Put It in Your Heart

Kalispel Leaders Inspire the Young

By Cate Huisman

I have a theory that the place that feels like home is where you were in fourth grade. Maybe you’ve lived there all your life, or maybe you just spent a year or two there, but in fourth grade you learned about your state and its history before going on to study the wider world as you moved on through the upper grades.

Ellen Weissman, a substitute teacher at Washington School in Sandpoint, became concerned a few years ago that fourth-graders there were getting an incomplete picture of their home. They had no way to learn about the individuals who, for millennia before their own families had arrived, had had a village not far from where they now went to school. Remembering the Idaho history textbook her youngsters used, Ellen recalled only a couple of pages about Indians, and just a few paragraphs about the Kalispel.

The Kalispel Tribe now has a reservation in Washington State, near Usk, about thirty-five miles down the Pend Oreille River from Sandpoint. But they once lived all along the Clark Fork and Pend Oreille rivers in northern Idaho and around Lake Pend Oreille and Priest Lake, as well as in the neighboring valleys of what are now Washington, Montana, and southern British Columbia. Paddling distinctive sturgeon-nosed canoes on seasonal migrations, their stops included the village at what is now Sandpoint. In this area they gathered tule rushes to make homes, hunted for deer, bear, and caribou, fished for whitefish and bull trout, and gathered roots and berries.

Their history over the past two centuries mirrors that of other North American Native peoples: vast numbers were felled by smallpox and other diseases, and over the years the survivors lost access to much of the territory they had once traveled to gather the materials they needed to sustain their traditional way of life. Down to perhaps 150 individuals at the turn of the 20th century, the Kalispel finally receded to the traditional winter village near Usk that became their eight-square-mile reservation.

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