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WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on place-based stewardship education. Since 2001, a partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department (KNRD) has supported this newsletter and allowed us to expand class offerings through EPA funding. Further staff support comes through Renewable Resources Extension Act (RREA). Many thanks to our partners and to you, our readers, for your continued enthusiasm for "digging" into the natural history and culture of this part of the world.

The Kalispel's River

by Jane Fritz, Sandpoint, Idaho

Since time immemorial, the Pend Oreille River has been the liquid rope to connect and draw together the Kalispel and neighboring Salish peoples into an ancient way of life of fishing, hunting and gathering of plants. There’s also the archaeological record along the river’s shoreline that suggests a river occupied continuously by indigenous people for the last 10,000 years. For non-native people who settled here some 200 years ago, that’s a stunning reality. How on earth do you measure a river’s significance to a people living so close to Creator’s gifts that they also find spiritual meaning in everything of nature in addition to the myriad gifts of sustenance? Perhaps exactly as the Kalispel ancestors did, and similarly taught their young with every new generation born: with great respect, awe of life’s interconnectedness, and immense gratitude for Creator’s amazing generosity.

This great river has been called other names for other reasons, in particular with its promise of commerce in the ethos of Manifest Destiny. Until 1937 it was called the Clark’s Fork of the Columbia, named after William Clark, flowing from its source in Montana’s Silver Bow country through Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille and then westward and north through Washington eventually emptying into the Columbia River in Canada, nearly 500 river miles. Only the Snake River exceeds this voluminous watershed which drains an immense area of more than 25,000 square miles. The Kalispel people knew much of the river’s long journeying traveling up and down many of those miles in their unique, white pine bark, sturgeon-nosed canoes. They were people of the water.

The Clark Fork / Pend Oreille River’s freedom was restrained in several places by canyons, but none was more constricted than Metaline Falls, where the river channel was only 20 feet wide. Imagine immense, great winter snow-melts from the Cabinet and Selkirk mountain ranges causing seasonal flooding, especially in the Pend Oreille Valley, only to give rise to self-propagating blue meadows of lovely camas lilies so unbelievably abundant that over the millennia hundreds of earthen ovens were built along the river’s banks in order to roast the plant’s highly nutritious bulbs for winter food. Camas so bountiful that neighboring tribes were welcomed into the valley by the Kalispels giving rise to yet another impressive social value -- sharing.

Large villages sprung up and remarkable fisheries chiefly of bull trout and mountain whitefish diversified their diet along the river’s lengthy route. This gave rise to places to gather, build relationships, and trade. Life became a “utopia”, as one late tribal elder described eloquently with tears in his eyes recalling his own upbringing.

But by the early 1800s, dramatic and irreversible change would disrupt this way of life, first with wildlife exploitation and the diseases of the fur trade, then zealous Jesuit missionaries bent on changing the people’s native world view, and finally with well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning European pioneer settlers whose encroachments caused an indigenous and simple way of life to falter. Perhaps a less kinder way of life prevailed. But as much as the Kalispel traditions and way of life had changed or been lost because of modern ways and reservation life, the people’s longstanding values, language, stories, camas meadows, tule wetlands, and some of the native wildlife and fish have endured, still freely inviting the people to continue to hold close to the river. It is a waterway whose pristine and abundant nature has diminished over these past two centuries, but whose life-giving essence and promise will always remain. Moreover the power of the Pend Oreille River is being reclaimed and its gifts restored by a determined tribal people whose traditional way of life is always being nurtured and taught to the young. Trust that it will be that way forever.

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