In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Chief James Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.
Where is your tribe located?
Our reservation is located in the panhandle of Idaho, approximately 15 miles south of the city of Coeur d’Alene.
Where were your people originally from?
Our territory spanned nearly four million acres through present-day northern Idaho, northeastern Washington, and western Montana.
What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?
As the chairman of the tribe, I preside over Tribal Council meetings. But more than that, ?I serve as the spokesperson for the tribe and my people.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your community?
I grew up the underdog in a very poor and economically depressed area on the reservation. I graduated from Lakeside High School on the reservation and went to Eastern Washington University, where I received my degree in Political Science and became the first person in my family ever to graduate from college. Growing up as the underdog really gave me a passion to fight for the underdog.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
Ernie Stensgar was my mentor. He served as our tribe’s chairman for over 20 years and is still our vice chairman today. He taught me that the fight is home with our people. They are the ones who elect us, and they are the ones we fight for every day when we come to work. Our people are the reason we work so hard.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
Yes, I am related to Chief Morris Antelope, who was a historical leader of our tribe.
What is a significant point in history from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe that you would like to share?
We filed a lawsuit against the State of Idaho to establish title to Lake Coeur d’Alene, and in 2001 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld our claim and reaffirmed our ownership. Our tribe has been here since time immemorial, living, playing, and relying on Lake Coeur d’Alene for our livelihood. Over the past century, mining activities in the Silver Valley, upstream from Lake Coeur d’Alene, have resulted in heavy contamination in the lake and the entire Coeur d’Alene Basin. Today, the Silver Valley is one of the biggest Superfund sites in the United States.
Our tribe has been at the forefront of cleanup efforts in the Coeur d’Alene Basin. And because of our ties to the lake, we have always wanted to protect the lake from further pollution. We have always been here and we are proud of the fact that we’ve stood up for our rights to the lake, which has been so important to our people.
Approximately how many members are in your tribe?
There are approximately 2,400 members of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.
What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe?
We have a blood quantum requirement, as well as a descendancy requirement. To be enrolled as a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, you must have one-quarter Indian blood and at least one of your parents must be Coeur d’Alene.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
Sadly, our native language is vanishing. We are doing everything in our power to preserve it in schools and homes. We have just two remaining elders who are fluent in the Coeur d’Alene language. We have a language department dedicated to documenting the language, learning it, and revitalizing it. We are teaching it in our tribal school to our students and sharing it through cultural events and after-school programs. Coeur d’Alene language classes are also available through our local community college, where students can learn Coeur d’Alene to fulfill their foreign language credits, and employees can take advantage of language classes offered at tribal headquarters during lunchtime. Our tribal radio station, KWIS 88.3, broadcasts some language programming as well.
How is your tribal government set up?
Our tribe is organized under a constitution approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs on September 2, 1949. We are governed by a seven-member council elected by the general membership of the tribe.
To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.