Kootenai (Native Americans of the Plateau)

Kootenai,a nomadic people geographically divided into upper and lower divisions after their exodus from the northern Great Plains. The Upper Kootenai remained oriented toward the Plains, whereas the Lower Kootenai assumed a more Plateaulike existence. Their self-designation was San’ka, "People of the Waters."

Location The Kootenai may once have lived east of the Rockies, perhaps as far east as Lake Michigan. In the late eighteenth century, the Kootenai lived near the borders of British Columbia, Washington, and Idaho. Today, most live on the Kootenai Reservation, Boundary County, Idaho; on the Flathead Reservation, Flathead, Lake, Missoula, and Sanders Counties, Montana; and on several reserves in British Columbia.

Population The immediate precontact population was about 1,200. In 1990, roughly 900 Kootenai

Indians lived in the Northwest, including several hundred intermarried with Salish people. The 1991 Canadian Kootenai population was around 550.

Language Kutenaian is unrelated to any language family except possibly Algonquian.

Historical Information

History During the eighteenth century, the Kootenai acquired the horse and began hunting buffalo on the Plains, adopting much of Plains culture. Shortly after initial contact around 1800, Canadian traders built Kootenai House, a trading post. More traders, including Christianized Iroquois, as well as missionaries soon followed. Despite the Kootenais’ avoidance of much overt conflict with whites, they suffered dramatic population declines during these years, primarily as a result of disease and alcohol abuse. The formal establishment of the international boundary in 1846 divided the tribe over time.

The Flathead Reservation was established in 1855 for the Salish and Kootenai people. Some Kootenai refused to negotiate the loss of their land, however, and did not participate in these talks. Some moved to British Columbia rather than accept reservation confinement. When the Kootenai Reservation was established in 1896, about 100 Kootenai Indians moved to the Flathead Reservation. Of the ones who refused to move, those near Bonners Ferry were granted individual allotments in 1895. The tribe won a $425,000 land claims settlement in 1960, and the Kootenai Reservation was officially established in 1974.

Religion People believed that every natural thing has a spirit and that there is one master spirit, perhaps the sun. Everyone hoped to acquire the help of guardian spirits they sought on adolescent vision quests. Male and female shamans provided religious leadership, acquiring spirit powers in dreams that allowed them to cure and foretell the future. Curing involved singing power songs, chanting, and shaking rattles. Ceremonies such as the midwinter festival, the Sun Dance, and the War Dance were related to soliciting and/or honoring spirits. There were three religious societies: Crazy Dogs, Crazy Owls, and Shamans.

Government Each of roughly eight autonomous bands was led by a chief and an assistant chief, such as a war, fish, and hunting chief. The chieftainship was hereditary into the historic period, when leadership qualities began to assume the most importance. A council of shamans chose the upper division chief. Decision making was by consensus.

Customs Games almost always included gambling. Prisoners of war were enslaved. Marriage was usually monogamous. People cultivated some tobacco. The dead were dressed in robes, sewn in blankets, temporarily placed on a platform, and then buried. The family moved the deceased’s tipi, gave away all former possessions, and never spoke the person’s name again. Kindness was a highly valued quality.

Dwellings The Kootenai traditional dwelling, summer and winter, was conical (especially the lower division), made of rushes and mats or hemp over pole frames. During the eighteenth century, that style switched, especially among the upper division, to buffalo-skin or mat tipis. They also used oblong, semisubterranean communal festival houses of mats on a pole frame.

Diet Although they lived in the mountains west of the continental divide, upper division Kootenais remained oriented toward Great Plains buffalo, whereas the lower division ate mostly fish (trout, salmon, and sturgeon), small game, and roots. Both divisions also hunted big and small game, and both gathered roots and berries, especially bitterroots. Most foods were dried and stored for winter.

Key Technology Men fished using weirs, basket traps, and spears. Women made a variety of baskets, including ones that could hold water. Hunting equipment included cherry and cedar bows, clubs tipped with antler points, stone knives, and slingshots. Buffalo were hunted with a bow and arrow or by driving them off cliffs. Leather items were prominent, especially among the upper division, whereas the lower division primarily made items of Indian hemp and tule. Kootenais also made carved wood bowls, clay pots, and stone pipes.

Trade Kootenais participated in regional trading complexes and began trading with non-native trappers about 1807.

Notable Arts Upper division people especially became very skilled leather workers.

Transportation The Lower Kootenai were oriented toward rivers and lakes, and their water transportation was accomplished by use of bark and dugout canoes. Hunters used snowshoes in winter. Upper division people acquired horses in the eighteenth century.

Dress Lower division Indians wore bark, mat, and hemp clothing, whereas upper division people used mostly skins. They switched to Plains-style clothing, including dresses, breechclouts, shirts, and leggings that were decorated with fringe, feathers, quills, and beadwork, in the eighteenth century. Both groups wore moccasins and fur robes.

War and Weapons Although the Kootenai were not especially militaristic, the war chief reigned in the upper division and was second in importance in the lower division. The Blackfeet, Lake, Assiniboine, and Cree were traditional enemies. Hunting equipment was used as weapons.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Kootenai Reservation (1974) is located in Boundary County, Idaho. It contains roughly 2,680 acres, most of which are allotted. The 1990 Indian population was 61, of roughly 200 tribal members, most descended from Lower Kootenais. Residents are closely related to the Kootenai community at Creston, British Columbia. The 1947 constitution calls for a four-member elected tribal council. The Kootenai Tribe is a member of the Upper Columbia United Tribes Organization and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.

The Flathead Reservation (1855; Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe, which includes Flathead, Kalispel, and Kootenai) is located in Flathead, Lake, Missoula, and Sanders Counties, Montana. It contains 627,070 acres and is governed by a ten-member tribal council. The 1990 Indian population was 5,110; most Kootenais are descended from the upper division. Just under half of the land base is non-Indian owned, and over 80 percent of the reservation population is non-Indian. Kootenais live mainly in the northern part of the reservation.

Four bands (Columbia Lake, Lower Kootenai, Saint Mary’s, Tobacco Plains) live on various reserves in British Columbia (see their profiles under "Daily Life").

Economy On the Flathead Reservation, forestry and associated enterprises as well as ranching are important economic activities. Tourism, including the KwaTaqNuk resort on Blue Bay on Flathead Lake, is also important. The tribes lease the Kerr Dam for $10 million annually and will assume the dam’s operating license in 2015. S&K Electronics provides some jobs. Most tribal members work for the tribes. High unemployment (about 50 percent in the late 1980s) remains chronic.

There are a crafts shop, a motel, and a fish hatchery at Bonners Ferry (Kootenai Reservation). Some people continue to hunt, fish, and gather plant foods.

Legal Status The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation is a federally recognized tribal entity. Legal jurisdiction over Flathead Reservation Indians belongs to the tribes. The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho is a federally recognized tribal entity. The four Canadian bands are federally and provincially recognized.

Daily Life Despite serious economic, social, and health problems on the Flathead Reservation, people try to retain their Indian culture and to transmit it to the younger generations. Salish and Kootenai College and a tribal high school were created around 1977. The reservation hosts two large powwows in July.

The establishment of the Kootenai Reservation in 1974 led to paved roads, improved housing, and a community center. Traditional culture, religion, and language remain strong among the Bonners Ferry Kootenai.

There are four Kootenai bands in Canada (statistics are as of 1995):

Lower Kootenai Band controls eight reserves on 2,443 hectares of land. The reserves were allotted in 1906. The population is 156, of whom 77 live in 32 houses on the reserves. Election is by custom, and the band is affiliated with the Ktunaxa/Kinbasket Tribal Council. Children attend band and provincial schools. Important economic resources and activities include trapping, hay ranching, a bird sanctuary, and small businesses. Facilities include offices, a community hall, and a recreation center.

St. Mary’s Band controls four reserves on 7,446 hectares of land. The reserves were allotted in 1884. The population is 231, of whom 163 live in 54 houses on the reserves. Election is by custom, and the band is affiliated with the Ktunaxa/Kinbasket Tribal Council. Children attend band schools. Important economic resources and activities include livestock ranching, a museum, arts and crafts, and individual hay farms. Facilities include offices, a recreation center, a garage, and a church.

Tobacco Plains Band controls one reserve on 4,227 hectares of land. The reserve was allotted in 1884. The population is 138, of whom 88 live in 24 houses on the reserve. Election is by custom, and the band is affiliated with the Ktunaxa/Kinbasket Tribal Council. Important economic resources and activities include livestock ranching, logging, farming, a restaurant, and a duty-free shop. Facilities include offices, a garage, and a fire station.

Columbia Lake Band controls one reserve on 3,401 hectares of land. The reserve was allotted in 1884. The population is 199, of whom 111 live in 44 houses on the reserves. Election is by custom, and the band is affiliated with the Ktunaxa/Kinbasket Tribal Council. Important economic resources and activities include a campground and an individually owned dude ranch. Facilities include a recreation hall and a ceramics shop.

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