American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Coeur d’Alene

"Coeur d'Alene," derived from the French for "awl heart," is reportedly a reference by an Anglo trader to the trading skills of these Indians. Their self-designation was Skitswish, perhaps meaning "foundling." In the eighteenth century, the Coeur d'Alenes lived along the Spokane River upstream from Spokane Falls, including Lake Coeur d'Alene. The region of over 4 million acres is fertile and well watered. In the early nineteenth century the tribe lived in central Idaho, eastern Washington, and western Montana; the mountains in this area helped to protect their horses against raiders from the Plains. Today's Coeur d'Alene Reservation is located in Benewah and Kootenai Counties in Idaho.

Like all Salish peoples, the Coeur d'Alenes probably originated in British Columbia. They migrated to the Plateau during their prehistoric period, keeping some Pacific Coast attributes even after they adopted Plateau culture. They acquired the horse around 1760, at which time they gave up their semisedentary lives to hunt buffalo, Plains-style.

Their traditional antipathy toward outsiders made it difficult for trappers to penetrate their territory. A Jesuit mission was established in 1842, however, foreshadowing the significant role the Jesuits were to play in their later history. At this time, the Jesuits successfully influenced the Indians to give up buffalo hunting and begin farming.

In the meantime, intermittent warfare with Indians and non-Indians, plus disease and crowding, had dropped their population by about 85 percent by 1850. In 1858 they fought the ill-fated Coeur d'Alene War (1858) with the help of tribes such as the Northern Paiutes, Palouses, and Spokans. Although the immediate cause of this conflict was white treaty violations, it may be seen as an extension of the Yakima War (1855–1856) and the general Plateau Indian resistance struggle during that time.

The roughly 600,000-acre Coeur d'Alene Reservation was created in 1873, at which time the Indians ceded almost 2.4 million acres. However, pressure from miners soon forced the tribe to cede almost 185,000 more acres in the late 1880s. Most of the rest of their land was lost to the allotment process in the early twentieth century. In 1894, thirty-two Spokan families joined the reservation. Most Coeur d'Alene Indians became Catholics, farmers, and stockbreeders. In 1958, the tribe was awarded over $4.3 million in land claims settlements.


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