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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.

What's in a Name?


by Carol Mack

The Pend Oreille River system has had several names since the glacial ice retreated. Nxtwe, “The River,” signifies the centrality of this particular water to Kalispel life past and present. The River connects traditional Kalispel lands from Plains, Montana west through our county to the Canadian border, including what are now known as the Clark Fork, Lake Pend Oreille, and Priest Lake.

Lewis and Clark ventured into the eastern part of this watershed in 1804 and 1805. Reaching what our maps show as the Bitterroot River, they called it “Clark’s Fork of the Columbia” acknowledging its relationship to “the great river of the northwest.” What we now call the Clark Fork River, they named “East Fork of Clark’s River.”

David Thompson was the first non-Indian to leave a record of exploration of the western portion of this area. On his maps he labeled Lake Pend Oreille “Kullyspell Lake.” He referred to the water flowing into and out of the lake as the Saleesh River. The French fur traders who followed evidently didn’t have Thompson’s map in hand. They called the lake and river Pend d’Oreille, probably for the ear ornaments worn by Kalispel, possibly for the ear-shaped lake.

The names given to places reflect the visions and circumstances of the people naming them. Place names direct our understanding of the landscape, and in our case, confuse ecological connections and historical relationships. Our challenge is to dig through the layers of history to reconnect the pieces. As we refine our image of this watershed to reflect a growing understanding of its geography and history, we will be better able to meet the stewardship challenges ahead.

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