The Colville (pronounced COAL-vill) were known by many names. In 1846 an American coined the term “Basket People,” referring to the tall woven baskets the Colville made to snare salmon. The tribe has also been called Scheulpi, or Chualpay. French traders called them Les Chaudières (“the kettles”), perhaps because they lived near Kettle Falls. But the name by which they are most commonly known, Colville, was that of Governor Eden Colville of the Hudson’s Bay Company. They may also have been named for Colonel John Colville of the U.S. Army, the local Indian agent.
The Colville Reservation, about 100 miles (161 kilometers) northwest of Spokane, covers about 1.4 million acres of land in northeastern Washington state, ranging from the Okanagon River in the west, south to the Spokane River, and as far east as the Columbia River. The reservation has four districts: Omak, Nespelem, Keller, and Inchelium. It is located in southeastern Okanogan county and the southern half of Ferry County, but a small piece of off-reservation trust land lies in Chelan County, northwest of the city of Chelan.
In 1806 there were an estimated 2,500 Colville. In 1904 there were only 321. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 7,057 people identified themselves as Colville. According to the 2000 census, that number had increased to 8,398, and 10,076 people claimed to have some Colville ancestry. Tribal enrollment in 2007 was 8,700.
Origins and group affiliations
The Colville settled in the Northwest around 1500, migrating from present-day British Columbia, Canada. They were closely related to other Salishan-speaking groups, including the Okanagon, Lake, and Sanpoil tribes. During the eighteenth century the Colville allied with the Okanagon to make war on the Nez Percé and Yakama tribes farther to the south. Conflict with the Shuswap and Blackfeet was common, and the Colville took Blackfeet and Umatilla women as slaves. After the fur trade began, the tribe often intermarried with French Canadians and Iroquois.
The Colville were one of the largest tribes in the Pacific Northwest, inhabiting a land rich in natural resources. Once the Colville Reservation was established, at least ten different tribes lived there together, producing a rich new culture. In modern times this jointly-owned land offers timber and mineral resources, water power for hydroelectric plants (to make electricity), and fish and wildlife preserves.
Early European contact
The first meeting between the Colville and Europeans may have occurred before 1800, but no records of the contact exist. Around 1782–83 a smallpox epidemic swept through the area, indicating that Europeans were nearby. Later other contagious diseases would have killed most of the tribe if Roman Catholic priests had not given the people vaccines.
In addition to diseases the Europeans also introduced horses. When the Colville obtained horses in the eighteenth century, their territory expanded. By the early 1800s they had begun trading furs at the Northwest Company. In 1806 the Lewis and Clark expedition, which was exploring the western lands of the United States, visited the tribe.
1782–83: Smallpox epidemic strikes the Colville population.
1825: Fort Colville is established.
1872: The Colville Reservation is established.
1892: U.S. government takes the northern half of the reservation.
1938: Constitution is approved; Colville Business Council is formed to govern tribe.
1938: Newly opened Grand Coulee Dam floods salmon spawning areas, orchards, and farms.
1956: Federal government returns about 800,000 acres of reservation land to the tribe.
1984: The Colville Tribal Enterprise Corporation (CTEC) is established to improve economic development.
Settlement of Colville territory
Kettle Falls became the center of Colville activities. There they fished, traded with Europeans, and met with Roman Catholic missionaries. The North West Company and the Pacific Fur Company set up depots for trade in 1811. A decade later in 1825 the Hudson’s Bay Company, the powerful British traders, established Fort Colville. It came to be the second largest center for fur trading in the Northwest. In 1845 the Jesuits, a Roman Catholic priestly order, built a log chapel there, and Father Pierre Jean de Smet (1801–1873) conducted services for the Native Americans.
In the mid-1800s the ever-growing groups of white settlers caused problems for the Natives, especially when they brought another smallpox epidemic in 1853. The Colville way of life was further disrupted from 1858 to 1860 by white miners who crossed their territory on their way to search for gold near the Fraser River.
Members of the U.S. military were stationed at Kettle Falls in 1859 to staff a new fort that had been established there. The Americans built the fort when they discovered the Native Americans in the area excelled at trapping and stalking game and would benefit the fur trade. Soon Father Pierre de Smet—a priest well known among other tribes of the Pacific Northwest—came among the Colville. Earlier he had established the mission near Kettle Falls. The Saint Francis Regis Mission soon became a favorite site for tribes to meet and visit with one another.
The Colville disliked the fact that large numbers of settlers, miners, and soldiers were crowding their territory, but Colville chiefs did not join the wars neighboring tribes, such as the Yakama (see entry), waged against the settlers. Facing superior firepower and greater numbers, they saw that the Native Americans had little chance of winning such battles.
The 3-million-acre Colville Reservation east of the Columbia River was established in 1872 for the Colville and other area tribes, including the Okanagon, Sanpoil, Lake, Kalispel, Spokane, and Coeur d’Alene (ker-duh-LEEN). But American settlers wanted the fertile land of the river valley for themselves and urged the government to move the tribe again. The land also proved to be rich in minerals. Only three months after the reservation was established, the government relocated the tribes to a second reservation west of the Columbia River.
In the 1870s the reservation was reduced to half its original size. Then in 1892 Congress took over the northern half of the acreage and allotted a portion of it to tribal members. This meant the government divided the reservation land into small plots and gave one to each household, then invited colonists to settle on the leftover land. The federal government also purchased 1.5 million acres of unallotted land, but allowed the Colville to retain their hunting and fishing rights. In 1900, 1.4 million acres went to homesteaders. The government allotted the southern half of the reservation five years later. By 1916 they opened the remaining 417,841 acres to settlers.
During this time the tribes on the new reservation formed the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. The newly united group struggled with white settlers and with each other over land rights, a struggle that resulted in several lawsuits. In 1956 the Colville won a case against the federal government, and the United States returned about 800,000 acres of reservation land to the tribe. It was, however, only a small portion of that which had originally been taken. To restore that additional acreage, the Colville Business Council has been buying back any parcels of original reservation land that go up for sale as they can afford it.
In modern times, in addition to the Colville, the Confederation is made up of eleven bands of Native Americans, including the Wenatchee, Entiat, Chelan, Methow, Okanogan, Nespelem, San Poil, Lake, Moses-Columbia, Palus, and Nez Percé (see entry). With a land rich in resources, they have been able to thrive. They are very much a part of modern society, but they also strive to preserve their ancient customs.
The Colville refer to their Supreme Being by various names. One is “The Chief Above.” The people believe that all things found in nature—animals, rocks, plants—contain spirits that can be called on for aid in healing, raising crops, and making war. Young men and women take part in a vision quest—a ceremony in which they undergo a secluded training period in the wilderness and seek out their guardian spirit. The guardian spirit protects the individual and guides him or her throughout life.
In the nineteenth century some Colville adopted the Roman Catholic religion, while others became Protestants. The twentieth century has seen the Colville people become involved in the Seven Drum Religion, the Native American Church, and the Indian Shaker religion. Many Christian Colville take part in Native religious practices as well.
Indian Shaker Religion
John Slocum, a member of the Squaxin tribe, founded the Indian Shaker Religion in 1881 near Olympia, Washington. Slocum became ill and seemed to have died; he returned to life with a mission to found a new church. About a year later, before starting his missionary work, Slocum fell ill again. As his wife, Mary, approached his sickbed, she trembled uncontrollably. Her shaking was seen as a divine sign and became a part of Slocum’s religious services.
Slocum recovered, and word of his religion spread. It came to be known as the Indian Shaker Religion, and tribes from California to British Columbia practiced it. Each tribe added its own variations.
The Indian Shaker Religion combined elements of Native and Christian beliefs and practices. Members used crucifixes, bells, candles, pictures, dancing, and prayer in their services. Originally they did not read the Bible because they believed God communicated to them directly. Later some “progressives” allowed written materials, but traditionalists did not.
Christian missionaries and government Indian agents objected to their meetings, and the Indian Shakers called a meeting on June 6, 1892, to assert their right to practice the religion. Eventually they were left in peace, and the religion is still practiced today.
The Salishan language family includes twenty-three languages divided into three major branches: Coast Salish, Tsamosan Salish, and Interior Salish. The Interior branch spoken by the Colville is the most popular of the three branches. In the early twenty-first century more than three thousand people speak the language. Elders are training young speakers as teachers so the language can be passed on to the next generation.
- naks … “one”
- usil … “two”
- kalis … “three”
- mus … “four”
- tsilikst … “five”
- sqaltumiah … “man”
- tłkłamiluh … “woman”
- xai’alax … “sun”
- sokemm … “moon”
- si’ulq … “water”
In the early days each village was an independent unit headed by a chief. The chief was usually the oldest member of the group. He decided when it was time to move to a new area and was in charge of running ceremonies and keeping the peace within the village. Usually the chief’s younger brother took over the job when the chief died.
In modern times a fourteen-member business council governs the Colville Reservation from its administrative offices in Nespelem. Members are elected to staggered two-year terms. A chairperson, vice chairperson, and secretary, chosen by the council to serve one-year terms, lead the Colville Business Council. Members receive pay while they are in office. A tribal administrator oversees the administrative department of the reservation and reports directly to the council. Ten lower-level committees are responsible for other reservation programs.
For centuries the tribe subsisted as hunter-gatherers, living mainly on fish. They gathered roots and berries and hunted deer and small game, first for food and later for furs to trade. Groups of men worked together to drive deer over cliffs or into blinds. The Colville had four main hunts a year: 1) deer and sheep in spring; 2) elk, bear, sheep, and deer in late fall; 3) deer in midwinter; and 4) sheep in late winter. After they acquired horses, they also hunted bison.
Once the Canadian border had been established, the tribe could no longer roam freely. They were further confined on the reservation. Many turned to farming to survive. Others worked as loggers or laborers. When the federal government opened the Grand Coulee Dam in 1938, it flooded many farms and orchards and destroyed salmon spawning grounds. This drastically changed the tribe’s economic base and lifestyle.
Today the tribe’s main natural resource is their forests. They own 1.4 million acres of valuable timberlands, and timber is processed at their sawmill and wood treatment plant. Their wood products are marketed worldwide. To replenish their forests, a tribal nursery grows and replants trees. In addition, Colville Tribal Enterprise Corporation (CTEC) owns a construction company that uses the lumber. The company builds tribal housing and public facilities on the reservation and has secured construction contracts with the U.S. Army, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the U.S. Forest Service. CTEC in the mid-2000s also managed thirteen other enterprises, employed one thousand people, and generated over $120 million in revenue each year.
The reservation also has extensive rangelands for grazing livestock (nearly 290,000 acres), forested rangelands (about 135,000 acres), and farmlands (82,000 acres). The tribe owns about six thousand head of cattle and one thousand horses. They also run a profitable meatpacking operation and raise wheat, alfalfa, barley, and apples. Tribal officials are actively pursuing the expansion of irrigation to provide even more usable farmland. The tribal fish hatchery stocks many lakes and streams throughout north central Washington.
Tourist attractions are the Grand Coulee Dam on the reservation and 18 lakes, including Lake Roosevelt, which backs up for 150 miles (241 kilometers) behind the dam. On the site of the dam is an art gallery and tribal museum, which features exhibits representing each of the twelve tribes that now live on the Colville Reservation. The nearby luxury houseboat rental operation began in 1988. The Kettle Falls Historical Center features Native American crafts, history, and a retail shop. The tribe also operates a marina-restaurant complex, a gas station, three casinos, and several stores. Small business development and mining also provide income and employment opportunities.
Like many tribes who lived in cold climates, the Colville maintained both winter and summer homes. Their early winter dwellings were about 45 feet (14 meters) in diameter and were located almost completely underground. These circular lodgings were entered through a hole in the roof. Later homes were lodges, 20 to 60 feet (6 to 18 meters) long and covered with several layers of tule mats, fir branches, and bark. The Colville dug a few feet into the dirt so their homes were partially underground.
In summer the Colville lived in cone-shaped or oblong homes of pole frames wrapped with mats made from rushes. They used portable tents made from animal skins when hunting buffalo farther south.
The Colville also constructed sweathouses, structures used by men and women for religious rites of purification. They filled the building with steam by pouring water over heated rocks. Visiting a sweathouse was part of the ritual in which people sought their guardian spirits. Men also purified themselves in sweathouses before they hunted.
Living near so many rivers and lakes, the Colville often traveled in canoes made of white pine or birch bark. They also used trees to create many useful items—baskets from birch bark, coiled cedar, or spruce roots; bows and arrow shafts of juniper; and snowshoes from a variety of woods. They wove blankets from goat’s wool or strips of rabbit’s fur and made sacks from bulrushes, bark, and hemp.
To keep food fresh, they inflated animal intestines using a tube made from an elderberry stem. They then filled these flexible sacs with grease, dried meat or fish, nuts, berries, or roots. This kept their food fresh for long periods of time. They also stuffed softened animal skins with down feathers to make pillows.
Clothing and adornment
In winter Colville women wore tunics with leggings and moccasins. Men wore leggings, moccasins, and breechcloths (flaps of animal skin that covered the front and back and were suspended from the waist). The Colville fringed, punctured, and embroidered their clothing using porcupine quills and decorated them with seeds, hoofs, shells, elk’s teeth, tufts of hair, feathers, and ermine skins. Both sexes added fur robes for warmth. They lined their moccasins with bunchgrass, goat hair, or down to keep out the cold.
During the summer men and children usually went nude or wore a blanket around their waists. Most people went barefoot. Until the nineteenth century both men and women wore nose pins. Many people used face and body paint, but tattooing was uncommon. Sometime in the twentieth century, most men opted for very short hair over the traditional long braids, but during the 1990s some men returned to this earlier style.
Their location near the Northwest Coast provided the Colville with a rich and varied menu. Their staple food was salmon, and they ate the entire fish, including the head. They often retrieved the salmon that died after spawning and ate those, too. Traveling with nearby tribes, the men hunted deer, elk, bear, and beaver as well as buffalo. Following a hunt or large catch, the tribe held a feast. Then the leftovers were dried or frozen for later consumption. The stored food supplied their nutritional needs during the winter.
As soon as spring arrived, the Colville replenished their food supplies. Food hunts were extremely well organized. Special camps were set up for fishing and collecting nuts, roots, and berries. Camas, an edible root, along with other roots and huckleberries were particularly favored. In the early spring, before the salmon camps were established, the Colville sought out suckerfish and steelhead trout.
Colville children learned how to do the duties of men and women by observing their elders. Mission schools operated during the nineteenth century, but in modern times most students attend public schools on the reservation or the nearby Paschel Sherman Indian School. A number of tribal members are seeking higher education in fields that will make them useful to the tribe, such as natural resource management, law, business, social work, and health policy.
In conjunction with the University of Washington, the Colville and Yakama tribes received a $500,000 grant to set up community technology centers in each tribal community. The Colville have also begun programs to teach the three languages spoken on the reservation. Tribal elders are instructing young people who plan to become language teachers. The tribe is working with local universities to obtain college credits for these language students.
Chipmunk and the Owl Sisters
This Colville tale is part of a much longer tale that tells how Coyote tricks the Owl Sisters to save Chipmunk. It is set during the time animals had human characteristics, so the Owl Sisters have hands. This selection from the story explains why chipmunks have stripes on their backs. Grandmother sends Chipmunk to pick berries, but warns her not to stay too long because the Owl Sisters will eat her.
“I will do as you say, Grandmother,” Chipmunk said and she went into the forest with her berry basket. Soon she reached the berry bushes. She climbed up into them and began to pick. Before long she had picked eleven berries. But just as she picked the twelfth berry, she dropped it. When she reached down to pick it up, she brushed against some berries which were so ripe that the sweet juice covered her arm.
“Ah,” Chipmunk said, “I must clean myself off.” She licked off the berry juice. It was so sweet! “This is good,” Chipmunk said. “I must have more.” Then she put down her basket and climbed higher into the berry bushes and began to eat berries. She ate and she ate and the sun moved further toward the west. Now it was dark and the forest was filled with shadows, but still Chipmunk did not stop eating.
Suddenly Chipmunk heard a sound.… Chipmunk looked down and what she saw was so frightening that she almost screamed. There was the oldest of the Owl Sisters right below her.
“Little One,” the Owl Sister said, “come down to me.” She lifted her arms up toward Chipmunk. There were long sharp claws on the Owl Sister’s hands and on her back was a basket full of the little ones she had caught. She was taking them home to eat them with her sisters. She wanted to put Chipmunk in her basket, too, but Chipmunk was too high up in the bushes for Owl to reach her. Chipmunk did not move.…
“Come down,” Owl said. “Your grandmother wants you to come home.”
Now Chipmunk did not know what to do. Perhaps her grandmother had called her. “I will come down,” she said to Owl, “but you must cover your eyes.”
“I will cover my eyes,” Owl said and raised her arms over her face, but she peeked between her fingers.
Chipmunk did not climb down, though. Instead she took a great leap, right over Owl’s head! Owl grabbed at her as she went by and scraped Chipmunk’s back with three of her long claws. Ever since then, all Chipmunks bear those scars on their backs.
Caduto, Michael J., and Joseph Bruchac. Keepers of the Night: Native American Stories and Nocturnal Activities for Children. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 1994.
Male and female healers called shaman (pronounced SHAH-mun or SHAY-mun) were responsible for curing the sick, with the assistance of guardian spirits. They underwent a difficult training period to learn how to remove evil spirits from the afflicted. They cured by singing sacred songs and chants to drive the evil from the body. They practiced preventive medicine by warding off evil spirits before they could enter the body. Being a shaman was a risky business; it was common for a patient’s family to kill one who failed to heal.
In modern times the Indian Health Service provides health care services on the reservation, and the people use hospitals in nearby towns. Programs instituted by the tribe include infant care, family planning, dental health, and substance abuse counseling. They also operate a convalescent center.
Birth and Naming
During the last month of pregnancy the mother stayed in a birth hut. Midwives assisted at the birth; a female shaman might be called in for difficult births. Afterwards they washed the newborn in cool water, wrapped him or her in buckskin, and burned the afterbirth. Babies’ noses and mouths were massaged daily to shape them properly. The mother and baby remained in the hut for a month.
When they returned home, a feast was held. The baby received a name chosen by elderly relatives. Such nicknames lasted until the child was nine; then he or she received another name at a feast and giveaway. Colville babies received ancestor names at birth. Later names referred to a war honor, special feat, or spiritual power.
Before puberty both boys and girls were sent to a secluded spot to train for a guardian spirit. They did physical activities, used the sweat lodge, took baths in herbs, and observed nature. With their faces marked with red paint or charcoal, they prayed at dawn and sunset. At night they danced and begged the spirits to protect them. After a guardian spirit appeared and the child received a song, some carved or burned the spirit’s face into wood or painted it on a rock.
The parents of a couple exchanged gifts, but there was no real ceremony. In the early 1900s a young couple walked together under an arch of saplings and wished for unity.
The Colville flexed their dead, wrapped them in robes or mats, and either buried them on their sides in the ground or placed them in canoes. They marked the graves with a pile or circle of stones and placed a long stick at the head of the grave; three sticks stood for a shaman. The souls of the dead traveled to the land of the beyond, somewhere in the West or the South. After the death of a loved one widows and widowers showed their grief by cutting off their hair and wearing old, tattered clothes.
In times past the Colville scheduled festivals throughout the year. They performed puberty rites for girls, held a festival when the trees bore their first fruits, and conducted various dances on the occasions of war, scalping, summoning guardian spirits, marriage, and to honor the Sun.
In modern times the tribe holds a number of annual events, including the Trophy Powwow, a celebration of Native songs and dances; winter Chinook dances; and the annual spring thanksgiving Root Feast. The Omak Stampede and the world famous Suicide Race take place in early August and feature horse-related activities and Native food. The Suicide Race is a 225-foot (68.5-meter) downhill sprint, followed by an Okanogan River crossing and a 500-yard (457-meter) dash to the finish line. The ten-day Fourth of July Powwow at Nespelem takes place in the tribe’s “Circle,” a traditional gathering place where Native Americans from several states come in Native dress to play stick games, participate in parades, and enjoy rodeo events. Memorial giveaways are held in honor of deceased tribal members.
Current tribal issues
Since the middle of the twentieth century the Colville tribal government has won a number of claims against the U.S. government for the illegal takeover of land or the purchase of land at unusually low prices. The tribe also won a case that accused the federal government of mismanaging tribal resources. The lawsuit involved salmon runs that were destroyed by hydroelectric projects such as the Grand Coulee Dam. The money awarded as a result of these cases provides funds for a long-term program to repurchase former tribal lands.
In 2004 tribal executives sued a Canadian business, Teck Cominco, because of pollution the company emits from its lead smelter at the Columbia River and Lake Victoria. The state of Washington joined the Colville in the lawsuit. The lead-zinc smelter, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) north of the U.S.-Canada border, has sent as much as 20 million tons of heavy metals from the smelter downriver to Lake Roosevelt. Because the firm does not operate within U.S. borders, Teck Cominco tried to have the case dismissed. It was not successful, and the judge ordered the company to come up with a solution to reverse the damages.
In recent years the Colville have begun using a new method for making decisions called holistic management. Holistic management considers the feelings and values of the people involved, not only the opinions of experts. The Colville are determined to manage their tribe wisely, to use its resources effectively, and to implement a plan for balanced economic and social development.
Principles of Holistic Management
The Colville are trying to maintain their way of life as their resources decrease. The problems they face involve suppressing forest fires, building roads, spraying crops with insecticides, and clear-cutting (the removal of all the trees in an area). For years they have used crisis management, that is, dealing with problems as they crop up.
In recent years the tribe’s Natural Resources Department introduced holistic management. (Holism is a theory that nature works as a whole or complete unit, rather than as separate parts.) The Colville method of holistic management combines respecting both human values and the environment, rather than setting them against one another.
For example, not long ago elders were taken to an area on the reservation where timber is harvested. They and their resource managers sat quietly there for hours, then the elders described their feelings about the condition of the land. They all expressed very deep sorrow. Then they were asked to suggest changes that would restore their pride in the land.
A conservationist in attendance explained: “They [the elders] talked about open, grassy parkland, pine forests, diversity of wildlife, diversity of cultural species, clean water, stable soils. That became part of the goal for that watershed plan.”
Soon after, the project’s planning team examined whether proposed actions would lead toward or away from the goal. It took them two years to convince the various specialists working on the project of the value and workability of the holistic decision-making process.
A conservationist noted that, because the new process fits with the tribe’s traditional values, the people follow through and make better decisions. Council member and former Colville tribal chairperson Matthew Dick said: “Holistic management is getting all the people involved. That’s the way our chiefs did it a long time ago.”
Mourning Dove (c. 1885–1936; born Christine Quintasket) was a Colville/Okanagon writer and activist who fought for American Indian rights throughout her life. She helped found the Colville Indian Association and was the first woman elected to the Colville Tribal Council. She is considered the first female Native American novelist. Her first novel, Cogewea, the Half Blood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range was published in 1927. She then wrote traditional stories of her tribe, and her second book, Coyote Stories, was published in 1933. Her autobiography was published in 1990, long after her death.
De Smet, Rev. Pierre-Jean. New Indian Sketches. Ann Arbor: Scholarly Publishing Office, University Of Michigan Library, 2006.
Dunn, Jacob Piatt. Massacres of the Mountains: A History of the Indian Wars of the Far West 1815-1875. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, Llc, 2006.
Waldman, Carl. “Colville Reservation.” Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. New York: Facts on File, 2006.
Gooding, Susan S. Imagined Spaces, Storied Places: A Case Study of the Colville Tribes and the Evolution of Treaty Fishing Rights. Madison: Land Tenure Center, University Of Wisconsin, 1998. Reprinted from Revue Droit et Cultures. no. 33 (1997): 53–95.
“Colville Indian Reservation Chronology and Avery Project Bibliography.” Washington State University Libraries. (accessed on on September 2, 2007).
Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. (accessed on September 2, 2007).
“Dams of the Columbia Basin and Their Effects on the Native Fishery.” Center for Columbia River History. (accessed on September 2, 2007).
Donovan, Peter. “The Colville Tribe Blazes the Trail.” Managing Wholes: Creating a Future that Works. (accessed on September 2, 2007).
“Ken “Rainbow Cougar“Edwards: Colville Confederated Tribes.” Mississippi State University. (accessed on September 2, 2007).
Gordon L. Pullar, Director, Department of Alaska Native and Rural Development College of Rural and Community Development, UAF, Anchorage, Alaska
Brian Wescott (Athabaskan/Yup’ik)
Amanda Beresford McCarthy