A proposed casino and social-service center in Airway Heights may seem a long way from home for the Kalispel Tribe of Pend Oreille County.
But about 60 percent of the tribe’s 238 members live in Spokane, 60 miles from their mile-wide, 10-mile-long reservation along the Pend Oreille River.
While the casino would pay for job-producing projects at the reservation, the 140 or so expatriates in Spokane would be among the prime beneficiaries. A housing development is planned near the casino, along with a social-service center called the Camas Institute.
The institute would include an alcohol and drug treatment program for adults and an educational unit for youths and adults.
Education is a high priority for the Kalispels because roughly half of them are 18 or younger, tribal Planning and Education Manager David Bonga said.
The tribal homeland doesn’t lend itself to housing or employment, but it wasn’t always so.
When the Kalispels’ ancestors first viewed the Pend Oreille Valley from a mountaintop, it was so blue they thought it was a giant lake. But what wasn’t the Pend Oreille River turned out to be the blue-flowering camas plant.
“They just loved the way this area looked, so they just lived here,” said Alice Ignace, who at 76 is the tribe’s oldest member.
Ignace believes the Kalispels came originally from the Montana Flatheads, whose language is nearly identical. She can understand the dialects of other Interior Salish tribes in the Inland Northwest, including the Spokanes.
“If we are cold, we say it differently, but we understand each other,” Ignace said.
She is one of only about a half-dozen people who are still fluent in the Kalispel language.
French fur traders called the tribe les pend oreilles, or the earring people, because of their large earrings, but the Kalispels take their name from the camas plant. Kalispel means “camas people” in their language.
The plant’s turniplike bulb became a staple of their diet. When the Ponderay Newsprint plant was built at Usk, archaeologists unearthed 6,500-year-old camas ovens. They were rock-lined fire pits just like the ones Ignace uses.
The roasted brown bulbs can be eaten straight from the oven or dried. A kind of pudding can be made by boiling them and adding water, flour, sugar and cream.
“Oh, man, you can eat three or four bowls,” Ignace said, licking her lips. “I love it.”
The camas plants have dwindled over the years, but they’re making a comeback since the tribe canceled cattle-grazing leases on the reservation about three years ago. Grazing now is limited mostly to the tribe’s herd of 90-95 buffaloes.
People who know nothing else about the Kalispels probably know they have the only buffalo herd in northeast Washington.
An annual buffalo roundup is a popular field trip for area schools. A lunch of roast buffalo is one of the highlights of the annual powwow, which ends today.
And who could forget the Great Buffalo Escape of 1994? The whole herd swam the Pend Oreille River and led tribal workers on a merry chase up and down the other side of the river for the better part of a week.
The tribe acquired the buffaloes in the mid-1970s from Yellowstone National Park and the National Bison Range at Moiese, Mont. Historically, the Kalispels had to make annual pilgrimages to the Montana plains to hunt buffaloes.
They rolled up the woven tule reed mats used to construct their houses and took them along.
Ancient Kalispels blamed the lack of buffaloes in the Pend Oreille Valley on Coyote, a mischievous character who pops up in many Indian legends.
“They sent the Coyote to go get some buffaloes for here,” Ignace said. “So he went. But he got hungry on the way back and so he stopped and killed one and ate it all up.”
So it went until Coyote had eaten all the buffaloes.
“The chief got mad at him for just bringing the heads and the hides, and he sent the Coyote away,” Ignace said. “And Coyote wished bad things against the Kalispels.”
Bad things indeed came to the tribe.
Coyote, rebuffed in his quest for the chief’s daughter, prevented salmon from entering the Pend Oreille River. Dams later destroyed the Spokane and Columbia River fisheries that fed the tribe for centuries.
Jesuit missionaries established the St. Ignatius Mission on the banks of the Pend Oreille in 1844 and attempted to make farmers of the friendly and receptive Kalispels. But the land wasn’t suitable for crops other than camas and hay, and the river persisted in flooding the mission.
Ten years later, the Jesuits moved St. Ignatius to its current home north of Missoula. Some Kalispels went with the Jesuits, but many of them later returned, according to retired Eastern Washington University Professor John Fahey’s book, “The Kalispel Indians.”
Today, most Kalispels remain at least nominally Catholic, but services are conducted only a few times a year at the church next to the tribal offices. The church is called Our Lady of Sorrows.
Smallpox and other diseases introduced by white people decimated the Kalispels. Of the estimated population of 3,000 to 3,500 when Canadian explorer David Thompson arrived in 1809, only about 120 remained in 1910.
Ignace said her father, Joe Ignace Black Bear, told her about another terrible epidemic in 1918: “Every day they were burying two or three. I think it was typhoid fever.”
By that time, the Kalispels’ territory had been reduced from an estimated 3.5 million acres to the current 4,629 acres. They lived in a small village of tumble-down shacks.
It wasn’t until the tribe won a $3 million settlement from the federal government that Ignace and others acquired modern houses in 1965.
The Kalispels will soon acquire a 400-acre addition to their reservation in a dam-flooding settlement with the Bonneville Power Administration.
They’re also close to negotiating a similar settlement, for approximately $3 million, with the Pend Oreille County Public Utility District. But Bonga said about half of the money would go to individual property owners, many of whom are non-Indians.
Meanwhile, 16 federally subsidized houses are to be built this year. But Bonga said it is difficult to find sites that aren’t in the flood plain or too mountainous.
High levels of iron, manganese and arsenic limit the domestic water supply, Bonga added. Until just a few years ago, the tribe had to haul in water from across the river.
Even more limiting is the lack of jobs in Pend Oreille County. Reservation unemployment was 54 percent this spring, and fluctuates from 30 to 35 percent in summer.
“That’s why I hope we get this casino,” Ignace said. “So we can self-support ourselves a little bit.”
Also, she said, “I’ve got three great-grandchildren and I’d like to see things work out so, if they want to go away to college, we can pay for it.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo, 2 Graphics: Proposed Kalispel Indian casino, Kalispel Indian Reservation
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