The Kootenai Indians

The Kootenai Indians lived in the West Kootenay area of B.C. for about 3000 years . As the glacial age came to an end about 10,000 years ago, new land became available . Indian tribes from the south began moving north into this ever-changed land . Rivers changed course and lakes were created and massive amounts of soil were deposited by the four km thick ice sheet . The climate of the West Kootenay was mild and fish were abundant, making life easy for the first Kootenay settlers . The area covered by the seven bands of the Kootenai Indians was from just east of the Rocky Mountains, west to Castlegar, north to Canal Flats, and south 200 km into the U.S.A.

The word Kootenai, pronounced KOOT-nee, or KOOT-nay, depending on which side of the US-Canadian border you are on, refers to the Native American people of the region. They were originally called the Ksunka, meaning “People of the Standing Arrow.” To them, standing arrow meant strength, unity and dexterity. However, when the French first met the Ksunka, they called them Kootenai. There seem to be various definitions in literature as to what the word means, “deer robes” or “water people” are two possibilities. This is complicated by the fact that the word is not in the Kootenai languageThe lower Kootenai Indians, who depended largely on fish, caught salmon, sturgeon, suckers, whitefish and, most importantly of all, trout from the Kootenay River basin. Upper Kootenai Indians, who were occasionally joined by the lower Kootenai, concentrated their efforts on hunting large game. Kootenai Indians now live on the Flathead and Bonner’s Ferry reservations in the United States and on several small British Columbia reserves. Congress established the 12.5 acre Bonner’s Ferry reservation in the 1970s after Kootenai Indians declared war on the U.S. and demanded land based upon 1855 treaty promises.

Historically, the Kootenai bands occupies territories along the Kootenai River, in parts of Montana, Idaho and British Columbia. Although they did not share a common language with any other group, they were closely aligned with the Flatheads and the Kalispel Pend Oreilles by common territories and intermarriage. Their culture was of the “Basin” type found in the Columbia Basin area. Their lifestyle was dependent on hunting, fishing, and gathering of roots and berries. The mainstay of their diet was salmon, starchy roots and bulbs. Theirs was a semi-nomadic culture, with permanent winter villages near good fishing sites. Their social structure was based on the extended family groupings. Clothing was made from woven bark and plant fibers; lodges were conical huts constructed of a pole framework covered with rush mats. Basketry supplies most of their utensils, including cups, bowls, and storage bags. As with other tribes, the Dawes Act of 1877 let to loss of tribal and individuals allotments they had received from the Treaty of 1855. Much of their original territory is now in the hands of non-Indians. Currently they live on a 2,695 acre reservation. They operate under a constitution written subsequent to the Wheeler-Howard Act.

The Indigenous peoples known as the Ktunaxa Indians and often referred to in history books and on maps as the Kootenay Indians live in the Columbia Basin. The Columbia and Kootenay Rivers lie within the traditional territory of the Ktunaxa Indian Nation in British Columbia. It is this system of rivers, lakes and mountains that has sustained the Ktunaxa peoples since time immemorial.

The traditional knowledge of the Ktunaxa concerning their territory is quite remarkable and unique. Some families in the Ktunaxa Indian communities have looked to their cultural lifestyles to build upon a new activity, often referred to as ecotourism.
There are seven communities within the Ktunaxa Nation – the Columbia Lake Indian Band, Kutenai Tribe of Idaho, Lower Kootenay Indian Band, Salish/Kootenai/Flathead Indian Reservation, Shuswap Indian Band, St. Mary’s Indian Band, and Tobacco Plains Indian Band. There are five Ktunaxa communities in Canada and two in the United States. There was another Ktunaxa Indian Reserve near Burton called the Arrow Lakes Indian Reserve, but because of a forcedmove, it is now non-existent.
The Arrow Lakes Band was a mixture of Ktunaxa, Shuswap and Okanagan Indians. They migrated between Washington and the West Kootenays to fish, gather and hunt for food.

The Shuswap Indian Band is politically part of the Ktunaxa Nation. This community is often referred to as the Kinbasket people, which is a family name. The Kinbaskets immigrated to the territory about 200 years ago. The primary language and culture of the Shuswap Indian Band is that of the Secwepemc (Shuswap Indians).

Within the Ktunaxa Nation, there are two sub-groups that have been classified as the Lower Kootenay and the Upper Kootenay. The Lower Kootenay has developed specialized knowledge about water resources for survival. This traditional knowledge includes fish and waterfowl harvesting, as well as the use of plants associated with water resources for such items as housing.

A unique feature of the Lower Kootenay is the use of the sturgeon-nosed canoe. The canoe was traditionally made from using six different types of trees – birch, white pine, cedar, maple, bitter cherry and Douglas fir. However, most canoes being made now are a combination of wood and canvas.

Today, canvas is the material of choice for making tipis. The Lower Kootenay Band used to make summer dwellings out of reed mats, and both groups used animal hides for covering their lodges as well. Since canvas is a waterproof cotton material, it is now preferred over the traditional coverings.

The Ktunaxa Tipi Company is a year-round operation owned and operated by Wilfred Jacobs and his wife, members of the Lower Kootenay Indian Band in Creston. They make sturgeon-nosed canoes and tipis for sale and rental. Their tipis have attracted customers as far away as Europe and Asia.

The Upper Kootenay Indians traditionally were a forest and mountain people who adapted to prairie life when the need arose. They existed by traveling on horseback throughout their territory, hunting, fishing and gathering. Two or three times a year, the Upper Kootenay would travel through the mountain passes often in dangerous situations (due to neighboring enemies, such as the Blackfoot Indians) to hunt for buffalo, which was once one of the staple foods of the Ktunaxa Nation people. In their travels, they would collect items such as the red ochre from the paint pots at Kootenay National Park. This ochre was traded for parfleche and cornhusk bags full of salt, which made its way from the Salt Lake area of Utah. The Ktunaxa traded with many of the interior plateau tribes, including the Nez Perce and Utes.

The Upper Kootenay obtained horses through this trading network and were adept in horsemanship.

The Ktunaxa Indians had thousands of horses living in their territory and up until the 1950s much of this stock was still in existence. The last of the wild horses were caught and the ones that remained on the reservations, such as St. Mary’s Indian Reserve, were killed off because the Ministry of Forests said the horses were overgrazing.

Fortunately, there are still some horses remaining on the reserves and there is even a trail ride operation at the Columbia Lake Indian Reserve.