Spokane Tribal History
Today, the 2,879 enrolled Spokane tribal members live both on and off the Spokane Indian Reservation. The reservation was created in 1881 by U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes through Executive Order. Its size–157,376 acres–is a fraction of the roughly 3 million acres Spokane ancestors called home prior to westward expansion of Euroamerican settlers.
The development of Plateau culture prior to contact with Euroamericans moving west has been a subject of study since the early 20th century. The unique history of cultural development in the Plateau is the result of geologic processes, climatic fluctuation, and human adaptation. Material remains suggest that ancestors of today’s Spokane Tribe exploited the area’s natural resources for at least 9,000 years before Euroamerican contact.
During the ethnographic period, ancestors of today’s Spokane Tribe lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle based on an annual subsistence round. This included a more permanent residence along local rivers in the winter, and temporary residences in the spring, summer, and fall. The area they exploited on an annual basis covered a great deal of present day eastern Washington state with ventures into northern Idaho and western Montana following the acquisition of the horse around 1730.
Fishing for Salmon along the SpokaneRiver (Pre-1930). Pictured here are two Spokane tribal members (Left: Roy LeBret Right: Bill Wynecoop) after a day of fishing in the Spokane River at LeBret’s Beach (Spokane River). Notice that the man on the left is holding a spear while the man on the right has a rod-and-reel. (Photo located in the Spokane Tribe of Indians Preservation Program Archives.)
Three Spokane men first directly encountered Europeans during the Corps of Discovery expedition on May 6, 1806, at which time Meriwether Clark refers to a “nation Called the Skeets-so-mish who reside at the falls of a Small river dischargeing itself into the Columbia on its East Side to the South of the enterance of Clarks river”. The name “Spokane” is often translated as “children of the sun,” most likely stemming from the name of a chief, Illim-Spokanee, first encountered by fur traders, whose name was translated as “Son of the Sun”. Soon after, Spokane House was established as a trading post in 1810 at the confluence of the Spokane and Little Spokane rivers approximately 8 miles northwest of the falls. It was the first long-term, non-Indian settlement in what is now the state of Washington. This was followed by the competing Fort Spokane two years later at the confluence of the Spokane and Columbia rivers 20 miles to the west.
At the time of contact, the Spokane people were divided into three bands: the Lower, Middle, and Upper Spokane. This subdivision may mask a larger number of bands, some of which were decimated or forced to amalgamate either due to European epidemics of infectious disease and/or to defend against westward expansion. Unfortunately, while the area’s major ethnographers such as Ray, Teit, Elmendorf, and Ross generally agree that there were three Spokane Bands, they often disagree on their naming and spatial distribution. Elmendorf, places the Lower Spokane at Little Falls and the Spokane River mouth, the Middle Spokane at Tum Tum and the Little Spokane River, and the Upper Spokane on Latah Creek and Spokane Falls.
Prior to the damming of the Spokane and Columbia rivers in the 20th century, these waterways provided the majority of the Spokanes’ subsistence. Various fish species, especially migrating salmon, had been vital to sustaining life of indigenous people in the Inland Northwest for approximately 5,000 years. Local people were attracted to inland waterways to harvest salmonid species in great numbers in the Columbia and Spokane rivers, including Chinook (Oncorhynchus tschawytscha), sockeye (O. nerka), and steelhead (O. mykiss). Other fish such as sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus), lamprey eels (Entosphenus tridentatus), suckers (Catostomus sp.), and various species of trout including the redband (O. mykiss gairdnerii) played a smaller part in subsistence pursuits. Researchers estimate the total annual harvest of salmon species by the Upper Columbia River tribes (Coeur d’Alene, Kalispel, Kootenai, and Spokane) was 644,469 fish yielding a total weight of 6.8 million pounds. They also estimate consumption of salmonids by Spokane people at the time of European contact to be 948 pounds per capita. This diet was supplemented by large and medium mammalian species, freshwater mussels, roots, and berries. Mammals include mule and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus, Odocoileus virginianus), and elk (Cervus elaphas). Freshwater mussel (Margaritifera falcata) beds were also lost to the dams, although the harvesting of some roots (bitter root [Lewisia redivia], camas [Lomatium spp.]), berries (serviceberries [Amelanchier alnifolia], huckleberries [Vaccinium caespitosum]), deer, and elk remain economically important to local tribal people today.
The people of the Spokane Tribe have persevered through loss of land, forced relocation, and loss of their economic and spiritual base (the salmon). They are resilient, and they are thriving.
REFERENCES CITED: Cox, Ross 1831 The Columbia River; or Scenes and Adventures During A Residence of Six Years on the Western Side of the Rocky Mountains, Among Various Tribes of Indians Hitherto Unknown: Together with A Journey Across the American Continent. Volume I. Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, London. HistoryLink.org n.d. The North West Company Establishes Spokane House in 1810. http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=5099, accessed May 25, 2016. Moulton, Gary 2003 The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition Online. Electronic document. http://lewisandclarkjournals.unl.edu/read/?_xmlsrc=1806-05-06&_xslsrc=LCstyles.xsl#noten33050602, accessed May 25, 2016. Ray, Verne F. 1936 1936 Native Villages and Groupings of the Columbia Basin. Pacific Northwest Quarterly 22(2):99-152. Ross, John Alan 2011 The Spokan Indians. Michael J. Ross, Spokane, Washington. Scholz, Allan, Kate O’Laughlin, David Geist, Jim Uehara, Dee Peone, Luanna Fields, Todd Kleist, Ines Zozaya, Tim Peone, and Kim Teesatuskie 1985 Compilation of Information on Salmon and Steelhead Total Run Size, Catch and Hydropower Related Losses in the Upper Columbia River Basin, Above Grand Coulee Dam. Technical Fisheries Report No. 2. Upper Columbia United Tribes Fisheries Center, Eastern Washington University, Department of Biology, Cheney, Washington. Spokane Tribe of Indians n.d. Spokane Tribe of Indians Website. https://www.spokanetribe.com/, accessed January 10, 2020.
The Spokane Tribe of Indians vision is to achieve true sovereignty by attaining self-sufficiency. We will preserve and enhance our traditional values by living and teaching the inherent principles of respect, honor and integrity as embodied in our language and life-ways. We will develop strong leadership through education, accountability, experience and positive reinforcement.