Since 1990, at the request of Congress, U.S. presidents have annually declared November to be “National American Indian Heritage Month.” For many Native peoples, November is a time of thanksgiving and celebration marking the conclusion of harvest season. Early Native farmers in the Americas domesticated avocados, beans, cacao (chocolate!), cotton, cranberries, maize (corn), papayas, peanuts, peppers, pineapples, potatoes, sunflowers and tomatoes. Give thanks and celebrate, indeed.
The story of Native peoples reaches far back into the past. Many Native origin accounts place first emergence or creation in North America. Anthropologists generally believe early humans migrated to the Americas from northeast Asia. Recently, archaeologists excavating an ancient village on the Salmon River near Grangeville, Idaho, discovered the oldest known physical evidence of human occupation in North America — possibly over 15,000 years old. Northwest Native oral traditions describe great floods and climate change, which suggests humans have been here for tens of thousands of years.
Beginning approximately 5,000 years ago, residents of North America developed complex societies with elaborate religious practices, skilled artists and craft-makers, and sophisticated architects and astronomers. In 800-1200 A.D., the Hohokam civilization maintained one of the largest canal irrigation systems in the world — still used today in Phoenix, Ariz. Around 1100-1300 A.D., a city now called Cahokia (in present-day Illinois) had a population of 40,000 people who built one of the largest ancient pyramids.
The large societies declined for three reasons: natural climate change, human-caused environmental damage, and, beginning in the 1500s, the arrival of Europeans, who brought alien germs, destructive weapons, and a desire to conquer and colonize.
From the 1770s to the 1880s, U.S. soldiers and civilians destroyed or evicted Native communities — one of the uglier realities of our country’s history. U.S. officials isolated the surviving communities on reservations with the intent of forcibly erasing their traditional practices. In the 20th century, though, Native communities used legal and political action, higher education, and nonviolent resistance to protect their rights as both tribal members and U.S. citizens.
Today, there are 573 federally-recognized tribes and 236 Native reservations in the USA. Total official tribal membership is approximately 2 million people, but more than 5 million people claim some Native heritage. The government of Canada recognizes over 600 First Nations communities, and almost 1.7 million Canadians claim some First Nations heritage.
Some Native communities are thriving, but the more isolated reservations typically have high rates of poverty, unemployment, disease, addiction, and domestic violence—largely the result of unresolved conquest traumas transferred from generation to generation. Native memory knows great suffering, but also has acquired much survival wisdom, which is why Native communities are leaders in addressing the current crisis of climate change and environmental degradation.
The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, located in Boundary County, is an important example of this leadership. The early Kootenai, or Ktuna’xa, people hunted, fished, and foraged on the west side of the Northern Rockies. Their creation story told of a covenant between them and the supreme being who said, “I have created you to look after this beautiful land. As long as you do that, it will meet all of your needs.”
In the early 19th century, Kootenai villages developed amiable trade ties with Euroamerican fur companies. After 1860, though, non-Native miners, settlers, and border officials hampered Kootenai access to natural resources. The new arrivals killed off wild game, claimed acreage, stole Kootenai livestock, and carried diseases that devastated Kootenai families. This upheaval reduced the Kootenais to seven small, impoverished communities—one in Idaho, one in Montana, and five in Canada. Still, most Kootenais refused to sign treaties requiring them to abandon their homelands.
In 1974, the 67-member Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, led by chairwoman Amy Trice, demanded that the U.S. government restore 128,000 acres to the tribe. After tense negotiations and protests, including a tribal “state of war” declaration, the Kootenais ended up with only 12.5 acres, but it was a start. The tribe opened the Kootenai River Inn in 1986 and added a casino in 1995. Today, the 162-member tribe oversees 2,695 acres.
With land and income secured, the Idaho Kootenais revitalized their community with a health clinic, college scholarships, language preservation, and significant donations to the local school district. They also upheld their sacred covenant. In 1989, the tribe began working to protect the endangered Kootenai white sturgeon. The program has expanded to include a sturgeon and burbot hatchery and river and floodplain restoration. To quote a tribal brochure, “The Tribe recognizes the connection of all resources within the Web of Life and acknowledges that preservation of the Tribe and the complex ecosystems upon which we all depend relies on protecting resources in a holistic manner.”
It seems all Boundary County residents have reason to give thanks and celebrate the ways the tribe, in maintaining Kootenai heritage, enriches the local economy, environment, and community.
To learn more, please come to the Boundary County Museum on Friday, Nov. 15, at 6 p.m. for a screening of the documentary film, “Idaho’s Forgotten War,” and a conversation with Kootenai Tribal Chair Gary Aiken Jr. This free event is sponsored by the Boundary County Human Rights Task Force.
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Timothy Braatz is a professor of history and nonviolence at Saddleback College. Previously, he taught at Southern Utah University and Arizona State University. He has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Arizona State, and is the author of several books, including “Peace Lessons” and “From Ghetto to Death Camp: A Memoir of Privilege and Luck.” Locally, he wrote and directed the dramatic scenes for Vicki Thompson’s recent productions, “A Common Beat” and “Stardust!”