Diggings logo

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.

Indian Meadows, Indian Hemp

by Jack Nisbet

In early September of 1809, North West Company fur agent David Thompson moved south on horseback from a Kootenai camp near the present town of Bonners Ferry, Idaho. After some initial floundering he crossed a small divide, fell in with the Pack River, and continued on to a body of water he identified only as "the Lake." From there he rode east along the shore while some of his men paddled in canoes, hauling timbers and trade goods east in a nasty wind. The furmen were forced to put up and camp before continuing on next day until they reached "the mouth of the River." There, according to Thompson's journal, they settled in with a sizable encampment of Indians.

They all smoked--say 54 Flat Heads, 23 Pointed Hearts & 4 Kootenaes--in all abt 80 men. They then made us a
handsome present of dried Salmon & other Fish with berries & a Chevreuil &c.

The tribes were gathered in some lush meadows that surrounded a peninsula off the north shore of Lake Pend Oreille, just west of the delta of the Clark Fork River. The very next day Thompson and two Indians scouted sites so that he could erect a trading post there that he called Kullyspel House. The fact that he abandoned the post within a month to build another trade house further upstream on the Flathead River underscores the complex and sometimes confusing process Thompson went through as he attempted to establish business relations with the Salish-speaking tribes between the Kootenai River and the Columbia Basin.


From the first time time he heard about these tribes, Thompson was unsure of what to call them. The Blackfeet chief Old Bear had made it clear to him in the fall of 1800 that the people west of the Rocky Mountains had significant population and political power, and that they were not friendly to Blackfeet intruders. "Beware of the Flat Heads," Old Bear had told the furman.

In June of 1807, as Thompson was trying to establish a trade house at the source lakes of the Columbia River near Invermere, British Columbia, he had sent off a present of tobacco to the "Saleesh" chiefs, which might have been what his Kootenai guides were calling the people to the south. By September of that same year, Thompson's French-Canadian and Cree advanced scouts introduced him to a new term, and he requested that a Kootenai guide lead him "down the Kootenae River as far as the Ear Pendant Indians"--certainly Thompson's translation of what we now know as Pend Oreille. It wasn't until December 1809, at his Saleesh House near modern Thompson Falls Montana, that the word Kalispel appeared in his journals: "4 Kullyspel arrived with 11 Beaver & 80 lbs of dried Meat."

Yet as he sorted out this suite of names, all of which referred to a group of interrelated families of people who spoke a very similar language, Thompson made it clear that Kalispel were the key to his knowledge of the country. Three elders he identified as Kalispels served as his main advisors during his two winters at Saleesh House. On five distinctly different large maps executed between 1814-1843, Thompson labeled the present Pend Oreille Lake as "Kullyspel Lake"--that is, the place where he found Kalispel people. On each of these maps he labeled what we now call the Flathead, Clark Fork, and Pend Oreille Rivers as the Saleesh River--that is, a drainage where all the people spoke variants of the Interior Salish language. He marked the location of his abandoned Kullyspel House trading post with "NWco", shorthand for the North West Company. He drew the peninsula much larger than it appears now, because the extensive meadows that surrounded its east end were drowned when Albeni Falls Dam raised the level of the lake. On none of the maps did Thompson make any mention of that late summer campsite for such a variety of tribes.


As a young girl in the 1930s, Kalispel elder Alice Ignace traveled with her family from their home across the river from Cusick, Washington to that same campsite at the tip of the Clark Fork River delta. She and all the local white settlers at that time knew it as Indian Meadows. Alice's family would pitch their teepees with the rest of the Kalispel and other Indian tribes as well--Flathead, Coeur d'Alene (David Thompson's "Pointed Hearts"), and some Kootenai. Alice's grandmother, who had been coming to the encampment since the late nineteenth century, was always happy to be at Indian Meadows. She picked berries and dug Indian potatoes to eat and gathered lots of rushes for mats. The Kalispel would make a trap for whitefish, all sewed up with Indian hemp, and the fish would swim in there and couldn't get out. Alice helped her grandmother split the whitefish in half and smoke them on a rack. They carried the fish home to Cusick in gunny sacks, along with lots of rushes bundled together with Indian hemp thread.

There were stands of good thick-stemmed Indian hemp (Acpocynum cannabinum) that grew around the meadows where they camped. Alice's dad would cut a length of one of the previous year's dried plants and ream out the core with piece of wire to make a pipe stem, attach to a pipe bowl he had brought along with him, and smoke away. When he needed to stick something together he would break off a fresh stem so that the white sap would run out, then use it for glue.

Alice's grandmother would bundle up lots of Indian hemp and bring it back home to where they lived, across the river from Cusick. She would strip all the leaves off and throw the red stems up on a rack above the fire until they got good and dry in the smoke. When they were ready she would soak the stems in water, using rocks to hold them under so they stayed wet; that way the pith, or core, in each stem turned mushy and soft. Then she would spread them out and pound them with a good rock, not too hard, just enough to break up all that stuff inside. After that the outside skin would peel right away.

Alice Ignace remembers watching her grandmother stretch out her deerskin dress tight on her thigh and start rolling the pieces of fiber that she tore off the bruised stems, rolling and twisting two against one another to make a double-stranded string. When she reached the end of one piece she would splice a third piece in, braiding them together. She kept making more and more, winding them all up until she had something that looked like a ball of wool yarn. Alice's grandmother used the cord for tying on her fish lures and mending nets and tying off the tops of baskets too--anything you needed to tie. If her grandmother needed some extra strong line and had some strands of sinew around, she would braid those in too.


After roughing out the buildings of his Kullyspel House in September of 1809, David Thompson explored west, downstream on the Pend Oreille River. On September 30 he smoked with an elder he called Le Bon Vieux (The Good Old Man) at a Kalispel encampment near the modern town of Cusick, Washington. Le Bon Vieux was to spent parts of the next three years with Thompson, acting as his scout, guide, trader, hunter, and envoy to other tribal nations.

Le Bon Vieux was around when Thompson spent the winter of 1811-12 at his Saleesh House trading post, near modern Thompson Falls, Montana. At the turn of the year the men at the post were busily constructing two cedar plank canoes for transporting the season's furs, and one of Thompson's journal entries zeroed in on an essential element not only of those canoes, but of all the fish net, pack-tying, and general cordage needs of people living out in the rough. January 13 - nearly finished sewing the Canoe - had abt 70 fm of Line spun by the Old ManÕs Wife in 3 Hours for the Canoe - very strong

Good Indian hemp lines, of the sort that Le Bon Vieux's wife and Alice Ignace's grandmother manufactured, had a strength roughly equivalent to modern hemp rope. Indian hemp line kept its strength under water and did not shrink in changing conditions. Recorded uses by Interior Salish tribes include fishing lines, woven fish nets, fish traps, deer nets, slings for small game hunting, nooses for bird snares, hide stretchers, moccasins, clothing, woven bedding for baby cradles, tump lines, sewing together tule mats, and the wheels used in the traditional dart game called Al-ko-lok.A length of 70 fathoms would measure over 400 feet long, no mean accomplishment for a single afternoon, and David Thompson might not have understood the hours of work that had already gone into harvesting, drying, soaking, pounding, and stripping the hemp fibers before they were rolled and twisted into high-quality thread. But he certainly would have seen the way that Indian hemp, and the Kalispel people, traveled up and down the river: from Indian Meadows, to Cusick, and back to Thompson Falls, all depending on the season of the year and the needs of the community. And he may have had an inkling, passed on from Kalispel elders like Le Bon Vieux, that the string also unwound its story across untold generations of time.

<----previous article...Diggings Feb 2005...next article---->