Kootenai Tribe notes war’s anniversary
Photo from 1974 paper, Rex Aitken stands in front of the former Tribal Office in downtown Bonners Ferry holding picket sign.
Hagadone News Network | September 22, 2022 1:00 AM
BONNERS FERRY — Almost 50 years ago, the Kootenai Tribe declared war on the United States on Sept. 20, 1974, in order to be federally recognized as a tribe.
Vice Chair Gary Aitken Jr. told the Bonners Ferry Herald that prior to being federally recognized the Tribe was in dire straits as tribe members were in impoverished conditions and many elders were dying due to exposure. At one point, the Kootenai Tribe had 5,000 members but by Sept. 20, 1974, only 67 Kootenai lived in Boundary County.
Many tribal members had been relocated to other parts of the country as part of the integration policy of the U.S. The federal government went through the allotment process for Native American tribes, but the Kootenais did not receive any allotment due to never signing a treaty with the federal government, Aitken said.
Rather, the Kootenias stayed on the 12.5 acres at St. Michael’s Mission. Houses were built in the 1930s and, by 1969, the homes were dilapidated, Aitken said.
In order to access medical care, Kootenais had to travel to Lapwai — the site of the nearest agency. Aitken said the council decided to declare war since they did not have a land base.
Kootenai history says, the Kootenai people were created by Quilxka Nupika, the supreme being, and placed on Earth to keep the Creator-Spirit’s covenant, which is to guard and keep the land forever.
UPCUT.org or the Upper Columbia United Tribes, said the Kootenai people kept the covenant by never signing a treaty with the U.S. government. However, by doing so they were never federally recognized as a tribe.
“History tells us we are placed here by the great Creator,” Aitken said.
He spoke of the concept that if you take care of the land then it will take care of you.
The war was a peaceful war of the pen, Aitken said, and brought national and international attention to the Tribe. After negotiations, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho was deeded the 12.5 acres of land at St. Michael’s Mission as tribal land.
Rex Aitken and others sold war bonds, set up pickets and tolls on U.S. 95. The funds were used for travel expenses for negotiations in Washington, D.C.
While some community members were at odds with the Tribe, Aitken said there was also overwhelming support from the community and beyond for their peaceful war.
Amy Trice, Rex and Gary’s grandmother was chairwoman of the Tribe in 1974. Trice along with the tribal adviser Doug Wheaton, went to Washington, where then-President Gerald Ford signed a bill that transferred St. Michael’s Mission, 12.5 acres of federal land to the Tribe for a reservation.
The Kootenais have been able to maintain their covenant and protect the land. The Tribe also now has a clinic and an expanded tribal police force.
Aitken said in 2014 that the war led to measures that improved the Tribe’s health, safety and security. It also helped lead to construction of the Tribe’s Kootenai River Inn and Casino — one of the county’s largest employers.
“We want to help the county survive and thrive,” Aitken said at the time.
“We had to fight perceptions of who we are and what was going to happen there. We strive to have a higher standard and exceed expectations. We approach government and business dealings with pride, dignity, honesty and integrity.”
Gary Aitken said it took time for the Kootenais to learn how to navigate within the changing world while maintaining their values and culture.
“We were stuck in the old world, but now we are in two worlds,” he said.
He added that they needed to have a war in order to get the federal recognition — and lead to the Tribe’s survival.
Tribe officials said they are thankful for the widespread support they received and donations from across the globe to fund their negotiations with the U.S. government. They also wanted to emphasize that the tribal members — and all people — share this land and the community.
“This is our community. It always has been,” Aitken said in 2014. “It’s bigger now but we embrace it. We have a stake in the community doing well and want to help make it a better place to be.”
In 2008, Sonja Rosario made a documentary on the Kootenai and U.S. War, “Idaho’s Forgotten War: A Lost Tale of Courage.” “The Forgotten War” was made covering the events that led to the Tribe being federally recognized.
The Kootenai Tribe now owns more than 2,500 acres of land, much of it wildlife habitat. The number of members who live in the county has increased to about 170 members.
Aitken said the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho continues to be guardians of the land by administering an environmental program that works to improve air quality, water quality and to promote recycling to reduce solid waste. The Tribe envisions a healthy ecosystem with clean, connected terrestrial and aquatic habits, which fully support traditional Tribal uses and other important societal uses.