A River And A People

In history and in experience the Kalispel Tribe of Indians can be considered unique in its dealings with the white man. We have been perhaps more cordial and hospitable than most Indian tribes, accepting and even requesting religious figures to come among us to live and teach.  On the other hand, we have been more isolated and neglected in its relationship with the Federal Government. In fact, while most other tribes were established on reservations in the late 1800’s, the Kalispels, for all practical purposes, had no relationships with the federal government until 1914 when their reservation was finally established along the Pend Oreille River some fifty or more years after what historians call the “reservation period”.  Like other tribes, the Kalispels have been profoundly influenced by their environment, the greatest cultural influence seem to have come from the environment created by the Pend Oreille River which they call “ntxwe”, a Kalispel word which, it is said, symbolically reduces all other streams to an inferior status.

It was from this river that Kalispel culture arose.  Here our people built winter villages and established summer root digging camps.  In the mountain masses that flanked the river they hunted deer, caribou and bear and trapped many kinds of smaller animals.  In the thickets on the prairies and in the low hills beside this river the Kalispel gathered their summer and fall berries for drying.  From the Pend Oreille and it smaller tributary streams and in the lakes that drained into the river, they took fish with spears and basket trap weirs. On this river, the Kalispels traveled daily in the conduct of their commercial and social lives and it was here they became “A People” or a “Nation of People”, spiritually and culturally. They gave every mountain, lake, spring, and prairie its Kalispel name.  In the mountains beside the river they sought their guardian spirits.  As Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce once said, “The earth and myself are of one mind”, and used that phrase to indicate his philosophic belief about the relationship between man and the environment.  Surely the Kalispel would say “The river and we are of one mind”, for even today we are known as “The People of the Oreille”, and we have withstood unimagined hardships to maintain our lives in harmony with “ntxwe”.

Along with being expert hunters and gatherers, the Kalispel were skillful river paddlers with the canoe as the symbol of our unique identity. The Tribe’s artful craftsmanship created a sturgeon-nosed canoe design that easily navigated the waters of the lakes, streams and rivers throughout Eastern Washington, North Idaho, Western Montana and into Canada.

The following cultural heritage pieces are a way to share with our community a look into our past and to honor the same traditions and cultural practices we teach our youth today.

Bark Canoe:  Original Transportation

Besides utilizing the river for a major source of food, it was also an essential means of travel. The Kalispels continually traveled from bank to bank of the Pend Oreille River in sturgeon-nosed canoes constructed of a cedar frame and a pine bark covering. The sturgeon-nosed canoes are a unique part of the Kalispel cultural heritage, due to the fact that only the Kalispels and two other tribes in the world used this type of canoe. With an average length of about 16 feet, the sturgeon-nosed canoe was considered an extremely valuable possession.

Every Kalispel family owned its own canoe.  Sitting on his heels on a cedar splint mat, a man or sometime two men, and occasionally women, paddled the craft with cedar paddles.  The paddle with shifted from side to side after every few strokes.  The Kalispel were skillful canoe people.

The canoe was an especially prized and valuable possession of a Kalispel family.  Because it served so many important purposes, it was an essential element in the Kalispel way of life.  It is not surprising that some men were very reluctant to lend their canoe, even to other careful persons.

Today it represents an important piece of Kalispel history.

Winter Mat Lodge: The Earliest Shelter

A typical winter village was comprised of a few round tipis and several long lodges. The tipis were large enough in size to house one or two families and the exterior was covered with skins, bark or mats. The tule-mate lodge, or long lodge, served exclusively for winter dwelling purposes and was large enough to house several families. The lodge was 12 feet or more in width and 50 feet or more in length. Long winter evenings were a time of sharing memories of the past as well as the present. Other tribal members spent the evenings repairing clothes, making tools, snowshoes and other gear necessary for survival. 

Winter Deer Drive:  Hunting Expertise

The Winter Deer Drive was an event in which the Tribe took part once a year in the middle of winter. Almost the entire village would participate in this tradition with the goal of replenishing the winter food supply. Men, women and children would remain on the hunt for three to four weeks. Meat procurement enabled the Tribe to use this food source year round. The hunt required great skill and knowledge of the terrain and habits of the animals, and was an essential source of food. Unfortunately, as the number of settlers increased, the animal population dwindled.    

Camas Digging Camps:  A Time to Come Together

In the floodplain of the Pend Oreille River, camas root grew in abundance and provided a vital staple for the Kalispels’ diet. Every June the Kalispels would spread out over the land and cultivate this nutritious onion-like root. Today, archaeologists are continuously finding artifacts including camas ovens, which are earthen ovens used for cooking and drying the camas. Gathering roots and other food was a time for families and friends to be together and to nurture relationships with neighboring tribes.

Fish Weir:  The Earliest Technology

The Kalispel Tribe demonstrated innovative skill by catching fish with hook and line, spears, harpoons, nets and even the bow and arrow. However, one of the most effective methods for catching char, trout, whitefish, suckers and squawfish was by using basket traps set into brush weirs. The weirs were used during summer, spring and fall months to catch a large quantity of fish that were dried and used during the harshest winter months. Assembling the weir was a creative task that demonstrated their ability to adjust to the physical environment using innovative technology.

Stick Games:  Recreation and Leisure

In the summer months, after gathering food for the winter, the Kalispels would invite relatives and friends from the Spokane, Colville, Coeur d’Alene and Kutenai tribes to join in games and recreation. Among the most popular was the stick game, which would often be accompanied by a property wager and a great deal of excitement. Other recreation included contests of throwing stakes, racing horses, diving and tossing beaver-tooth or bone dice. Most importantly, this was a time of coming together in summer camps along the Pend Oreille River.

Kalispel Culture Department

The Pend Oreille River, called “ntxwe” by the Kalispel, is the lifeblood of our Tribe. From the fish we ate to our creation stories, the essence of the Kalispel people comes from the River. Today, the Kalispel Culture Department enhances and perpetuates the strong traditions of our Kalispel people through our customs and ways of life. We educate our young people about early life of the Tribe, which includes our aboriginal hunting and fishing areas and our indigenous lands.

Cultural Activities

  • Camas dig & bake
  • Huckleberry picking
  • Bitterroot gathering
  • Hide tanning
  • Beading
  • Roach making
  • Regalia
  • Basket weaving
  • Drying meat
  • Annual Culture Camp
  • Salish Language Classes

Our Staff

Name Title Email Phone
Francis Cullooyah Program Director fcullooyah@kalispeltribe.com 509-447-7281
Kayleen Sherwood Cultural Specialist ksherwood@kalispeltribe.com