Fittingly, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe will gather this morning at Cottonwood Bay to celebrate the purchase of Camp Larson from Washington State University. The camp is a 36.5-acre parcel with 700 feet of shoreline that once served as an aboriginal campsite on Lake Coeur d’Alene.
In a way, the celebration could mark the end of the beginning of the rebirth of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe – a transition period of two decades that has seen the Coeur d’Alenes change from a tribe of high unemployment and hopelessness into one of the most progressive ones in Indian Country. The event marks the changing of the guard as 32-year-old Chief Allan takes over from Ernie Stensgar, the former chairman who led the tribe for almost two decades.
Although Stensgar was surprised Monday when he was ousted as chairman on a secret 4-3 vote, he can step down with his head high. The policy adopted in recent years to aggressively purchase former pieces of the reservation, like Camp Larson, is but one of many progressive steps taken by the tribal council under Stensgar’s leadership. The openings of the holistic Benewah Medical Center in Plummer and Coeur d’Alene Casino/Hotel operation in Worley were others. And the millions of dollars of direct support donated by the tribe for local public schools was still another.
Since 1986, when Stensgar became tribe chairman, no person has cast a bigger shadow on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation. During that period, unemployment for the tribe that now numbers 1,922 dropped from around 65 percent to almost nothing today. North Idaho has embraced the tribe as an important economic player. And the U.S. Supreme Court has awarded ownership of the lower third of Lake Coeur d’Alene and part of the St. Joe River to the tribe.
Equally important is the example Stensgar learned from elders, like the late Lawrence Aripa and Henry SiJohn, to treat non-Indian neighbors with respect and to fight for human rights. No accomplishment stands out more than the generosity of the tribe in sharing their facilities and wealth with their neighbors in Benewah and Kootenai counties. In 1999, Stensgar’s contribution to that philosophy and for “walking the talk” of social justice was recognized when he was awarded the Bayard Rustin Civil Rights Award by the now defunct Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment.
“Ernie leads by example,” tribe member Jeanne Givens, a former state legislator, said at the time. “He has friends who are farmers, who are loggers, who are senior citizens. He enjoys respect from everybody in his community. On the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, half the population is white. He’s very much aware that being a good neighbor and a good friend is important to the advancement of Native Americans.”
Stensgar, who remains on the council, has made the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation a better place for younger tribe members by restoring pride and economic viability. Now, the region will see if the younger generation, as represented by Chief Allan, can continue building on that success.