Tribal Lands

Ancestral Lands

The Homeland is still home. The place “where the old ones walked” includes almost 5,000,000 acres of what is now north Idaho, eastern Washington and western Montana. The “old ones” were extremely wealthy from an Indian perspective, with everything they needed close at hand. Unlike the tribes of the plains, the Coeur d’Alene’s and their neighbors, the Spokane’s, the Kootenai, the Kalispel, the bands of the Colville Confederated Tribes and the Kootenai-Salish, or Flatheads, were not nomadic. Coeur d’Alene Indian villages were established along the Coeur d’Alene, St. Joe, Clark Fork and Spokane Rivers. The homeland included numerous and permanent sites on the shores of Lake Coeur d’Alene, Lake Pend Orielle and Hayden Lake.

These tribes traded among themselves an with dozens of tribes far away on the Pacific coast. Ancient trade routes connected the Coeur d’Alene’s with the Nez Perce, the Shoshones and the Bannocks to the south and southeast. To the east were the tribes of the Great Plains and the vast herds of buffalo. With the coming of horses, young Coeur d’Alene men journeyed east to hunt buffalo. These journeys, however, were not necessary for survival. They were viewed as adventures, and even rites of passage, for youth who would emerge into manhood and into leadership roles.

All ancient tribal trade routes and paths remain today. In fact, those very same routes are still used all across the country. Today, however, we call those tribal routes “Interstate highways.”

The first white people to encounter the Coeur d’Alene’s were French trappers and traders. It was one of these Frenchmen who found the tribe to be vastly experienced and skilled at trading, thus the name “Coeur d’Alene,”meaning “heart of the awl.” The nickname stuck. One Frenchman described the tribe as “the greatest traders in the world.”

Environment

The old ones walked here. Those yet unborn will walk here, too. From a tribal perspective, the Coeur d’Alene presence here on the reservation and within the ancient homeland has lasted from the beginning of time. Every tribal member knows and feels the link to generations past. The culture and traditions have developed and been passed on for thousands of years – in the same place. In modern Indians, you see the faces of their ancestors.

Ecology and Environment

In the early summer of 1991 the Coeur d’ Alene Tribal Council took a stand. Council members fought back tears as they decided to file a lawsuit and force restoration of the Coeur d’ Alene watershed, including the Coeur d’Alene River and its tributaries, Lake Coeur d’ Alene, the so-called lateral or chain lakes nearby and portions of the Spokane River

The Creator owns the lake, but He put the Coeur d’Alene’s here to take care of it.

They shed tears for the lake, the river, and the monumental task ahead. It would mean years of struggle over ownership and over terrible environmental damage.

Thus began the Coeur d’ Alene Basin Restoration Project and the largest natural resource damage lawsuit in American History.

Over a 100 year period the mining industry in Idaho’s Silver Valley dumped 72 million tons of mine waste into the Coeur d’ Alene watershed. The State of Idaho, meanwhile, looked the other way. As mining and smelting operations grew, they produced billions of dollars in silver, lead and zinc. In the process, natural life in the Coeur d’ Alene River was wiped out. In 1929, as the river flowed milky-white with mine waste, a Coeur d’ Alene newspaper reporter described a river trip to the Silver Valley a “Up the River of Muck and into the Valley of Death.”

Today, the Silver Valley is the nation’s second largest Superfund site. The natural resource damages, however, extend upstream and far downstream from the 21-square mile “box” that is now under Superfund.

The Superfund cleanup is expected to cost $200 million. The tribe’s natural resource damage assessment for the river, its tributaries, the lateral lakes and Lake Coeur d’ Alene totals over $1 billion. The tribe, working with the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Geological Survey, has taken the leading role in cleanup efforts and the leading role toward responsible stewardship of the basin.

The tribe took its case to court not only with a plea for environmental stewardship, but also with detailed and peer-reviewed science. The issue has become the Interior Department’s number one priority for cleanup. The Justice Department followed the tribe’s lead and the United States government filed suit against the mines and Union Pacific Railroad in the spring of 1996, echoing almost verbatim the tribe’s 1991 lawsuit. Union Pacific has since settled.

As the tribe works to create a basin cleanup, it also works to resolve ownership of Lake Coeur d’ Alene. A lawsuit filed in October of 1991 against the State of Idaho would enable the tribe to take the state into court and eventually prevent the state from interfering with tribal jurisdiction over Lake Coeur d’Alene, which is the heart of the tribe’s homeland and reservation.

Tribal leadership is convinced by recent history and environmental neglect that the Coeur d’ Alene Tribe is the last best hope for the future health of the lake and, therefore, the economy of the region.

In these lawsuits, the tribe is applying its Sovereignty and its commitment to environmental restoration.

“If we control the lake, we can clean it up,” said the late Henry SiJohn, a tribal elder who served as a tribal council member and the council’s environmental liaison. “We do what we do for the future of this lake and for the future of this region. We do it not just for the Coeur d’ Alene Tribe, but for everybody.”

The tribe’s quest to resolve ownership was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2001. The U.S. Supreme Court recognized that the Tribe has always been the owner of the lower one-third of Coeur d’Alene Lake and other related waters.