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Compiled by Snow Owl September 2004

Photograph of Kootenai Indian
by Edward S. Curtis


The group of Native North Americans, who in the 18th century occupied the so-called Kootenai country (i.e., N Montana, N Idaho, and SE British Columbia).

Their language is thought by some scholars to form a branch of the Algonquian-Wakashan linguistic stock, although others argue that it has not been definitely related to any known linguistic family.

The Upper Kootenai lived near the headwaters of the Columbia River, and the Lower Kootenai lived on the Lower Kootenai River.

According to tradition the Kootenai once lived E of the Rocky Mts., but they were driven westward by their enemies the Blackfoot.

Kootenai culture was essentially that of the Plateau area, but after the advent of the horse the Kootenai adopted many Plains area traits including a seasonal buffalo hunt.

Contact with whites began early in the 19th cent., when the North West Company established Rocky Mountain House on the upper Saskatchewan River.

In 1807 the same company opened the first trading post in Kootenai country.

Today a group of the Kootenai live with the Salish on the Flathead Reservation in NW Montana.

The name is sometimes spelled Kootenay or Kutenai.

Kootenai Falls:

I grew up just a few miles from here, in Libby, Montana. Below the falls a bit, there is what is known as The Swinging Bridge that spans the river. On the other side, my mother used to tell me that if one camped there, they would hear the ancestors whisper at night. She also related to me just how spiritual these falls were to the Kootenai. Snow Owl



Native Americans who lived in this area before the white man came were mostly members of the Kootenai tribe who lived and hunted in this part of Montana and adjoining territory in Idaho and Canada.

While it is believed that no tribe made a permanent home in the Libby area, several tribes frequented the area to hunt and for spiritual purposes.

The Kootenai Indians were from the west, and the Blackfeet Indians were from the eastern side of Montana and the Continental Divide.

At times, when the tribes met, they fought in order to steal goods and horses, or to settle old scores resulting in tribe members on both sides being killed.

Kootenai Falls on the Kootenai River is still a sacred site to the local Indians, a place where tribal members commune with spiritual forces.

The Swinging Bridge Over the Kootenai River

I have been on this bridge when the river below was deep dark blue and utterly placid. Snow Owl

The Libby area held another special attraction for Indians of all tribes. A certain location up Pipe Creek contained soft, multicolored stone which they used in carving the bowls for their tobacco pipes, which they smoked in ceremonies.

The Pipe Creek quarry was regarded as the best quarry in the Kootenai territory, containing stones of several different colors including red, yellow, black, green, gray or banded, which is how Pipe Creek got its name.

The 1 foot long pipe stems were made from any wood that had a pithy core that was easy to drill or remove such as willow, quaking aspen and chokecherry.

A native plant that served as tobacco was cultivated by the early Kootenai, but later they switched to tobacco which they traded with white men who came to the area in the 1830s.

The Kootenai's were composed of three bands, a Tobacco Plains band in the Upper Kootenai, Mid-Kootenai who frequented the Libby and Jennings area, and Lower Kootenai's who lived near Bonner's Ferry, Idaho.

The Libby area Kootenai were canoe Indians, often using the river for transportation. They were noted for their plain clothing, absent of decoration, with long fringes.

The tribes subsisted on bison, deer and elk as well as berries including chokecherry, serviceberry and huckleberry.

In 1855, the Kootenai's were relocated south of Flathead Lake with the Salish Indians on the Flathead Reservation, where many still live today.
copyright 2004

Another Angle of Kootenai Falls:


The Kootenai Indians lived in the West Kootenay area of British Columbia for about 3000 years . As the glacial age came to an end about 10,000 years ago, new land became available . Indian tribes from the south began moving north into this ever-changed land.

Rivers changed course and lakes were created and massive amounts of soil were deposited by the four km thick ice sheet.

The climate of the West Kootenay was mild and fish were abundant, making life easy for the first Kootenay settlers.

The area covered by the seven bands of the Kootenai Indians was from just east of the Rocky Mountains, west to Castlegar, north to Canal Flats, and south 200 km into the U.S.A.

Granite Creek Falls

I caught a 17 inch Brook Trout here, when I was 15 years old. Hmmm, some 45 years ago! Wow! Snow Owl

The word Kootenai, pronounced KOOT-nee, or KOOT-nay, depending on which side of the US-Canadian border you are on, refers to the Native American people of the region.

They were originally called the Ksunka, meaning "People of the Standing Arrow." To them, standing arrow meant strength, unity and dexterity. However, when the French first met the Ksunka, they called them Kootenai.

There seem to be various definitions in literature as to what the word means, "deer robes" or "water people" are two possibilities. This is complicated by the fact that the word is not in the Kootenai language.

The lower Kootenai Indians, who depended largely on fish, caught salmon, sturgeon, suckers, whitefish and, most importantly of all, trout from the Kootenay River basin.

Upper Kootenai Indians, who were occasionally joined by the lower Kootenai, concentrated their efforts on hunting large game. Kootenai Indians now live on the Flathead and Bonner's Ferry reservations in the United States and on several small British Columbia reserves.

Congress established the 12.5 acre Bonner's Ferry reservation in the 1970s after Kootenai Indians declared war on the U.S. and demanded land based upon 1855 treaty promises.

Granite Creek

Granite Creek flows into the Kootenai. Believe it or not, the River and the City of Libby is just a few miles downstream. I spent many a day ranging alone in these woods. I am putting a couple of these types of pictures in here, simply because it pleases me to remember my youthand to share it with you. Snow Owl


Historically, the Kootenai bands occupies territories along the Kootenai River, in parts of Montana, Idaho and British Columbia.

Although they did not share a common language with any other group, they were closely aligned with the Flatheads and the Kalispel Pend Oreilles by common territories and intermarriage.

Their culture was of the Basin type found in the Columbia Basin area. Their lifestyle was dependent on hunting, fishing, and gathering of roots and berries. The mainstay of their diet was salmon, starchy roots and bulbs.

Theirs was a semi-nomadic culture, with permanent winter villages near good fishing sites. Their social structure was based on the extended family groupings.

Clothing was made from woven bark and plant fibers; lodges were conical huts constructed of a pole framework covered with rush mats.

Basketry supplies most of their utensils, including cups, bowls, and storage bags.

As with other tribes, the Dawes Act of 1877 let to loss of tribal and individuals allotments they had received from the Treaty of 1855.

Much of their original territory is now in the hands of non-Indians. Currently they live on a 2,695 acre reservation.

They operate under a constitution written subsequent to the Wheeler-Howard Act.

Kootenai River upstream from Libby.

The snowcapped mountain in near center background is known as Dome Mountain. The pale green area to the right is a result of logging clear-cut; as is the area more center in the picture. Clear cut was not used nor allowed when I was growing up. Snow Owl

The Indigenous peoples known as the Ktunaxa Indians and often referred to in history books and on maps as the Kootenay Indians live in the Columbia Basin.

The Columbia and Kootenay Rivers lie within the traditional territory of the Ktunaxa Indian Nation in British Columbia. It is this system of rivers, lakes and mountains that has sustained the Ktunaxa peoples since time immemorial.

The traditional knowledge of the Ktunaxa concerning their territory is quite remarkable and unique.

Some families in the Ktunaxa Indian communities have looked to their cultural lifestyles to build upon a new activity, often referred to as ecotourism.

There are seven communities within the Ktunaxa Nation - the Columbia Lake Indian Band, Kutenai Tribe of Idaho, Lower Kootenay Indian Band, Salish/Kootenai/Flathead Indian Reservation, Shuswap Indian Band, St. Mary's Indian Band, and Tobacco Plains Indian Band.

There are five Ktunaxa communities in Canada and two in the United States. There was another Ktunaxa Indian Reserve near Burton called the Arrow Lakes Indian Reserve, but because of a forcedmove, it is now non-existent.

The Arrow Lakes Band was a mixture of Ktunaxa, Shuswap and Okanagan Indians. They migrated between Washington and the West Kootenays to fish, gather and hunt for food.

Parmeter Creek

My mother fished here as a kid, so did I. She, as well as I when it came my turn, followed the creek to its basic source, where at least there used to be a series of beaver dams. I hope the creek still produces the fine brook trout, rainbow trout and cutthroat it once did; and that many youngsters still learn about the woods like I did here. Snow Owl

The Shuswap Indian Band is politically part of the Ktunaxa Nation. This community is often referred to as the Kinbasket people, which is a family name.

The Kinbaskets immigrated to the territory about 200 years ago. The primary language and culture of the Shuswap Indian Band is that of the Secwepemc (Shuswap Indians).

Within the Ktunaxa Nation, there are two sub-groups that have been classified as the Lower Kootenay and the Upper Kootenay.

The Lower Kootenay has developed specialized knowledge about water resources for survival. This traditional knowledge includes fish and waterfowl harvesting, as well as the use of plants associated with water resources for such items as housing.

A unique feature of the Lower Kootenay is the use of the sturgeon-nosed canoe. The canoe was traditionally made from using six different types of trees - birch, white pine, cedar, maple, bitter cherry and Douglas fir. However, most canoes being made now are a combination of wood and canvas.

Pipe Creek

Pipe Creek flows into the Kootenai River also. Its name came from the Native Americans of the area for this is where they came to get stone for their pipes, as well as other tools. In one log jam on this creek, I pulled out a 22 inch and a 24 inch Brown Trout. As the stream gets closer to the Kootenai it enters into a small canyon with pretty good cliffs on either side right to waters edge. I dont know of too many people that have walked it to the river, my mother and I did. With civilization spreading and all, perhaps more folks have by now. Snow Owl

Today, canvas is the material of choice for making tipis. The Lower Kootenay Band used to make summer dwellings out of reed mats, and both groups used animal hides for covering their lodges as well. Since canvas is a waterproof cotton material, it is now preferred over the traditional coverings.

The Ktunaxa Tipi Company is a year-round operation owned and operated by Wilfred Jacobs and his wife, members of the Lower Kootenay Indian Band in Creston. They make sturgeon-nosed canoes and tipis for sale and rental. Their tipis have attracted customers as far away as Europe and Asia.

The Upper Kootenay Indians traditionally were a forest and mountain people who adapted to prairie life when the need arose. They existed by traveling on horseback throughout their territory, hunting, fishing and gathering.

Two or three times a year, the Upper Kootenay would travel through the mountain passes often in dangerous situations (due to neighboring enemies, such as the Blackfoot Indians) to hunt for buffalo, which was once one of the staple foods of the Ktunaxa Nation people.

In their travels, they would collect items such as the red ochre from the paint pots at Kootenay National Park. This ochre was traded for parfleche and cornhusk bags full of salt, which made its way from the Salt Lake area of Utah.

The Ktunaxa traded with many of the interior plateau tribes, including the Nez Perce and Utes.

Yaak River Falls

Of all the streams, rivers and creeks that run into the Kootenai, The Yaak River holds a special place in my heart. It runs through the Yaak Wilderness Area which is about 40 miles from Libby. At the bottom of this particular section of the falls is a wonderful deep pool before the river begins another section of falls. There was a HUGE Bull Trout living there, I never could catch him, although we had a tussle or twoI like to think he is still aggravating the heck outta anglers. Snow Owl


The Upper Kootenay obtained horses through this trading network and were adept in horsemanship.

The Ktunaxa Indians had thousands of horses living in their territory and up until the 1950s much of this stock was still in existence.

The last of the wild horses were caught and the ones that remained on the reservations, such as St. Mary's Indian Reserve, were killed off because the Ministry of Forests said the horses were overgrazing.

Fortunately, there are still some horses remaining on the reserves and there is even a trail ride operation at the Columbia Lake Indian Reserve.

This information is provided for reference only. Copyright Lake County Directory

Bull Lake

To the left shore line, it looks like a normal tree covered hill; however, my mother told me that her father told her that at one time that hill was actually attached and on top of the side the higher ridge next to it on the right of it. He said that a village Kootenai lived there and something happened that cause the ridge to split and fall. According to him, it is said that under that smaller hill is their resting place. Snow Owl

Loon Lake

I got chased up a tree by a mama moose while fishing here when I was around 14. My mother thought it was one of the funniest things she ever saw!!! So apparently I was not really chased nor in real danger. I sure thought so at the time, you can believe that! Grin Snow Owl
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