Connolly: "History"

"Louise Siuwheem"

A Ministry of the Society of Jesus, Oregon Province With Native American Peoples of the Pacific Northwest



Fr. Tom Connolly: "History..."

Connolly: "History"

History of the Coeur d'Alenes

Fr. Thomas E. Connolly, S.J.

From time immemorial, related family bands of Indians lived around Lake Coeur d'Alene and its three rivers: the St. Joe and the St. Maries Rivers flowing down from the mountains, and the Spokane River flowing out of the lake towards Spokane Falls.

These bands originally had different names, but shared a common dialect of the Salish Indian language.  In time they referred to themselves as the "Schee-chu-umsh" from a word meaning "the found ones."  Early fur traders called them "Coeur d'Alene" (heart of a pointed awl) because they kept to themselves and were so hard to bargain with.

They hunted deer and elk in their mountains, fished for salmon on Hangman Creek and at Spokane Falls, went across the pass for buffalo in Montana, dug camas and bitterroots in their fields and picked huckleberries on their mountains.  Some even had large herds of cattle and horses in the Spokane Valley.  But in time, plagues and epidemics spread up the Columbia and over the Rockies from early traders and immigrants, decimating these bands that had no immunity to these previously unknown European diseases.  Early writers found only about 500 Coeur d'Alenes, living in 27 different family villages along the rivers from Kingston and St. Maries, north to Hayden Lake and west to Liberty Lake.

The coming of the white man brought many new things, some good and some bad.  The new comers seemed to have power over resources and sickness that the Coeur d'Alenes lacked. Stories of Christian missionaries and spiritual rituals spread among the western tribes, and some began to search for new spiritual power that seemed to bring with it rifles, kettles, metal knives and axes, domestic cattle, seeds for crops and fruit trees and new powerful medicines.

A Coeur d'Alene head chief who lived near Kingston from about 1660 to 1760 had great visionary powers.  His raven spirit would circle and tell of the presence of game, or of approaching enemies, or future events and then return to inform the chief.  In a vision experience Circling Raven was told of a new kind of medicine man who'd come from the east, wearing blackrobes and carrying a cross.  Circling Raven passed on this vision to his tribesmen as a promise of new powers that would come to the Coeur d'Alenes to help them face their troubles in the changes that the white man would bring to their lands.

In the 1830's the neighboring Flatheads in Montana had already been partially converted by Catholic Iroquois, and they sent 4 separate delegations from their tribe east to St. Louis, seeking a Blackrobe who would come to them.  In answer to this call, Fr. De Smet came west with the annual fur brigade and met the Flatheads in 1840He was greeted so enthusiastically that he returned to St. Louis for recruits to develop a string of Rocky Mountain Indian Missions.  He returned west with two other priests in 1841 and established the first St. Mary's Mission among the Flatheads of the Bitteroot Valley.  In 1842, De Smet traveled to Vancouver for supplies and met the Coeur d'Alenes gathered to meet him near the present site of Coeur d'Alene.  Fr. De Smet was so impressed by their eagerness that he promised to send one of the priests from St. Mary's Mission to come to the Coeur d'Alenes and establish a permanent mission to help them with farms and schools, an infirmary, a church and the Christian power of the sacraments.

Fr. Nicholas Point, S.J. arrived that fall, November 1842.  After the first winter at the site of Coeur d'Alene, they chose a Mission location on the St. Joe River near St. Maries, Idaho.  But after regular spring flooding of the St. Joe ruined the planted fields, the Mission site was moved to Cataldo in 1846 where they built the present church in the early 1850's.  Here they planted wheat fields, and here all the families came together for Christmas, Easter and August 15.

But in the 1860's the building of Mullan Road brought thousands of settlers over the pass from the east, and the discovery of gold brought thousands of prospectors in from the west.  Old Mission became an untenable frontier crossroads, and the government still refused to recognize the Coeur d'Alene rights of ownership to their territory so they could protect themselves from these invading hordes.  There was also a shortage of land around Old Mission to meet the Coeur d'Alenes' growing enthusiasm for wheat farming.

Finally in desperation the fathers persuaded the Tribe to move away from the growing troubles at Old Mission.  In 1877 they moved to their rich farmland west of the southern end of lake Coeur d'Alene.  At their new village of De Smet they worked with the Jesuit Fathers and Providence Sisters to build a biq new church, girl's boarding school, a boy's boarding school, and they developed rich new farms in the area enclosing several thousand acres for each large extended family.

The Coeur d'Alenes finally were granted a treaty from the federal government in 1891, recognizing their aboriginal ownership of a small portion of their original lands--north of Worley to south of De Smet, and from the Washington line to St. Maries.  They became wealthy farmers and educated their children in the Mission Schools.

But in 1909, the government moved against the Coeur d'Alenes again breaking up the big family farms, alloting 160 acres for each living person, and then giving away the 2/3 of the reservation that wasn't allotted to non-Indian homesteaders.

In later years the Tribe's success and prosperity dwindled.  Then in 1959 the government finally paid the Tribe for some of the lands that had been taken away.  Since that time the Tribe has organized an elected Tribal Council with headquarters near Plummer and has hired an attorney to help them defend their aboriginal and treaty nghts.  They have developed programs to serve their people and develop their natural resources.  The modern Coeur d'Alene Tribe functions much like a small county government from their agency offices near Plummer.  Though their original buildings at De Smet are mostly gone now, their girl's boarding school still stands as a landmark on the hill overlooking Highway 95.  They have new tribal buildings, housing and enterprises.  They maintain a tribal school at De Smet where they include the history and culture of their people in the educatiun of their youth.

Reduced in resources, but growing in numbers, the Coeur d'Alenes continue their struggle to remain a strong, independent people, maintaining and developing what they can of their aboriginal land and culture.  Their annual return to Old Mission for August 15, and their pageant of the Vision of Circling Raven are an integral part of their life--carrying the best of the past into a future of promise and determination.

Oregon Province Fr. Tom Connolly, S.J. is Pastor at Sacred Heart Mission, DeSmet, ID

Return to top of page