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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Margo Hill: How Spqni came to live at the Spokane Falls, featured in this year’s Summer Stories

The lower falls of the Spokane River are pictured in March 2022.  (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Margo Hill For The Spokesman-Review

The Spokane Falls are a main landmark in many of this year’s Summer Stories. While the short fiction writers partaking in the series weren’t required to write specifically about the Spokane Falls, many did. When choosing the theme for this year’s series – The Falls – we turned to Margo Hill, a member of the Spokane Tribe and an urban planning professor at Eastern Washington University. Hill provides this piece of nonfiction to help kick-start our series and showcase what the Spokane Falls mean to our area tribes.

Since time immemorial, our Spaqni (sun light people) have lived along the Spokane riverbanks and fished. My tupiye (great-grandmother) Sadie Boyd and before her, Chief Lot, told our creation story that tells of how we came to live at the Spokane Falls. We call this location “Sqahetkw,” meaning the “place of fast-moving water.” Our creation story tells about how the ground shook, the Sqwelixw people ran, the ground and the mountains tore apart. Then it was thundering and lighting. It was raining and the earth flooded. In the end, an older boy and an older girl met each other and reached “Chqwulsm” Mt. Spokane. From there, they watched as the water drained. They saw the flowing water down below. They went and saw this beautiful waterfall and its rapids. “Oh! What is that crawling in the water? A salmon! A steelhead!” From those salmon they got life, and from those two arose the Middle Spokane, the Upper Spokane and the Lower Spokane. Shey’ u hoy. That is all.

Today, the scientists and geologists explain the glaciers, lakes and the Missoula floods that broke through to flood Spokane and create the basalt rock formations that we see along Interstate 90. Their science explains the oral history that we as Spokanes have passed down for thousands of years.

Our three bands were named for their relationship to the river (Ntwetkw) and the salmon (smleech). The upper, middle and lower Spokanes. We fished along the banks of the Spokane River. As Spokanes, we were so closely associated with the falls and the salmon our tribal identity in native sign language was represented by a hand gesture that mimicked the movement of a fish. The movement was the tail of a salmon in the act of spawning.

Each year our people knew that the salmon would return. The Smleech swam up the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean to the Spokane River to the Falls as they had for thousands of years. We fished on scaffoldings, with dipnets and spears, and even shared our resources with our sister tribes. In some areas the fishing began with June hogs, and continued through July into October.

In the early day, suyapees (non-natives) were dependent on the natives for help. As more and more white settlers came to the area, they remarked how the natives did not see the value of the falls. Almost everything the settlers saw was the value and industry of the land and the river. How they could put the river and falls to work to make a profit. The falls were looked at for their utility. For white people, “the waterfalls meant water power; power meant manufacturing; and manufacturing meant money.” At first, the manufacturing would be simply a sawmill and milling grain. Local farmers came to Spokane for wood and flour. As the city grew in the 1880s, pollution grew to municipal waste and sewage going right into the river.

The Spokane Tribe along with other tribes such as the Coeur d’Alenes, Palouse (now Colville band) and the Yakama’s fought the United States Cavalry, first defeating Steptoe in 1857 and later warring against Col. George Wright in 1858. We were removed from the banks of the Spokane River at the falls and forced to relocate to the Spokane Indian Reservation in the 1877 Agreement. In 1898, the government officials devised a plan in which Indians had to obtain a pass signed by the federal agent on their reservation to travel to Spokane. If natives were caught without a pass, they would be arrested and turned over to federal agents and punished.

Pollution, politics of the Spokane River

Our people had watched the degradation of the Spokane River for many decades. This worsened with the building of the dams from Long Lake to Little Falls to the Grand Coulee Dam in 1939. This cut off our salmon runs, our food source and our way of life.

Finally, with the 1970s, came the environmental protections laws such as National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act of 1972.

The theme of the Expo ’74 World’s Fair focused on the environment. But they didn’t have the original stewards of the land, the sqwlexw, involved in the planning. King Cole, the mastermind behind the Expo, had stated, “We had always wanted to have a Native American presence, but we never knew quite what to do about it.” Spokane Tribal Chairman Alex Sherwood expressed skepticism about Expo’s good will to the Indians. Sherwood pointed out that these were the lands of the Spokane Tribe, but the Indians were not contacted to be participate in the fair. He observed that the river had only been denigrated in the century since non-Indians came to these lands. Sherwood said the Spokane River “used to abound with fish from the sea; Indian used to come to the Spokane Falls from far to get their winter supply of salmon, but now since Grand Coulee Dam was built there is no more fish, and the pollution in the river, I wouldn’t even swim there now.”

Lucy Covington, a prominent tribal leader in the Northwest, referencing “the Spokanes, Kalispels, Coeur d’Alenes, Nez Perce and Colvilles are all right in this area and she was not happy that “with all this rich (tribal) culture, there is very little attention given to the Indians at Expo. Part of the problem is Expo officials didn’t know who to contact at the tribes. Finally, Expo officials were encouraged to contact Northwest Indian Enterprises, which hired Sonny Tutle, an Oglala Sioux, a Bureau of Indian Affairs employee working in Spokane. Expo officials, such as Gordon Hilker, felt that tribal “ideas of the scale of Indian participation see overly elaborate.” Tuttle had a confrontational style that served the tribes well for Expo participation. Delwo described Tuttle as “dedicated, very active and somewhat overwhelming.” He was the most aggressive organizing BIA representative he ever came across.

KXLY-TV did a series about Expo and didn’t include any coverage on the tribal participation.

The tribes had to take their cause of Indian participation to Washington, D.C. While traveling with the Kalispel Tribe, Tuttle arranged a meeting with Sen. Warren Magnuson. Then they went to the government agency responsible for the grant and the official was totally bored and pulled out a desk drawer between him and the visitors Tuttle and Delwo. Finally, right in the middle, as they were getting nowhere, the secretary walked in and said, “Senator Magnuson is on the phone.” He said, “Yes, senator. Yes. Yes. Yes.” And everything changed.

In the fall of 1973, the other native organization was the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI) President Roger Jim (Yakama), Skip Skanen and Tuttle were in constant contact with the Expo ’74 Corporation seeking space and money to have an Indian exhibit. The meetings were often confrontational. Skanen said, “We did have some big arguments.” There has never been another world’s fair with this level of Indian participation. Jim wrote a letter to Congressman Tom Foley, and Foley wrote a letter to U.S. Department of Commerce sharing his belief that “the tribes of Northwest Indians can render significant benefits to the efforts of Expo ’74.” The U.S. Department of Commerce apologized for not consulting the tribes.

Jim stated, “It has happened. Fork-tongued again. Indians today can’t do a damn thing.” Finally in January, the two sides came to a compromise and the plan was a blend between the two parties. The tribes wanted to control their own site for an ongoing Indian program.

As they stood along the riverbanks at twilight, Sherwood said:

“I remember this river so well as it was before the dams. My father and grandfather used to tell me how it was before the white man came; when, right below where we are standing; Indians from all over would gather every year from the annual salmon fishery.

It was beautiful then, with thousands coming for many miles. You could hear the shouting welcomes as they arrived, the dancing, the singing, the trading, the games, the races, always the hearty hugs and the fish! The fish sometimes so thick that it seemed that they filled the river.

Sometimes even now. I find a lonely spot where the river still runs wild. I find myself talking to it; I might ask, “River, do you remember how it used to be - the game, the fish, the pure water, the roar of the falls, boats canoes, fishing platforms? You fed and took care of our people then. For thousands of years, we walked your banks and used your waters. You would always answer when our chiefs called to you with their prayers to the river spirit.”

Sometimes I stand and shout, “River, do you remember us?”

One of the tribal leaders said, “Alex, say the prayer.” Sherwood stepped toward the falls, and in the middle of the modern city, whose lights shone bright over the scene, he looked at the river and spoke in the Spokane Salish language. According to attorney Bob Dellwo, he spread his arms and his voice spoke the ancient prayer that turned into a song. “The other men pounded lightly in time.”

When he finished, the chief turned to Dellwo to tell him “a little of what the prayer says.”

“River that comes to us from the mountains and goes to the ocean, don’t forget your people. We need your water to drink and to wash. It brings us our food. We travel on it in our canoes. We play in it, and we have a train that runs along your banks and joins our tribes.

We thank you for these things. Bring us again, as you have every year, the salmon that keep us together as a people and feed us through the winters. Remember!”