Among the ancient cultures of the world, Salish People from the interior of the Northwest and particularly the Sinixt People who inhabited a vast territory from the headwaters of the Columbia River to it’s junction with the Spokane River are recognized for their stewardship of the land. Traditions that allowed the strongest runs of salmon to clear Kettle Falls and continue to spawning grounds upstream kept a healthy population of fish running in the Columbia for millenia. While Egyptian, Sumatran, Greek and Roman Empires rose and fell, often as the result of unsustainable practices, local tribes lived on. They managed to fish amicably at the Kettle Falls, one of two major fisheries on the Columbia River (the other being at Celilo Falls) by keeping a peace between tribes who fished here, even when they were at odds during the rest of the year. Caribou, Elk, Bear and other animals were similarly sustained and honored in Sinixt culture.
Trails led for generations to the Falls and back to home villages. Most long distance travel was accomplished by canoe. The Sinixt developed a unique style, the sturgeon-nosed canoe, that allowed them to paddle up swift-moving streams without swamping because the bow of the canoe parted the waters without swamping, much like a kayak. They also developed extensive trail systems, known as “Grease Trails” because the principle trade item was bear fat, highly prized for its ability to keep without developing a rancid flavor. These trails often included rope bridges made of hemp. As the major crossroads for this network of water trails and foot paths, Kettle Falls was the central trading hub for the region.
Around 1760, Pawnee Indians brought Spanish Ponies from the Great Plains to the Northwest. Traditional trade routes such as the Kalispell Trail then extended to the Bitterroot Valley in Montana and down to Celio Falls near The Dalles Oregon. There it connected with trade routes from the Chinook tribes on the coast. Buffalo robes, obsidian for knapping and shells became inland trade items. But along with the wealth of extended travel came disease. As early as 1770, 40 years before White People arrived on the scene, Small Pox was reported near Kettle Falls.
Traditional Indian life involved passing on knowledge and building character in each new generation. Every member of a tribe had duties that took training from one generation to the next. Over the next half century, European disease decimated Native Peoples. Some estimates are that only a tenth of the original population remained by the time of local first contact with White People. The lore and history that was lost in these epidemics can hardly be overestimated.
At the time David Thompson arrived representing the Northwest Company, local people were anxious to trade for steel and guns. Great Plains tribes already armed with industrial technology had begun raiding Sinixt territory. The Northwest Company was largely staffed by French-Indian mixed blood people. When their time working for the company was over, they became “Free Men”. Many of them settled near Chewelah even before David Thompson arrived in the Colville Valley in 1811. Today, many of the surnames of local tribal members have French roots.
The Freemen also brought with them their Catholic religion and eventually Jesuit missionaries. In 1845 St Paul’s Mission was established near Kettle Falls as well as St Regis Mission near Chewelah by Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet. Native People’s were willing to learn from the religion of some of the Fur Traders. It did not completely eclipse their experience with the spirits of nature. By then crude vaccinations for Small Pox administered by the priests saved many from death and increased Native appreciation for the healing powers of these new spirits. They were not as impressed with the beliefs of Protestant Missionaries Cushing and Myra Fairbanks Eells and Elkanah and Mary Walker, who established the Tshimakain Mission near Ford Washington in 1838 and left in 1848 without converting a single soul.
In 1825 the Hudson Bay Company established its principle “factory”, Ft Colvile (spelled with one “l”) on a wide floodplain north of Kettle Falls. Ft Colvile supplied food and trade goods to traders in the territory north and east of the Falls and was the principle trading post for the interior of the Pacific Northwest. The post grew huge crops of potatoes and grain, raised beef and pork and grew fruits and vegetables. Local tribes learned to cultivate land and began farming throughout the Colville Valley. Their crops were included in the trade goods of Fort Colvile.
With the boundary treaty of 1846 that established the 49th parallel as the northern boundary of the United State, a new government came to replace the British-backed Hudson Bay Company. The American representative, Issac Stevens came in 1853 and began a campaign to relegate all Native Tribes to reservations. American settlers moved into the area and the American Army established Fort Harney, which soon became Fort Colville, 3 miles north of the present town of Colville in 1859. By 1866 the Spoielpi, now called the Colville Tribe, were forced out of the Colville Valley and onto a reservation on the west side of the Columbia.
What followed was a long litany of broken treaty promises as rich mineral deposits were discovered throughout the region and the government worked to exploit the reservation where they a had already forced many tribes from throughout the region to live together. White men’s vices of liquor and gambling further impoverished the Native Nations. Only in the last 50 years through a series of successful court battles and the establishment of viable tribal businesses such as timber and gambling, have the local tribes begun to consolidate and control their reservations and bring more health and prosperity to their peoples.
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