It started as a toxic mess of mining waste, but today Coeur d’Alene Lake is nearly pristine, thanks to the tribe of the same name. The cleanup was profound enough to earn the tribe 2017 Watershed Heroes Award from the Washington State Chapter of the Sierra Club.
Displaced from their lands and then forced to watch as their waters were defiled with 100 million tons of mining waste starting in the late 1880s, the Coeur d’Alene embarked on an ambitious project to reclaim their stewardship.
“We gather to honor the Coeur d’Alene Tribe for their years of environmental stewardship, their persistence in this work, and promise they will be invested in renewal of the land and the water so long as the tribe exists,” said the Reverend Bishop Martin Wells of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, speaking at the award ceremony on March 10. “They count their legacy in the thousands of years, from the beginning of time.”
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It took many years to restore the waters of Coeur d’Alene Lake and the surrounding rivers and streams, waters that were severely polluted mostly by silver mines. The waste from the mines gravely damaged waters throughout the basin, ultimately damaging or destroying not only aquatic life but also killing waterfowl with lead poisoning, as well as making the water dangerous for people.
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe sued the mining companies in 1991 seeking damages. That lawsuit was later joined by the United States and the State of Idaho. Cleanup has been ongoing since then.
The tribe has long used the name Schitsu’umsh, which translates to “those who are found here.”
“From the time our ancestors were here we have always lived in this area and always had close ties to the lake,” said Tribal Chairman Chief James Allan. “The lake is central to our identity and livelihood even today. That’s why we work so hard to protect it. Water is the life of us all.”
Vice chairman Ernie Stensgar and council member Charlotte Nilson were two of a large contingent of tribal members who traveled to Spokane to attend the event. This is the tenth year that the Sierra Club has awarded a group for environmental work.
“What an overwhelming award to receive,” Nilson said. She spoke of the elders who have passed on, and how this work of improving water conditions was so important to them, part of what they fought for, embedded in their hearts.
“I look back 25 years,” Stensgar said. “It’s incredible! We didn’t have the dollars, didn’t have the expertise.”
However, he said, they realized back then that it was time to act. He recalled stories from elders now passed away, recounting how clear the water once was, how safe it had been to drink from the springs, how good the fishing was.
Today about 75 people work in the tribe’s Natural Resources and Lake Management departments. That includes not only lake and shoreline protection but air quality, wildlife, fisheries, environmental and recreation management as well.
The tribe historically utilized the entire lake, a large body of water ringed by more than 100 miles of shoreline. That changed when Idaho became a state and “ownership” changed to the State. The tribe challenged that decision about 25 years ago, and after legal battling, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe was given back the southern third of the lake.
The lake is beautiful but somewhat misleading if one isn’t aware of what lies below the surface. Allan pointed out that newcomers’ drive for wealth is what caused the environmental destruction, whereas tribal members from birth on are taught to take care of the lake.
“Protecting our lake is in our DNA,” Allan said. “We do things because it’s the right thing to do, not in order to be recognized. The Tribe does want to thank the Sierra Club and these organizations that help us in our efforts.”