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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Idaho

Artifacts reveal Lake CdA prime prehistoric real estate

Long before pioneers, loggers and wealthy retirees discovered the charms of Lake Coeur d’Alene, its shores were considered prime real estate.

Going back thousands of years, families have lived along the lake, fishing for mammoth bull trout in its blue depths and digging water potatoes near the shore. Archaeologists are now gathering evidence of prehistoric lakeside dwellers. In some areas, remnants of ancient villages have been found buried under deep layers of sediment. Some sites, however, have yielded only small flecks of charcoal from prehistoric hearths.

The work is part of a first-ever survey of prehistoric sites from the lower reaches of the rivers feeding into Lake Coeur d’Alene down the banks of the Spokane River all the way to Long Lake. The investigation is funded by Avista Utilities as part of its requirements for securing a new federal permit to operate hydroelectric dams in the region.

Protection of the sites could play a role in how the company sets its lake levels for the next 30 to 50 years. Everything from wetlands to white-water rafters to lake-based tourism will also play a role in determining how the company manages flows going into the Spokane River. The current federal permit governing the five dams on the system expires in 2007; Avista must submit a future operating plan by July.

The archaeological survey began recently in the southern end of Lake Coeur d’Alene and along the lower reaches of the Coeur d’Alene, St. Joe and St. Maries rivers. The survey will now move down the system, ending up along the shores of Long Lake by the end of winter, said Brent Hicks, an archaeologist with Entrix Inc. The environmental consulting company has been hired by Avista to conduct the survey.

Although some of the sites could receive greater formal protection – including the possibility of being placed on the National Register of Historic Places – the secrets of most will never be shared with the public, Hicks said. Sites facing imminent destruction, either from erosion or looters, will be fully excavated and their artifacts put in safe storage.

Some of the tools being found date back 5,000 years and could still bear blood residue from rabbits, fish, ducks or deer, Hicks said. Eventually, protein residue tests will be conducted on a sample of the artifacts. No human remains have been found.

Even with the Post Falls Dam, the shorelines of Lake Coeur d’Alene have remained relatively unchanged. The biggest difference is the higher water level in summer. Many of the prehistoric dwelling places along present-day Long Lake, by contrast, were flooded after a dam was constructed in 1915. Only the upper end of the reservoir has its original landforms and will be surveyed for prehistoric sites, Hicks said.

The archaeologists are extremely secretive about what they’re finding and where. Hicks would not provide specific details on any artifacts or locations, offering only, “We are finding things that are interesting.”

Many sites have already been looted, Hicks explained. Along with military secrets, archaeological site information is one of the few kinds of data collected by the federal government specifically exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

“There’s a very active local interest that already has caused people to collect from these sites,” Hicks said, speaking from his office in Seattle. “There are massive collections, all in violation of the law. Every week people are picking things up out there.”

When artifact hunters remove tools and arrowheads from sites – some have even dug up shore areas with shovels and rakes – they rob the potential to understand our ancient past, Hicks said. The artifact’s original location is critical for understanding the past. “The most beautiful arrowhead in the world only tells you a limited amount of information of what was going on there. But an arrowhead in its original context tells us a lot more,” he said.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe supports the survey and has participated in some of the work, said Robert Matt, the tribe’s lake manager. Much prehistoric evidence has already been stolen, Matt said, making the survey even more vital.

“There’s a serious problem with looting of our cultural sites around Coeur d’Alene Lake. The market is very prolific,” Matt said. “We’ve been asking for cultural protection efforts for as long as the dam’s been in place. Finally, as part of the relicensing, we’re going to see some of that happen. This is the first, truly detailed archaeological investigation that’s ever been done.”

Unlike most other tribes in the Northwest or Rocky Mountains, the Coeur d’Alene people lived most of their lives in one place, Matt said. This speaks to a fact known by a growing number of current-day lake dwellers: Life is good near the lake.

“All of our life requisites were met here in the Coeur d’Alene basin,” Matt said.

Family groups made homes at beaches around the lake, often moving to permanent villages at the southern end of the lake for winter. They fished for large cutthroat and bull trout – including through the ice in winter. Ducks and geese were plentiful, as were deer. The river deltas along the southern shore of the lake were prime prehistoric real estate, with wet meadows full of camas bulbs, roots and berries.

“That was our refrigerator. Everything we needed we could get right there,” Matt said, adding, “We’ve lived in virtually every livable area of the river and lake. It’s no surprise to us that the archaeological finds are rich and widely distributed. This survey provides some independent affirmation of what the tribe’s known forever: that our people are really closely tied to the streams and lake frontage.”

Sighting of the archaeologists have sparked concern among some nontribal residents in the area that American Indians could be gathering evidence for additional land claims. The sentiment was further fueled when the scientists traveled local waterways in boats clearly marked with the insignia of the Spokane Tribe. This was not meant to be a show of tribal naval force, Hicks said. The boats were merely rented because their flat-bottom design was ideal for reaching shallow bays.

“There’s a lot of sensitivities,” Hicks said. “I can assure you there certainly isn’t any intent from the Spokane Tribe to assert their interest that far off the reservation. They have excellent boats for what we do. There really aren’t good work boats available on Lake Coeur d’Alene. Believe me, I’ve looked.”

Matt, with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, added, “All we’re looking to do is see the sites protected. We don’t have any political agenda.”

The tribe has an agreement with Avista to store some of the artifacts at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane. The tribe hopes to someday construct its own museum. Some local residents “with basements full of stuff” have offered to turn the artifacts over to the tribe once a suitable museum is built, Matt said. “These are treasures to everyone who lives in this area.”

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