Spokane means "children of the sun." The Spokane Tribe's reservation, bounded in the south by the Spokane River and in the west by the Columbia River, consists of 154,000 acres in eastern Washington on the Columbia River Plateau. All but 10 percent of the acreage is held in trust by the federal government. The reservation exists in the original area inhabited by the Spokane, which sprawled across three million acres.
The Spokane Tribe of Indians' ancestors were the Spokan, a plateau people that shared
numerous cultural traits with their neighbors.
The Spokanes' original tongue is a member of the Salish language family, and they are often categorized as a Salishan tribe.
A brief history
For unrecorded millennia, the Spokane tribe lived in the area around the Spokane River, leading a seasonal way of life consisting of fishing, hunting and gathering endeavors.
The Spokane people shared their territory and language with several other tribes, including the Colville, Flathead, and Kalispel tribes. The Spokane consisted of three bands that lived along the Spokane River. The Spokane Falls were the tribe's center of trade and fishing.
The typical Spokane kinship unit was the nuclear family, plus the father's and mother's nearest relatives. The acceptable, but uncommon practice of polygamy was a potential family feature.
The spiritual life of the Spokane was closely interwoven with the land and living things. The beliefs of all Plateau Indians held many commonalities with religions of other North American Indians. The Spokane believed in a Great Spirit. There also were such atmospheric spirits as the wind and thunder, and numerous supportive animal spirits that people sought for personal guardians. Firstling rites were celebrated for the first-caught salmon, or the first berries, roots and fruits harvested during the summer season.
By the 13th century, the Spokane had developed permanent winter villages typically situated on rivers, especially along rapids and other places where fish were plentiful. Those dwellings were elongated and semi-subterranean. To hunt and gather roots and berries in the summer,
they lived in camps on mountain valley meadows. Those shelters were cone-shaped huts covered with mats.
From the 13th to 17th centuries, gradual changes to the Spokane culture appear to have arrived from the west. The Plateau peoples became influenced by the rich and intricate Northwest Coast culture of Washington's and Oregon's Pacific coasts. A few of the influences included plank houses, and wood and bone carvings depicting animals.
At the turn of the 18th century, other influences on the Spokane came from Plains Indians residing east of the Rockies -- the major one being the horse (introduced to the continent by European explorers). The Spokane probably started using horses in 1730 when they were brought into the Palouse region of present-day eastern Washington.
Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries entered the region to convert the Native Americans and improve their lot. Missionaries usually meant well, but they deliberately sought to minimize the natives' religion as well as many of their customs.
Early in the 19th century, Indian and white fur trappers out of the east came into the northern Columbia Plateau forests. They were friendly with the native people they encountered. They often lived with them, took on their customs, and intermarriage was not uncommon. In 1810, the Spokane commenced major trading with white men. The Northwest Company's Spokane House was established on their lands; it was moved to Fort Colville in 1826.
However, smallpox, syphilis, influenza and other diseases, unwittingly introduced by the white man, proved to be disastrous to native peoples, including the Spokane. Entire villages were wiped out.
Following the 1849 Gold Rush in
California, prospectors looked for gold elsewhere in the West. Gold seekers arrived in Washington territory in the 1850s and '60s. They were frequently unruly, caring little about Indians and their rights. If a white man was killed, U.S. soldiers would get involved -- regardless of what he had done. Indian wars in the inland Northwest erupted as a result. Native veterans of the wars were assumed to be murderers and were killed.
From 1860 onward, the Spokane shared the fate of numerous other tribes in the Northwest
and elsewhere. Land-hungry homesteaders poured into the Plateau region and forced off the original inhabitants. Indians from disparate tribes were concentrated onto reservations, which compromised their tribal identity. The Prophet Dance of the 19th century seems to have been a reaction against the increasing compromise of ancestral culture by the new influences.
Natural resources that Native Americans had depended upon were exploited to the point of destruction. Off-reservation burial grounds and ancient villages were often disrupted and destroyed by earthmoving and house construction. The Indian agent (federal reservation supervisor), imposed regulations and restrictions on his native charges. There was an open effort to suppress the Indians' language and culture; for example, they were assigned English
names. Indians endured the prejudice of the dominant white society. Alcoholism and other diseases exacted an awful toll.
In the latter part of the 19th century, there occurred two major agreements between the
Spokane and the federal government:
In August 1877, the Lower Spokane agreed to relocate to what would be the Spokane Reservation by November 1. In January 1881, President Hayes formally declared the territory a reservation by executive order.
Then in March 1887, the Upper and Middle Spokane agreed to move to the Colville, Flathead or Coeur d'Alene reservation.
In 1906, 651 members of the Spokane tribe were allotted 64,750 acres to be divided into individual plots.
Following the construction of Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in central Washington (1939), salmon were prevented from migrating, thus disrupting the Spokane fishery. In addition, the waters behind
the dam rose nearly 400 feet, which flooded numerous tribal lands and cultural sites. The tribe struggled for years to win compensation from the federal government, which culminated in H.R. 1753, submitted by U.S. Rep. George R. Nethercutt Jr. and two co-sponsors in April 2003. The bill would
"...provide for equitable compensation of the Spokane Tribe of Indians of theSpokane Reservation in settlement of claims of the Tribe concerning the contribution of the Tribe to the production of hydropower by the Grand Coulee Dam, and for other purposes."
In October 2003, the bill was scheduled for subcommittee hearings.
In August 1951, the tribe filed significant claims:
The first concerned land ceded to the federal government in the mid-19th century; the tribe argued that the amount of monetary compensation the federal government offered then had been negligently paltry.
The other was that the government had mismanaged some of the tribe's funds and properties held in trust.
The foregoing were combined, and the Indian Claims Commission sanctioned a settlement of
$6.7 million. The tribe accepted the offer in December 1966. Half of the funds were distributed among 1,600 members; minors' shares were placed in trust. The other half was disbursed for various tribal programs.
The tribe filed another claim in the Court of Claims for the mismanagement of commission judgment funds as well as other monies. The tribe was compensated in the amount of $271,431 in 1981.
The Spokane Tribe today
There are 2,153 enrolled members (est. 2004). The tribe's governing body is a five-member business council elected at large by the tribal membership. The tribe maintains an economic development plan.
The Indian Health Service's David C. Wynecoop Memorial Clinic, in Wellpinit on the Spokane Reservation, provides medical, dental, and pharmacy services to the Spokane and Kalispel tribes. In addition, the Spokane Tribe operates numerous other programs, including:
community health representatives
Council on Prevention and Education (COPES) curriculum.
emergency medical services
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Effect (FAS/FAE)
home health care
Indian Child Welfare
mental health and drug elimination
senior nutrition, and
Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
Tribal employment is the equivalent of 62 full-time employees.
Spokane Tribal College is a branch campus of Salish Kootenai College. The branch provides academic, Adult Basic Education, community- and cultural-interest courses, programs and other activities. The Salish Kootenai College is fully accredited.
The Spokane Tribal Hatchery participates in a multi-agency artificial production program to restore and increase kokanee salmon and rainbow trout populations in Lake Roosevelt and Banks Lake, both created by the Grand Coulee Dam.
The Wellpinit School District serves students on the Spokane Indian Reservation, with an
enrollment as of 2004 of 440 pupils.
The tribe also operates the the Sherwood Memorial Tribal Center Museum, Two Rivers Resort & Marina, the Spokane Tribal Hatchery, and the Spokane Tribal Parks Department, which operates many beautiful parks and campgrounds in the Spokane area.
The longstanding Annual Spokane Tribal Labor Day Celebration is held in Wellpinit. Other events include the Spokane Falls Northwest Indian encampment & Pow Wow, and Spokane Tribal Fair & Powwow.