Feds Stress Indians’ Ties To Lake Trial Focuses On Tribe’s Historic Dependence On Fish
Fish were crucial to the Coeur d’Alene Indians’ survival in the 19th century, and they’re important now as the tribe fights for ownership of Lake Coeur d’Alene.
Whether the Coeur d’Alenes were farmers or fishermen is at issue this week and next in U.S. District Court in Coeur d’Alene.
The U.S. Justice Department has taken the state of Idaho to court on behalf of the tribe’s ownership claim to the southern third of the lake. The tribe has intervened as a plaintiff in the case.
The outcome of the trial will depend in part on how crucial fish and access to Lake Coeur d’Alene were to the tribe when the U.S. government was negotiating for tribal territory.
U.S. attorney Hank Meshorer called his first witness Monday, an ethno-historian who has spent much of the last five years writing a report on the Coeur d’Alenes for the Justice Department.
Richard Hart’s report details the life of the Coeur d’Alenes, which revolved around their water resources, he said.
“Fishing was crucial to the survival of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe,” Hart said. “They harvested large numbers of fish through all seasons of the year. … We see people fishing well into the 1880s.”
They constructed elaborate fish traps on the Spokane River, at the mouth of the St. Joe River and elsewhere and speared fish on the lake in the winter. They used the waterways for hunting, too, sometimes chasing wild game into the river, where tribal members waited in canoes to beat the animals over the head, Hart said.
When the state makes its case next week, it’s expected to provide evidence that the tribe had turned to agriculture and no longer was dependent on the waterways when negotiations were taking place.
Establishing the tribe’s dependence on the lake is just one aspect of proving their ownership. The United States and the tribe also have to show that the tribe has title to the lake.
While the tribe maintains that it owns the entire lake, based on an 1873 Executive Order signed by President Ulysses S. Grant, its own lawsuit on that point was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court last summer.
The Justices ruled that under the 11th Amendment, the tribe cannot sue the state.
The federal case does not seek ownership of the entire lake because of an 1889 agreement in which the tribe sold the northern part of the lake to the U.S. government.
Tribal chairman Ernie Stensgar still doesn’t accept that agreement as legitimate, and believes that federal attorneys think it’s easier to win a claim to just one-third of the lake.
“No leader worth his salt would have given it away,” Stensgar said during a break in court proceedings Monday. “Obviously the lake is at the very heart of the Coeur d’Alenes. To us it’s inconceivable that our ancestors gave up something that was so important to them.”
Oral histories and cultural traditions still revolve around the lake and waterways, he said.
Still, the tribe is hopeful it will win this case.
“If we win, there will be a big celebration,” he said. He added that the tribe’s neighbors needn’t worry that the tribe would abuse its control of the waterways.
Given the tribe’s various business ventures, “it would be devastating to alienate that (non-Indian) market,” he said. Instead, the tribe would manage the lake holistically for the benefit of future generations, he said.
“If we manage it well, it will be there for our children,” he said.