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Felix Aripa, beloved elder of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, dies at 93

Felix Aripa, a beloved elder of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and one of the tribe’s last native speakers, died Friday. He was 93.

Aripa was often described as the tribe’s “living link” to the pivotal era when the tribe welcomed Catholic missionaries and took up farming. In 1842, Aripa’s grandmother was one of the first children baptized by Catholic priests at the original Sacred Heart Mission in what is now Benewah County. In the early 1900s, his father was an interpreter for tribal leaders during negotiations with the federal government in Washington, D.C.

“We lost so much knowledge today that can’t be replaced,” said Chief Allan, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s chairman. “He had firsthand knowledge of his people, his culture and his country.”

Aripa’s knowledge of the Coeur d’Alene language and its history were invaluable to the tribe as it sought to regain title to parts of its aboriginal territory. He was an expert witness in the tribe’s legal battle to regain ownership of the southern third of Lake Coeur d’Alene. His testimony about place names and old village sites established the tribe’s long-standing use of the land.

“I feel proud that I know my own language,” Aripa said in an interview in early September before his death.

He and other elders also worked to ensure that later generations would have that privilege. The revival of the language among younger members of the tribe thrilled him.

“When I’m on the reservation, people are talking in Coeur d’Alene,” Aripa said. “Oh, geez. It’s our language.”

Aripa was a dignified man with a subtle sense of humor. He often gave blessings at public events, such as the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s annual Water Potato Day. He frequently wore a baseball cap with “World War II veteran” emblazoned across it.

Son of a strong

Catholic tradition

Aripa was born Sept. 9, 1923, to Stanislaus and Mary Emma Aripa, the youngest of 12 children in a devout and influential Catholic family.

The first Jesuit mission in North Idaho was established in the clan territory of Aripa’s family on the St. Joe River. Decades earlier, Coeur d’Alene Chief Circling Raven had a vision that a man wearing a black robe would bring new spiritual power to his people.

“Felix represents a very strong Catholic tradition in the Coeur d’Alene Tribe,” said Raymond Brinkman, the tribe’s linguist, who worked closely with Aripa on language preservation and history.

Stanislaus Aripa was one of the first students at a Catholic boarding school in DeSmet, Idaho. His wife was a member of the Spokane Tribe who moved to the Coeur d’Alene Reservation and converted to Catholicism. In the Aripa home, three languages were spoken: Coeur d’Alene; Spokane, a similar but distinct Salish language; and English.

Aripa’s grandmother also was influential in his life. She taught him about the tribe’s history, including stories of the times before the arrival of the “Black Robes,” which is what the tribe called the Jesuits.

“Sometimes, I call him a 175-year-old man, because he’s a direct link to the mid-19th century,” Brinkman said.

After the Jesuits’ arrival, the Coeur d’Alenes adopted farming and ran prosperous collective family farms. Stanislaus and Mary Emma Aripa farmed 500 acres in the Benewah Valley.

The “farm kid” mentality never left Aripa, who was always busy with a project.

Aripa often quoted one of his father’s sayings: “The way to kill time is to beat it to death.”

The Aripa family eventually lost the farm to back taxes. By the 1930s, federal Indian policies sought to break up collective farms, and many families lost their land, Brinkman said. The loss of the Benewah Valley farm remained a source of sadness to Aripa throughout his life.

During the 1950s, when Aripa was a member of the tribe’s business council, the tribe prevailed in a taxation lawsuit. The outcome prevented the federal government from taxing farm rent paid to members of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe who leased their allotments to nontribal members. The case had national significance for Native Americans.

Like his dad, Aripa attended the Catholic school in DeSmet. One of his classmates was the late Carl Maxey, who became a Spokane attorney and civil rights leader. The two boys boxed together.

Aripa was a top student, and the Jesuit priests who ran the school urged his parents to send him to college. Aripa finished high school in Tekoa, Washington, where he took calculus, physics and chemistry to prepare for entrance to Gonzaga University.

World War II interrupted his plans

Aripa excelled at math and wanted to become an engineer, but World War II interrupted his plans. After one year at Gonzaga, he enlisted in the Navy.

On D-Day, Aripa was aboard the USS Thompson as it shelled German forces and guns along the cliffs at Omaha Beach. The ship later ferried Allied commanders between England and Normandy.

Aripa was part of an honor guard that welcomed Gen. Dwight Eisenhower onto the ship. Eisenhower singled out the young Native man.

“You an Indian?” Eisenhower barked at Aripa. “What the hell are you doing in the Navy? You should be in the Army.”

“He was talking just like an ordinary man,” Aripa said. “That’s when I said, ‘I like Ike.’ ”

Aripa never finished his engineering studies, but he received an honorary law degree from Gonzaga in 2013. He remained an avid learner throughout his life. In April, Brinkman brought him a new biography of the Rev. Pierre-Jean De Smet, the Jesuit priest who was one of the first missionaries to the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. Aripa stayed up until 1 a.m. to finish the book.

He also remained lifelong friends with his Navy buddies, who called him “Chief.”

Brinkman never knew if the nickname bothered him.

“He’s the most humble man I know,” Brinkman said. “I’ve never heard him talk badly about anyone.”

Aripa put others first, said his great-niece, Marlene Sproul. While he was an elder himself, he still delivered firewood and Columbia River salmon to other elders. He encouraged Sproul to finish degrees in business administration and management, providing financial help when needed. Sproul lived with Aripa for 15 years, and also cared for him in her home for three years before his death.

“He accepts other people as they are,” Sproul said. “It says a lot about why people respect him and love him so much.”

Aripa’s integrity made him “a good tribal member, a good soldier and a good human being,” said Allan, the tribe’s chairman.

Aripa was ‘Uncle,’ ‘Grandpa’ and expert

After his military service ended, Aripa spent 23 years working as a road engineer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He engineered many of the roads on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation and also spent part of his career on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon. He was also a tribal judge.

Aripa never married, but he helped raise his sister Lucy Aripa Sanchez’s children and grandchildren. He was “uncle” and “grandpa” to many Coeur d’Alene families.

After his retirement, Aripa and other elders worked with linguists to keep the Coeur d’Alene language alive. With his death, only one other native speaker remains, 99-year-old Marie Irene Seltice Lowley. But many younger members of the tribe are studying the language and working to gain fluency.

Besides the litigation over the tribe’s ownership of the southern part of Lake Coeur d’Alene, Aripa’s knowledge of language and history was important in other court cases. In 2008, the tribe reached a $168 million settlement with Avista Corp. over the utility’s storage of water on the tribe’s submerged land in Lake Coeur d’Alene.

Aripa had walked the shoreline of the lake and parts of the Coeur d’Alene and Upper Spokane river with archaeologists to document evidence of old village sites.

His knowledge also helped the Coeur d’Alene Tribe win approval from the U.S. Board of Geographic Place Names to replace “squaw” as the name for more than a dozen locations in Idaho and Washington. Squaw Bay on Lake Coeur d’Alene, for instance, became Neachen Bay. The new name refers to the Coeur d’Alene’s past practice of driving deer into the lake at that location. The deer were harvested by men in canoes, and the meat was processed by women on the shore.

Aripa also served as a consultant to the tribe’s fisheries and natural resources departments. When the tribe’s biologists were working on stream restoration projects, Aripa suggested re-introducing beavers, whose dams create wetlands and improve water quality.

“The beaver – he’s got more of a Ph.D. in engineering than any one of you,” Aripa told them.

When he was confined to his bed during the last weeks of his life, Aripa was still getting visits from tribal staff, who sought out his advice for a culture camp.

His sense of humor remained intact. Someone had brought him a jar of camas roots, a traditional Coeur d’Alene food.

“These are better than Geritol,” he joked to visitors.

Aripa’s dreams for the future of the 2,400-member tribe included retaining the farm heritage of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.

A casino, resort hotel and golf course have become the tribe’s economic engine. But, “the casino can’t raise potatoes or corn,” Aripa said.

“I still have the idea of staying in farming,” he said. “If you’ve got land, you can stay alive.”

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