The Kootenais may once have lived east of the Rockies, perhaps as far east as Lake Michigan. In the late eighteenth century, they lived near the borders of British Columbia, Washington, and Idaho. Today, most live on the Kootenai Reservation, Boundary County in Idaho; on the Flathead Reservation, Flat-head, Lake, Missoula, and Sanders Counties in Montana; and on several reserves in British Columbia.
Each of roughly eight autonomous bands was led by a chief and an assistant chief, such as a war, fish, and hunting chief. The chieftainship was hereditary into the historic period, when leadership qualities began to assume the most importance. A council of shamans chose the upper division chief. Decision making was by consensus.
Although they lived in the mountains west of the continental divide, upper division Kootenais subsisted on the Great Plains buffalo, whereas the lower division ate mostly fish (trout, salmon, and sturgeon), small game, and roots. Both divisions also hunted big and small game, and both gathered roots and berries, especially bitterroots. Most foods were dried and stored for the winter.
Men fished using weirs, basket traps, and spears. Women made a variety of baskets, including ones that could hold water. Hunting equipment included cherry and cedar wood bows, clubs tipped with antler points, stone knives, and slingshots. Buffalo were hunted with a bow and arrow or by driving them off cliffs. Leather items were prominent, especially among the upper division, whereas the lower division primarily made items of Indian hemp and tule. Kootenais also made carved wood bowls, clay pots, and stone pipes.
During the eighteenth century, the Kootenais acquired the horse and began hunting buffalo on the Plains, adopting much of Plains culture. Shortly after initial contact around 1800, Canadian traders built Kootenai House, a trading post. More traders, including Christianized Iroquois, as well as missionaries soon followed. Despite the Kootenais' avoidance of much overt conflict with whites, they suffered dramatic population declines during these years, primarily as a result of disease and alcohol abuse. The formal establishment of the international boundary in 1846 divided the tribe over time.
The Flathead Reservation was established in 1855 for the Salish and Kootenai people. Some Kootenais refused to negotiate the loss of their land, however, and did not participate in these talks. Some moved to British Columbia rather than accept reservation confinement. When the Kootenai Reservation was established in 1896, about a hundred Kootenai Indians moved to the Flathead Reservation. Of the ones who refused to move, those near Bonners Ferry were granted individual allotments in 1895. The tribe won a $425,000 land claims settlement in 1960, and the Kootenai Reservation was officially established in 1974.