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Native Peoples. Kootenai Indians’ Culture and Issues

Kootenai Indians are a unique population that inhabited North Idaho, northern Montana, and North Colombia. Similar to other tribes, Kootenai suffers from national inequalities and discrimination, lack of government support and healthcare services, etc. Kootenai Indians belong to Native North Americans who have inhabited the lands mentioned above since the 18th century.

Kootenai Indians belong to the so-called Flatheads Confederation consisting of several tribes. According to the Flatheads themselves, the name by which they are generally known is a libel upon their common sense, for they assert that they never have as a tribe practiced the barbarous custom of head-binding, to which some of the tribes on the Pacific Coast were addicted (Singletary 23). They call themselves “Salish” and have as their neighbors on their present reservation fragments of tribes which formerly belonged to the Flathead Confederation, the Kootenai and Pend d’Oreilles, as well as other Indian bands — Kalispel, Spokane, Nez Perces, Snake, Cayuse, Delaware, and Sioux (Montana: A State Guide Book 293).

The land of Kootenai is not a reservation proper but is composed of scattered farms bought from white people some ten years ago. The latter are just across the line along the Pend d’Oreille River in the State of Washington but are included under the Coeur d’Alene jurisdiction. Fort Lapwai reservation, interesting as the original settlement of the Spaldings when they first came to the Oregon country in 1836, extends into parts of four counties, Nez Perce, Idaho, Clearwater, and Lewis (Oswalt 16).

The Kootenai Indians resemble the Hopis in their tribal exclusiveness and do not intermarry either with whites or with other tribes (Montana: A State Guide Book 297). Only on the Cœur d’Alene reservation is there any trace of race prejudice. Here the Indian children are not generally welcomed in public schools by the whites. At Fort Lapwai and Fort Hall, on the other hand, the Indians are respected and treated on an equal footing by their white neighbors. It is generally agreed that the Church holds the first place in directing public opinion. In general, the social life of the Indians centers in nearby towns in connection with places of amusement and recreation patronized by the white inhabitants (Oswalt 28).

There are no distinctly Indian dance-halls as the tribes still hold their dances in the open. Today, their homes are strung along the Kootenai River for twenty-five miles, in fact from Bonners Ferry. At an old Indian village at the far end is a Government day school, and here the Roman Catholic mission is situated. The church is served by a priest who comes from Canada five or six times a year. Kootenai Indians are described as:

The Kootenai, who extend from northwestern Montana into northern Idaho and southeastern British Columbia, are usually accounted a distinct stock (Kitunahan), but their speech has similarities to Algonquian, which may indicate a relationship” (Montana: A State Guide Book 37).

Similar to other Indians, Kootenai Indians have unique traditions, values, customs, language, and religious beliefs. There is, of course, no such single thing as “the religion of the American Indian.” The beliefs of the American red man were as diverse and as conflicting as were the numerous tribes, and while it is possible to generalize along broad lines for certain groups, there will be found other groups to which the generalizations will apply but faintly, or not at all (Oswalt 47).

The religions of the Kootenai Indians were composite and produced by blendings of various forms of worship. Among these elements may be distinguished the veneration of the sun and moon, the stars, sacred trees, the sexes and the natural forces of creation, sacred animals and reptiles, and fire (Deloria and Silko 43).

There were certain fundamental beliefs, but these were by no means uniformly distributed or regarded with identical emphasis (Oswalt 54). These major beliefs were concerned with spirits, gods, magical attributes of certain things, prayer or invocation, actions and gifts pleasing to the unseen powers, a life beyond the grave, and the influence of present action upon the future life. To the Indian, there were spirits everywhere, and all-natural forces were either spirits or the expression of spirits (Singletary 98; Deloria and Silko 76).

Since the 19th century, Kootenai Indians struggled against the American government and the white population in the region. The most important factor affecting Indians in 1900 was the 1887 Dawes Act (Singletary 87).

This legislation and later amendments instituted severalty or the distribution of tribally owned reservation land to individual Indians. Land allotment embodied more than property rights. “The Dawes Severalty Act was designed to allot reservation lands to individual Indians and thus break up reservations; “surplus” land was opened” (Oswalt 37). The policy aimed at broader goals, such as destroying tribal authority, eradicating native religions, and changing Indians into farmers.

In short, severalty sought a complete transformation of Indian life. From the start, the federal policy had been directed toward converting Indians from hunters to farmers and to a general acceptance of other aspects of white life. Tribal autonomy suffered a severe blow in 1871 when Congress prohibited future treaties with Indians. Reformers and federal officials repeatedly advocated severalty as the next logical step, but the general allotment bills introduced into Congress after 1879 failed to pass.

The importance of the Dawes Act was not that it embodied a new policy but that it permitted individual assignment of lands on all reservations except for the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles). The provisions of the Dawes Act authorized the president to allot any reservation considered suited to agriculture or grazing. Lands were to be distributed to all enrolled Indians: For white westerners, the most important result of the new legislation involved the surplus Indian lands remaining after allotment. “Most of them had little tolerance for Indian customs. These white activists in Indian affairs supported the principles of the Dawes Act but deplored the injustices of its administration” (Oswalt 46).

Today, Kootenai Indians occupy only 2,695 acres of land (Singletary 99). Kootenai Indians are ruled by the constitution written after Wheeler-Howard Act. The Wheeler-Howard bill was an Indian reorganization bill. Several reorganization bills were introduced in early 1933, but none could be considered during the press of the One Hundred Days. Indian reformers during late 1933 began to discuss reorganization and the need to link self-government with land reforms and resource development. They approved resolutions to end allotment, consolidate landholdings, create tribal governments, and replace existing Indian courts (Case Summaries 685).

In spite of government regulations and legal protection, Kootenai Indians experience discrimination, oppression, and segregation. In order to change their life, they declared war on the US government in 1975. As a result, the government granted 12.5 acres for the Kootenai Reservation. Indians during the 1970s became more adamant, vocal, and sophisticated about tribal sovereignty and jurisdiction and their individual legal status. Indian lobbying, meantime, helped produce important legislation on civil rights, religious freedom, health care, and education.

Through favorable court decisions and their claims to water rights and energy resources, Indians served notice that they wanted a greater voice in solving economic problems. Many areas, for example, remained dependent on exporting unprocessed or semi-processed goods (Singletary 36). Following Oswalt: after 1975, “construction and renovation increased, day-care centers were built, and social programs expanded. The federal emphasis on tribal self-determination beginning in 1975 represented a major change in the band administration as members obtained increasing control from the BIA” (416). During the past two decades, new issues have added to the complexity of law (Singletary 88).

Kootenai Indians do not want their water rights quantified because they fear bias in cost-benefit formulas used for that purpose and also because unquantified water rights give them greater bargaining power. Perhaps the most controversial action by tribal governments was their exercise of local government authority over non-Indians living within reservations (Glicksman 1143). On unallotted reservations, council ordinances normally cause few problems because the handful of traders, business people, and missionaries have long accepted tribal authority (Zellmer 1015).

On allotted reservations, however, whites often make up a majority of the population, and because they own their property in fee simple, they reject any tribal jurisdiction. The tribal ordinances themselves usually parallel those exercised by local white governments, dealing with such matters as zoning, building permits, law and order, sanitation, business licensing, and hunting and fishing (Clarkson 921; Hapiuk 1009).

It is possible to say that these political and social problems shape the Kootenai life. Prostitution, in certain parts, is rife, as many as eighteen public women being reported in one of the small towns. Family relations also are far from satisfactory. Bootlegging has for some years been a thriving industry and is given as the principal cause of serious crime on the reservation. A recent shake-up has, however, improved conditions in this respect (Milani 1279).

Gambling is also prevalent and is difficult to check since it is fostered in the town sites where the Government superintendent has no jurisdiction. Court victories that recognized hunting and fishing treaty rights, that blessed tribal authority to levy taxes, conduct gambling operations, and sell cigarettes, and that supported independent tribal negotiations with corporations have all bolstered autonomy. Finally, the work of the National Congress of American Indians and numerous other groups operating at regional or state levels assisted individual tribes and enlisted the support of non-Indian organizations. The importance of tribal political resurgence varies among the reservations in the West.

Kootenai Indians that receive large revenues from natural resources, for example, have enjoyed greater success in their relations with government and private businesses. Kootenai Indians have hired experts and law firms capable of defending their interests or established their own legal departments. Another factor relates to whether a reservation has been allotted or remains intact. Councils on unallotted reservations face fewer obstacles in achieving tribal autonomy than those that try to extend authority over checkerboarded reservations containing a high percentage of whites living on fee simple lands (Singletary 102).

In sum, the government policies and actions against Kootenai Indians have had a great impact on their life and destiny. Kootenai Indians are deprived of their chance to be independent and provide their own policies. Kootenai Indians also differ a great deal in terms of internal unity, ability to overcome factionalism during crises, and, above all else, the quality of leadership.

Works Cited

Case Summaries. Environmental Law, 33 (2003): 665.

Clarkson, G. Not Because They Are Brown, but Because of Ea. Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, 24 (2001): 921.

Deloria, V., Silko, L. God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, 30th Anniversary Edition. Fulcrum Publishing, 2003.

Glicksman, R. L. Traveling in Opposite Directions: Roadless Area Management under the Clinton and Bush Administrations. Environmental Law, 34 (2004), 1143.

Hapiuk, W. J. Of Kitsch and Kachinas: A Critical Analysis of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990. Stanford Law Review, 53 (2001): 1009.

Milani, V. C. The Right to Counsel in Native American Tribal Courts: Tribal Sovereignty and Congressional Control. American Criminal Law Review, 31 (1994), 1279-1301.

Oswalt, W. H. This Land was Theirs: A Study of Native North Americans. Oxford University Press, USA, 2003.

Singletary, R. Kootenai Chronicles: A History of Kootenai County. Museum of North Idaho Publications, 1997.

Montana: A State Guide Book. Project of the Work Projects Administration for the State of Montana; Viking Press, 1939.

Zellmer, S. A Preservation Paradox: Political Prestidigitation and an Enduring Resource of Wildness. Environmental Law, 34 (2004), 1015.