The aboriginal homeland of the Kalispel Tribe, which was also known as the Pend d’Oreille Tribe, was massive. When the reservation was finally established in 1934 they only received 4,600 acres along the Pend Oreille River in northeastern Washington. Despite that, the tribe remained in an area significant to them.
The Lady of Sorrows, a Catholic Church that was built around 1914 near the tribal buildings was constructed with the help of Kalispel men overseen by a Catholic priest named Father Griva. Today, the tribe’s annual powwow is held on the church’s original location, as it was moved in 1948 due to a flood.
In the mid-1960s only a few homes had running water and one telephone served the entire reservation. Today that has all changed reflecting the goals of their mission statement in 1992 which emphasized growth, tradition, and especially education. Their cultural department stresses cultural activities and youngsters are taught their Native language. The tribal population is still small with just over 400 members and more than half are under 18.
This success has been due in part to good leadership and little turnover. Chairman Glen Nenema has held that position for about 30 years.
ICTMN met with respected elder and Director of the Cultural Program, Francis Cullooyah, to reflect on what others should know about the Kalispel Tribe. Below are his thoughts.
About 35 or 40 years ago Stan Bluff Sr. and I got together and began to teach the language but we ran into roadblocks. The kids would get sidetracked with other things. In 2000 we opened the casino and with funding were able to put in a budget.
Stan Bluff Jr. began interpreting and transcribing the language and we learned the phonetic alphabet. By the second year we had developed short stories. We ended up with about 36 stories. It took off from there. Last year we ended up with about 124 students. Every year since 2002 we’ve graduated 4 or 5 students a year from college who are now teachers.
We shared our template with other tribes, anybody that’s interested. We went to the Bonners Ferry Kootenai, the Salish Kootenai, the Coeur d’Alene, Spokane and Colville Tribes.
I’ve been to some national language programs and I think ours is second to none.
The aboriginal lands followed the Flathead River and down to Pend Oreille Lake. From there it’s called the Pend Oreille River and flows north into Canada. That whole area was once Kalispel lands. We had three main camps at Thompson Falls, at Clark Fork, and our oldest camp which is across the river from Cusick.
We were also known as the Pend d’Oreilles and some are still living up there near Ronan, Montana. At one point some of us moved down the river because the chief said there’s just too many of us, some have to move. During this time we utilized about 3.7 million acres.
In 1809 the first suyapi, the first white man, came into the land. It was David Thompson. He found us where our powwow grounds are today. We had a village of some 175 people. We were out of the way. Nobody knew the Kalispel people in the Pend Oreille Valley. A lot of Kalispel families split off from the main group and enrolled with the Coeur d’Alenes and many of the Chewelah Band are enrolled Spokane tribal members.
Origin of name
I’m not sure of the origin of Kalispel. There was talk about Qlispelem, Qlispe, and others. A lot of words have been shortened. David Thompson gave the name Kullyspell House to a building on Pend Oreille Lake which was the first non-Indian building in Idaho. The interpreters might have changed it a little bit.
Contact with Catholic Church
In 1842 Father DeSmet came and established the first St. Ignatius Mission about half a mile from where I live today. There used to be a couple old log cabins there. They had a grist mill set up at CCA Creek. Due to the severity of the winters the ice would block off the whole river and they found the flat part in the valley was just 6 to 8 inches of topsoil with about 10 feet of clay underneath. Growing stuff just wasn’t going to work so after 10 years, in 1852, they moved the mission from here to St. Ignatius, Montana.
During the time Father DeSmet came they were trying to establish a church. We have a large cave nearby. Father DeSmet was here in mid-winter and he asked the people to gather in the cave and he would say a Mass. In the 1950s an alter was built there out of rock and it’s still there. It’s still a special place for Catholic people. They go back once every September and have a Mass. They call it Manresa Grotto.
In 1852 they wanted us to move to the Jocko Reservation in Montana but our chief wouldn’t buy it because we had people buried here. It wasn’t till 1934 that a piece of land the railroad had on the east side of the Pend Oreille River was abandoned. It was one mile wide at its widest by eight miles long. That’s what the Kalispels eventually got, 4,600 acres. We’ve acquired more land due to the flooding situation with money Bonneville Power Administration allocated us. We’ve also bought maybe 6,000 acres in Idaho.
Sturgeon nose canoe
One thing unique to our tribe and one other is our sturgeon nose canoe. It’s built in the shape of a sturgeon nose, blunt on each end. The way they’re built and shaped is very unique. We used white pine bark for the outer side and turned inside out. The advantage is in harvesting food. It goes through cattails and weeds pretty easy and on the lake when the wind is blowing it can go in a pretty straight line.
We quit making them about 1940 and when they weren’t usable anymore they were sunk. We only have three now and those are in museums. We hope to build another this spring.
We used to have to travel to Montana and deal with the Blackfeet and people over there. We now have a herd of a little over 200 buffalo. I think we’re the only tribe on this side of the mountains with a large herd. We had an opportunity to get one bull and nine cows from Roosevelt National Park in 1975. That established our herd and brought buffalo back to the people.
Northern Quest Casino
The unique thing about the Casino is that it’s 60 miles from our reservation. We were one of the last tribes able to establish a casino off the reservation. It took us eight years to get established. We decided to divide the pie up with a percentage every month funding the Camas Institute which provides education, drug and alcohol programs, but mainly education. We also have four main departments: elder program, natural resource, culture, and the Wellness Center.