and elk rib arrow straighteners. Fish were speared, netted, and caught in weirs and traps. Women used a slightly curved digging stick with an antler or wood cross handle.

Trade Trade fairs were held at Kettle Falls and at the mouth of the Fraser River. The level of trade increased with the acquisition of horses.

Notable Arts Artistic expression was seen mainly in coiled baskets with geometric designs as well as mat weaving. Rock painting had been practiced for thousands of years.

Transportation Before the horse, people used two kinds of dugout canoes and snowshoes.

Dress Standard traditional attire was a bark breechclout or apron, a bark poncho, winter leggings (fur for men, hemp for women), and fur robes. Skin garments became popular beginning in the late prehistoric period. For decoration, people wore Pacific Coast shell ornaments as well as animal teeth and claws.

War and Weapons Men used their hunting tools as weapons, plus rawhide or wooden armor. War chiefs were selected on an ad hoc basis. Colvilles were occasionally allied with Okanagon Indians against the Nez Perce and Yakima.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Colville Reservation (1872) is located in Ferry and Okanogan Counties, Washington. It comprises 1,011,495 acres and had a 1990 Indian population of 3,782. An Indian Reorganization Act constitution approved in 1938 calls for a 14-member business council and various committees. The Confederated Tribes is a member of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and other intertribal organizations.

Colville Indians are also members of the Columbia River Indians, a group who lives primarily in Priest Rapids, Cooks Landing, Billieville, and Georgeville, Washington; Celilo, Oregon; and non-Indian communities. The Council of Columbia River Chiefs meets at Celilo, Oregon. The community at Priest Rapids is directly descended from that of Smohalla, a founder of the Dreamer or Longhouse religion.

Economy The reservation economy is largely built around stock raising, farming, logging (including a sawmill) and reforestation, and seasonal labor. There is some mining as well as a meat-packing plant, a log cabin sales business, and tourism-related businesses such as a trading post and gambling enterprises. There is potential for development of hydroelectric resources.

Legal Status The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation is a federally recognized tribal entity. The Columbia River Indians are not federally recognized.

Daily Life Colville Indians are largely acculturated. Language preservation programs are hindered by the lack of a common aboriginal language. Recent efforts to reinvigorate disparate tribal cultures and religions include the presence of the Chief Joseph Band of Nez Perce Indians with their Seven Drum Religion, the Indian Shaker Church, and the Native American Church. The reservation hosts an annual powwow and a circle celebration. There is also a program of reacquiring and consolidating the land base and a goal to increase the general levels of education. The Colville Business Council wields growing power in regional and statewide issues.

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