The Kalispel Indians

The aboriginal homeland of the Kalispel (“Camas People”) was in the camas-rich area around Calispell Lake and the Pend Oreille River in what is now eastern Washington. Their homeland was heavily forested and mountainous with interspersed meadows. Their lifestyle prior to the coming of the horse was centered on the river. Their traditional territory followed the rivers into what is now northern Idaho and western Montana.

Prior to the coming of the horse, the people would spend the winter in camps along the Pend Oreille River. When the snow disappeared in the Spring, the families would separate and move to areas where they had the rights to fish and hunt. In June, the camas would be ripe and the families would come back together at the camas fields. Following the camas harvest in July, the people would once again focus their attention on hunting, fishing, and the gathering of other wild plant foods. When the snows began, the bands would reassemble at their winter camps along the river where the snowfall was lighter and the temperatures somewhat milder.

Fishing was an important economic activity and the fish were harvested with fish traps, weirs, and spearing platforms. While most of these were individually owned, there were also large weir sites which were tribally owned. The fish harvested from the tribal weirs would be communally distributed. It has been estimated that about two-thirds of the fish harvested by the Kalispel came from weirs.

As a river people, water transport was important. The Kalispel made and used several different kinds of canoes, including both dugouts (that is, made from a single log that had been hollowed out) and bark canoes (a frame covered with bark).

With regard to hunting, mule deer and whitetail deer were the most important game animals. While deer were hunted throughout the year, most were harvested in the winter. During the winter, hunters using snowshoes would hunt deer with bows and arrows. In the deep snow, the hunters would often have more mobility than the deer.

In addition to deer, caribou were hunted in some areas. Mountain sheep and goats were also found in some areas and mountain sheep robes were highly valued.

While camas was the most important plant food, the Kalispel also gathered Indian potato, cattail roots, wild garlic, wild celery, wild carrot, Easter lily, and bitterroot. A wide variety of berries were also harvested. Berry harvesting was generally regarded as the exclusive domain of the women.

During the summer, the people would live in conical mat lodges: similar in shape to the Plains tipi, but covered with tule mats rather than buffalo hide. In the winter, the people would use an elongated house which ranged from 20 to 60 feet in length. The floor of the winter house would be excavated about a foot which would provide some additional warmth. The winter house would be covered with woven tule mats. The winter house would usually be home to 3 to 12 families.

As with other Plateau Indian tribes, the Kalispel were not a single political or social unit. The tribe was composed of independent villages or bands which were united by a common culture, including a common language (Salish). There was no overall “chief” or group of “chiefs.” Each village had its own leaders and leadership was not hereditary, but was based on leadership skills. Leaders exerted power through their ability to persuade. The council of adults who made decisions included women.

With regard to language, the Kalispel language is a part of the larger Salish language family and is most closely related to Cheweleh, Spokan, Pend d’Oreille, and Flathead.

The horse was brought to the Americans by the Spanish colonists in New Mexico. Following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the horse began to spread northward and was introduced to the Plateau tribes by the Shoshone between 1710 and 1740. The arrival of the horse brought dramatic changes to Kalispel culture.

First of all, the horse enabled the Kalispel to leave their homelands in eastern Washington and travel across the Rocky Mountains to hunt buffalo on the Great Plains. With the horse, some families would leave for the Plains in mid-July, hunt for three or four weeks, and then return home. This brought them into contact with the Blackfoot who resented their intrusion into Blackfoot hunting grounds.

Using the horse and hunting buffalo on the Plains, a number of Plains cultural elements were acquired in the Plateau. These Plains cultural elements included the use of the tipi and the travois, the custom of war honors dances, beaded dresses, feather warbonnets, and the idea of electing chiefs because of their skill as warriors. Warfare became more common: prior to the acquisition of the horse warfare had been almost nonexistent among the Plateau tribes.

President Benjamin Harrison and Indian Reservations

In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act (Dawes Act) which had the intent of assimilating Indians by making them land-owning farmers. The idea of the Dawes Act was to break up the reservations by giving each Indian family an allotment of land, similar to the homesteads given to non-Indian settlers. This act guided much of the Indian policy during the Benjamin Harrison administration (1889-1892).

In 1889, a government commission headed by General George Crook met with the Sioux in South Dakota. Crook provided them lavish feasts, and obtained the needed signatures for the Sioux to cede much of their land.

Over the next two years, the Great Sioux Reservation was broken into six reservations – Cheyenne River, Crow Creek, Lower Brulé, Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Standing Rock – thus reducing Sioux land holdings. Eleven million acres of land not included in these reservations was returned to the federal government. “Surplus” lands were opened to American settlers. In addition, the railroads were given permission to survey and build lines with no regard for any Sioux concerns.

Congress passed the Nelson Act in 1889 which brought the Dawes Act to bear on the special situation with the Chippewa in Minnesota. At this time, the Chippewa occupied 12 reservations in the state. Under the Nelson Act, the Chippewa were to cede all lands except for the White Earth and Red Lake Reservations. The Chippewa of Red Lake were to take allotments on their own reservations. All other Chippewa in the state were to relocate on the White Earth Reservation and to take their allotments there. All agricultural lands remaining after allotment were to be sold for $1.25 per acre. Timber lands were to be appraised and sold in 40-acre parcels in auction. Money from the sale of lands and timber were to be deposited into a special Chippewa in Minnesota Fund.

 Northern Cheyenne:

 At the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty Council, the United States government failed to distinguish between the Northern Cheyenne and the Southern Cheyenne and grouped both tribes together in the south, even though the Northern Cheyenne saw themselves as a distinct people and resisted attempts to relocate them on the Southern Cheyenne reservation in Indian Territory. Following the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, some of the Cheyenne had surrendered to the Army and had worked for them as scouts.

In 1890, Congress created the Northern Cheyenne Commission to find a permanent home for the Northern Cheyenne at the Tongue River in Montana, the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, or some other reservation. The Commission traveled first to Pine Ridge where they interviewed the 429 Northern Cheyenne who were living there. They then travelled to Lame Deer, Montana where they talked with Northern Cheyenne leaders Two Moon, White Bull, American Horse, Brave Wolf, and Little Wolf. They then continued west to the Crow reservation to discuss with the Crow the possibility of buying land on that reservation for the Northern Cheyenne. The Commission found that the Northern Cheyenne on the Pine Ridge Reservation wanted to unite with their friends and relatives on the Tongue River.

With regard to the Tongue River Agency, the Commission reported that there was hunger and poverty and that the Cheyenne had already eaten their own cattle and were killing some American cattle.

With regard to the Crow, the Commission found them living in a peaceful and prosperous condition. However, they adamantly refused to sell a portion of their reservation to the Cheyenne.

The report submitted by the commission was one of the first times that the government actually possessed extensive, firsthand evidence regarding the situation and possible alternatives for the Northern Cheyenne situation.

 Indian Territory:

Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, the policy of the United States government had been to remove Indians west of the Mississippi to Indian Territory. Here the Indians had been told that they would be able to live in peace, without interference from the U.S. government. Soon, however, American greed was demanding these lands as well.

In 1889, Congress authorized the transfer of unassigned lands in Oklahoma to the public domain. As Congress debated the bill, Cherokee principal chief Joel B. Mayes led a delegation to Washington, D.C. to remind lawmakers that the United States had given its solemn word in treaties that territorial jurisdiction was not to be extended over them without their consent. Congress ignored the Indian testimony and passed the Springer Amendment to the Indian Appropriation Bill giving the President the power to open Indian Territory by proclamation.

As one of his first acts as President, Benjamin Harrison announced that part of the Indian Territory in what would later become Oklahoma would be opened to settlement. A three-man commission, known as the Cherokee Commission, was established to negotiate allotment with the Cherokees and other Indian tribes in Oklahoma. A month later, tens of thousands of settlers rushed in to claim land which had formerly belonged to the Creek and Seminole. Over the next few years, 15 million acres of Indian land would be opened to non-Indian settlement.

In meeting with the Cherokee, the Cherokee Commission (also known as the Fairchild Commission) offered the Cherokee $1.25 per acre for their land in the Cherokee Outlet. The total for this offer was nearly the same which the Cherokee Strip Livestock Association would pay for a 15-year lease on the same land.

In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison announced that no livestock would be grazed in the area known as the Cherokee Outlet in Indian Territory. This move deprived the Cherokee Nation of a substantial part of its operating budget and brought an end to their lease with the Cherokee Livestock Association. The move was part of a government effort to get the Cherokee to sell this land.

In 1890, a Harrison issued an executive order which required the Ponca to take allotments even though most tribal members were opposed to it. Ponca traditionalists formed a strong anti-allotment faction.

In 1890, Congress passed the Oklahoma Organic Act which established a territorial government for the western half of Indian Territory and renamed it Oklahoma Territory. Under the Organic Act, the United States annexed all Indian reservations to the new territory.

In 1891 President Harrison opened up 900,000 acres of Oklahoma land for settlement. The land had been owned by the Sauk, Fox, Iowa, and Potawatomi.

Aztec Agriculture

For more than 3,500 years, Native Americans have been practicing agriculture in the Valley of Mexico and growing a variety of different crops. It has been estimated that prior to the Spanish invasion more than a million people lived in the Valley, with half of these living in cities. In general, all of the Aztec people, from nobility to serfs, were very well fed. Archaeologist Brain Fagan, in his book The Aztecs, writes:  “The only way to feed everyone was by efficient, government-controlled agriculture. Moctezuma Ilhuicamina and his successors maintained a small army of inspectors who oversaw the land, making sure that it was planted and that surplus foodstuffs were sent to the capital.”

Unlike the European agricultural societies, the Aztecs did not have any domesticated draft animals, so much of the farming was done using a wooden, shovel-like device known as a uictli. Brian Fagan reports:  “The actual technology of tillage was simple in the extreme, but the measures taken to protect, enrich, and irrigate were comparatively sophisticated.”

Like other American Indian farmers, Aztec farmers understood the basic concepts of soil fertility. They knew that inter-planting maize and beans maintained the fertility of the soil. When they harvested the crops, they removed only the maize ears and the bean pods and then dug the rest of the plant back into the soil.

In the cities, such as the great Tenochtitlan, there were special huts along the streets and in the alleys which were used as toilets. From this urban sanitation system the farmers obtained human fertilizer for the fields.

In the shallow lake beds of the Valley of Mexico, the Aztec, like the great civilizations that had come before them, created chinampas. While sometimes described as floating islands, chinampas are actually artificial islands. A fairly narrow (8 to 15 feet) and long (90 to 200 feet) section of the shallow lake bed would be staked out using poles and a wattle fence. This area would then be filled with mud, decaying vegetation, and other materials to bring it above the surface of the water. Canals between the chinampa plots allowed easy transport of both people and food crops by canoe.


The basic subsistence crop was maize (known as “corn” in American English). Maize was used for making tortillas which were eaten at every meal. It also formed the basis for atolli, a kind of gruel which was served in many different varieties, including atolli with honey, with chili and honey, with yellow chili, and with fish, amaranth seeds, and honey. Another basic staple made using maize was tamales.

The Aztec grew two basic kinds of maize. One of these was a fast maturing variety which would produce ears in three to four months. This variety was generally planted in fields where irrigation was not practical. The Aztec also planted a slower maturing variety in the irrigated fields. This variety took about six months to mature and provided a greater yield.

Maize was highly honored in Aztec society and had its own goddess: Chicomecoatl (Seven Serpent). As the seeds were dedicated to the new growing season, the people would chant: “She is truly our flesh, our livelihood.”

The second most important crop for the Aztecs, and for most of the agricultural Native American nations, was beans. Beans provided a vital source of protein and were often inter-cropped with the maize.

Another important source of protein was amaranth. Amaranth seeds were used in making pinole and the seeds could also be mixed with ground maize in making tamales. Amaranth was often used for ceremonial meals: mixed with ground maize and honey it would be formed into the great god Huitzilopochtli and consumed on his feast days.

The Aztecs also raised a variety of other crops, including several varieties of squash, tomatoes, and chili peppers. Chili peppers were a universal accompaniment to meals and, in fact, full meals without chili were considered a fast.

With regard to the Aztec diet, Michael Coe and Rex Koontz, in their book Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, report:  “Much of the diet of ordinary citizens consisted of tortillas dipped in a molli or sauces made of chiles ground with water; maize could also be taken in the form of steamed tamales, to which could be added ground or whole beans, but unlike their modern counterparts, these contained no fat or grease.”

They had several different kinds of fruit trees and they cultivated cacti such as nopal or maguey (agave). Maguey was used to make a fermented and intoxicating beverage which the Spanish called pulque, a milky-white beverage. The Aztec called it iztac octli.

While alcohol was widely consumed, in theory only people over the age of 50 (some sources say 70) were supposedly allowed to consume it. During a feast or ceremony, people were not supposed to drink more than four cups of pulque. While drunkenness was prohibited and severely punished, old people were allowed to get drunk whenever they wanted. Alcohol was also a common ingredient in medicines.

In the outlying parts of the Aztec empire, the people also raised cotton and cacao. Cacao beans served as a kind of currency throughout the Aztec world. As with the Mesoamerican cultures which preceded the Aztecs, chocolate was the favorite drink of the nobility.