In dozens of camps along Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Spokane River, Coeur d’Alene Indians used stone tools to pound and grind meat, berries and roots. The handmade tools would be left in the water, where they would continue to be shaped by its flow.
Dozens of the tools were used by Indian families on the tribe’s aboriginal lands dating to ancient times, said Cliff SiJohn, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s cultural awareness director. Since the tribe stopped using the lands, numerous artifacts have been picked up by visitors and kept as souvenirs, he said.
Two such items recently were returned to the tribe by a Spokane Valley woman who said the artifacts had been in her husband’s family for more than 80 years. During a recent visit with her daughter to the tribe’s casino and hotel, Marilyn Closson saw the elaborate display of artifacts and crafts and said she knew what needed to be done with the mortar and pestle that had been kept for years on her husband’s family farm between Colfax and Pullman.
Closson said she didn’t know how the mortar and pestle were acquired by her husband’s family, whose farm is within the boundaries of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s traditional homeland. But she said her 87-year-old husband remembers seeing them in the house when he was a child.
“I knew what it was but I didn’t know who to give it to,” said Closson, who is 70. “I didn’t know what to do with it. Maybe I was just supposed to be the caretaker of it until the time was right. It just needed to go home. It just went back where it belongs.”
SiJohn received the artifacts with tears and gratitude. He did not know their age, but said they could be prehistoric. The pestle is about a foot long and conical. The oval-shaped mortar is about two feet long. SiJohn said the tools would have been left in a camp and used each time the tribe returned because they are too heavy to carry.
Though the tribe has thousands of artifacts and historic crafts, he said, each one provides a vital link to the past. The items have been logged into the tribe’s cultural resources system, and SiJohn said he hopes to include it in a resort display by Thanksgiving.
“It’s like a tie back to our people from long ago,” said SiJohn, who is 66 and remembers both his grandmother and his father still using stone mortars and pestles to prepare food when he was a child. “It’s an integral part of our history. We’re sitting here looking at a piece of history that we can feel, touch.”
SiJohn said as the tribe advances into “new frontiers” with its casino, hotel and other businesses, it remains determined to preserve its culture and traditions. That’s why artifacts and crafts are displayed throughout the recently expanded area of the casino and hotel, he said.
“The hope is that people come in and see the display case and will think of things they may have collected over the years along the river banks and the lake inlets,” SiJohn said. “We hope people will see this display case and return them to us.”
The tribe had 18 camps around the lake, six big camps along the Coeur d’Alene River heading toward Cataldo, a big camp at the mouth of the Spokane River, and 16 smaller camps from the mouth of the Spokane River to about where Plante’s Ferry is now, SiJohn said.
In each one, numerous stone tools would have been used by families. The mortar and pestle were used not only to pound and grind meat, berries and roots, but also to mix different foods into meal bags for traveling, he said.
“There was a necessity to dry as many foods as possible for winter survival,” SiJohn said. “People would feel good when they were preparing and working with these stone tools. It was the power of these tools that saved the people during the winter months.
“Some people might look at it and say, a plain old rock, so what?” SiJohn said. Not Closson and her daughter, Teresa Johnson. “When they returned it,” he said, “there were a lot of tears going on in this room. They recognized that this was a significant part of the history of the Coeur d’Alene Indian people.”