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WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on local landscape and natural history of Pend Oreille County, Washington. A partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department has allowed us to expand this program through EPA funding to include more classes, a newsletter and this website.

Remembering Alice

by Jack Nisbet

One evening last spring I picked up Kalispel elder Alice Blackbear Ignace at her house on the reservation north of Usk and drove her down to Newport so she could give a little talk. As we traveled south along the Pend Oreille River through rain showers and sleet, Alice talked about what she’d been up to since we last saw each other. For her recent birthday, her sister Sue Finlay had given her a ride over to the Casino in Airway Heights, where she had had good luck at blackjack. She told me how proud she was of her daughter Shirley Sandoval, who holds a management position at the casino, and mused about the many people of her generation who did not get to see the positive course that she felt the Kalispel people were on for both now and the future.
That reminded her of when she was a little girl, riding the same road we were on when it was still dirt. She would be in a wagon with her grandmother and parents, camping out as they passed Furport and Newport, then Sandpoint on Lake Pend Oreille, then on to a late-summer intertribal gathering at Indian Meadows near the mouth of the Clark Fork River. Although Alice, out of respect, never mentioned her grandmother’s given name, she relied on her as a rich source of cultural knowledge. When Alice Ignace spoke of her grandmother’s ways, it was as if she had a direct line to the words and feelings of her Kalispel family for many generations in the past.
“My grandmother would be smiling when we finally came down on the meadows,” Alice said. “She was so happy to see them again, and right away she’d get started gathering her Indian hemp, her tules, drying fish on one wooden rack, scraping hides the men brought in on another.”
Whitefish were the most important fish they were drying there, but suckers would come up in the nets and traps as well. Alice’s grandmother would boil those suckers until the meat fell off them, then pick up the bones one by one and tell their particular stories.
Each of the tasks her grandmother performed at Indian Meadows required that kind of feel for the landscape layered with a lifetime of carefully honed skill. When Alice explained the details of any one of them--say the breaking of the pith away from the stem of an Indian hemp plant--it was impossible not to be impressed by the depth of her knowledge. She was like an experienced gardener who is aware of which plants fit where in their garden, of all the insects and birds and animals that interacted with them, of every nuance in daily weather and changing seasons. The difference was that Alice and her grandmother’s garden covered the entire drainage of the Pend Oreille River and beyond, from the water’s edge to the mountain ridges.
She liked to tease me about the travels of David Thompson, the first white person to write about the Pend Oreille. One October when I was with her up on North Baldy, she spread her arms out and turned in a slow circle to survey all the territory on display before us: the mirror of Priest Lake to the East, with the Selkirks and Cabinets rising beyond; mountains to the North in Canada already covered with snow; Mount Spokane and the dry country to the South, where the leaves were still turning; Calispel, Hooknose, and Abercrombie Peaks to the West, hiding the Colville Valley and the mother Columbia. Between us and those last round mountains ran the Pend Oreille River, curling like a small shiny ribbon in the autumn sun.
“Tell me,” asked Alice. “How long did this man Thompson stay on this river? How far down it did he travel?”
David Thompson had twice spent a few hours on the lower Pend Oreille, paddling from Cusick downstream and never making it past Box Canyon. He had never been in the hills on either side of it, much less up in the mountains. He had never even seen Priest Lake.
“So tell me,” Alice asked again. “Why do you think this man is so important?”
Alice Ignace certainly had David Thompson beat. As her daughter Shirley said, “she lived through hard times, which at the time was a way of life and not looked upon as hard times.” Alice’s grandmother taught her where to dig the best camas and gather its compliments, skunk cabbage & black tree lichen, to roast together in a ground oven. Alice often rowed her grandmother over to the Cusick store to get pie, but even better was when they boated to a certain island in the undammed Pend Oreille to dig the delicious roots of yampah, so tender you could eat them raw. When Alice revisited places she had camped with her family as a child, such as the spring below North Baldy, every change in the air seemed to stir her store of knowledge, from the sweet smell of red-stem ceanothus to the wind’s rustle across the sharp edges of beargrass.
Alice was very careful about gathering the plants she wanted to use from exactly the right spot. Once we were cutting tules out at Calispel Lake, we saw a nice patch of wapato, Indian potatoes, and I asked if she might want to dig some of them. Oh no, she answered, her grandmother would never take wapato from here. They would dig camas from Calispel Creek, further downstream, and carry it to a Coeur d’Alene friend who dug wapato at Rose Lake. That was where the good Indian potatoes grew, and she would trade Coeur d’Alene wapato for Kalispel camas sack for sack.
Alice Ignace carried that same awareness of the past right through her life. She interpreted for elders as a young woman, and traveled back to Washington D.C. to testify for Kalispel land claims in the 1960s. She served as a strong witness for the more recent settlement between the tribe and the Public Utilities District along the Pend Oreille River. Known for her beautiful spoken Salish, she inspired the tribal language program for students, and for years helped with an authoritative dictionary of Kalispel Salish that is still in progress. And she never stopped telling her stories.
Alice Blackbear Ignace, 84 years of age, passed away October 5 at her home north of Usk,
surrounded by family and friends. We know she is smiling as she rejoins her many grandmothers at Indian Meadows, Priest Lake, North Baldy, and all the other special places where she camped during
her remarkable life.

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