Thursday, December 02, 2021

November celebrates Native American heritage

| November 4, 2021 1:00 AM

November is Native American Heritage Month: a time to celebrate and honor the diverse cultures, histories and contributions of America’s indigenous peoples dating back thousands of years. It is also an opportunity to learn of the many challenges and struggles they faced throughout history to the present time and honor Native American veterans who have served and sacrificed defending our country.

In 1913, Red Fox James rode horseback state to state in hope of gaining support for a day of tribute. Three years later, the governor of New York declared the first American Indian Day. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush approved a resolution designating November “National American Indian Heritage Month.” Similar proclamations have been issued each year since 1994.

The Boundary County Human Rights Task Force would like to acknowledge and honor the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, on whose ancestral land we live. The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, also known as the Ktunaxa people, have been proud stewards of this land since time immemorial, honoring their covenant with the creator to look after and guard this beautiful land.

In 1860, the Bonners Ferry Kootenai offered their help to the International Boundary Commission who came to survey a border between the United States and Canada by taking their men and supplies across the Kootenai River, sharing their food and knowledge of safe trails. Instead of showing appreciation to the Tribe for their help, the Commission drew a line the Tribe was not allowed to cross, dividing and separating their communities. As strangers continued to arrive, the Kootenai people faced difficult times with epidemics, land stolen at gunpoint, and black-robed priests denouncing their religion. They lost their rights to fish and hunt on aboriginal land reducing their source of food, clothing and shelter.

In 1955, the United States government sent representatives to make treaties with Northwest tribes. Though treaties are solemn agreements between sovereign nations, treaties with Native tribes were often broken or coerced. Tribal representatives were told the government wanted to take aboriginal territory and place the tribes on reservations. The Kootenai Tribe never signed any treaties.

In 1960, the government awarded the Kootenais $425,000 for their loss of Aboriginal Territories. But, robbed of their lands, culture and hunting rights, they struggled to survive. After years of hardship, they faced extinction from extreme poverty. Then, when a Tribal Elder froze to death inside his unheated house, an extraordinary Kootenai woman, Amy Trice, took steps to save her people. In 1974, she led the 67 remaining Kootenais and declared war on the United States government, a story told in the documentary “Idaho’s Forgotten War.” This important story of courage called the “war of the pen” was the last American Indian war declared against the United States government.

Overcoming many adversities, the Kootenai Tribe was resilient and never lost sight of their original purpose to look after this land. This can be seen throughout Boundary County in their many programs and projects: Kootenai River Habitat and Ecosystem Restoration, Floodplain Project, and the Twin Rivers Tribal Sturgeon and Burbot Hatchery.

Their environmental programs work to improve air and water quality and promote recycling and conservation. Owned by the Kootenai Tribe, the Kootenai River Inn opened in 1986, sparking a renewal in the Tribe. Its success has enabled the Tribe to make significant community contributions to education, community projects and economic revitalization.

The Boundary County Historical Society Museum in downtown Bonners Ferry has original artifacts, exhibits and displays of the history of the indigenous Kootenai people. The Boundary County Human Rights Task Force encourages all Boundary County residents to learn more about the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, to honor their past, present and future.

This column was written by Boundary County Human Rights Task Force members Denise Thompson, Elsie Hollenbeck and Barbara Russell.