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Ktunaxa Group near Tipis (ca. 1900)
Total population
1,536 (2016)
Regions with significant populations
United States (Idaho, Montana, Washington), Canada (British Columbia)
 British Columbia
 United States
(Idaho, Montana, Washington)
English, Kutenai (Kitunahan), ʾa·qanⱡiⱡⱡitnam (Ktunaxa Sign Language)[3]
Christianity, other

The Ktunaxa (English: /tʌˈnɑːhɑː/ tun-AH-hah;[4] Kutenai pron. [ktunʌ́χɑ̝]), also known as Kutenai (English: /ˈktən, -tn, -ni/), Kootenay (predominant spelling in Canada) and Kootenai (predominant spelling in the United States), are an Indigenous People of North America, who historically occupied extensive territories in the Pacific Northwest, present-day United States and British Columbia, Canada.

Four bands form the Ktunaxa Nation and the kindred Shuswap Indian Band in British Columbia. The Kootenai were allied with the Shuswap historically and through intermarriage. In the United States the people have formed three federally recognized tribes: in present-day Montana, they are part of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation, together with the Bitterroot Salish (also known as Flathead) and Pend d'Oreilles. Another group has federal recognition as the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho. Small populations of Kootenai living in eastern Washington are part of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.[5]

The Kutenai language is an isolate, unrelated to the languages of neighboring peoples.


Four bands of Ktunaxa reside in southeastern British Columbia, one band in northern Idaho, one band in northwestern Montana, and small populations in Washington who are allied with other peoples as a tribe.[6][7][8]

Canada - British Columbia

Ktunaxa Nation Council (KNC) (until 2005 Ktunaxa/Kinbasket Tribal Council (K/KTC))[9]

  • Lower Kootenay First Nation (aka Lower Kootenay Indian Band[10] - Ya·qannu·ki, Yaqan nuʔkiy or Yaqaón Nuñkiy - ‘where the rock stands’, are culturally Lower Kootenay. The Tribal Headquarters are located in Creston on the most populous reserve Creston #1 along the Kootenay River, ca. 6 km north of the US-Canada border. Reserves: Creston #1, Lower Kootenay #1A, #1B, #1C, #2, #3, #5, #4, St. Mary's #1A, ca. 26 km2, population: 214)
  • St. Mary's First Nation[11] (aka St. Mary's Band – ʔaq̓amniʔk or ʔaq̓am - ‘deep dense woods’, are culturally Lower Kootenay, live along the St. Mary's River near Cranbrook, the Tribal Headquarters are located on the most populous reserve, Kootenay #1. Reserves: Bummers Flat #6, Cassimayooks (Mayook) #5, Isidore's Ranch #4, Kootenay #1, St. Mary's #1A, ca. 79 km2, population: 357)
  • Tobacco Plains Indian Band (aka Tobacco Plains Indian Band – ʔa·kanuxunik, Akan'kunik, or ʔakink̓umⱡasnuqⱡiʔit - ‘People of the place of the flying head’,[12] are culturally Lower Kootenay, live near Grasmere (see also Tobacco Plains), on the east shore of the Lake Koocanusa below the mouth of Elk River, ca. 15 km north of the British Columbia-Montana border, reserves: St. Mary's #1A, Tobacco Plains #2, ca. 44 km2, population: 165)[13]
  • ?Akisq'nuk First Nation[14] (aka Columbia Lake Indian Band – A·kisq̓nuknik̓, ʔakisq̓nuk oder ?Akisq'nuk - ‘place of two lakes’,[15] are culturally Upper Kootenay, the Tribal Headquarters are located in Akisqnuk direct south of Windermere, reserves: Columbia Lake #3, St. Mary's #1A, ca. 33 km2, population: 264)[16]

Shuswap Nation Tribal Council,[17] one of the two tribal councils of the Secwepemc

  • Shuswap Indian Band[18] (Kyaknuqⱡiʔit or Kisamni in Ktunaxa, are culturally Upper Kootenay, a Secwepemc group which called themselves Tsqwatstens-kucw ne Casliken - ‘People between two mountain ranges', this group of the Shuswap Indian Band, known as ‘Kinbasket Shuswap Band’,[19] moved no later than the 18th Century in the Upper Columbia River Valley where they were allied to the Ktuanxa and Stoney, through intermarriages with Ktunaxa they became part of the tribe. The most populous reserve, Shuswap IR, is located in the Columbia Valley in the Rocky Mountain Trench along the left shore of the Upper Columbia River, east of the Selkirk Mountains, ca. 1,6 km north of Invermere, just northeast of Windermere Lake, reserves: St. Mary's #1A, Shuswap IR, ca. 12 km2, population: 244) - formerly members of the Ktunaxa Nation Council (KNC) (which was therefore known until 2005 as Ktunaxa/Kinbasket Tribal Council (K/KTC))
United States - Idaho
United States - Montana
United States - Washington


The Ktunaxa people today live in southeastern British Columbia, Washington State, Idaho, and Montana. In Montana they are known as Ksanka. Ktunaxa is the autonym or what the people call themselves. It is pronounced Ta-na-ha, with a barely perceptible ‘k’ sound at the beginning of the word. British and American traders adopted and anglicised a term used by the Blackfoot in their language, thus referring to this people as Kootenay or Kootenai. In some of their tribal organizations and activities, the Ktunaxa identify as Kootenay, or as spelled in Montana, Kootenai.

The people are culturally distinguished between the Upper Kootenay, those bands based around Invermere and Windermere, British Columbia, and Lower Kootenay, those based around Creston, Grasmere, and Cranbrook, British Columbia, Bonners Ferry, Idaho, and the Ksanka of Elmo, Montana.

This history focuses on the Creston Band of the Lower Kootenay, who call themselves the Yaqan Nu’kiy Ktunaxa, or the marsh or water people of the Ktunaxa.


Scholars have numerous ideas about the origins of the Ktunaxa. One theory is that they originally lived on the prairies, and were driven across the Rockies by the competing Blackfoot people[24] or by famine and disease.[25] Some Upper Kootenay participated in a Plains Native lifestyle for part of the year, crossing the Rockies to the east for the bison hunt. They were relatively well known to the Blackfoot, and sometimes their relations with them were in the form of violent confrontation over food competition.

Some Ktunaxa remained on or returned to the prairies year round; they had a settlement near Fort Macleod, Alberta. This group of Ktunaxa suffered high mortality rates, partly because of the depredations of the Blackfoot, and partly because of smallpox epidemics. With numbers sharply reduced, these Plains Ktunaxa returned to the Kootenay region of British Columbia.[citation needed]

Some of the Ktunaxa say that their ancestors came originally from the Great Lakes region of Michigan. To date, scholars have not found either archeological or historic evidence to support this account.[citation needed]

The Ktunaxa territory in British Columbia has archeological sites with some of the oldest man-made artifacts in Canada. It has not been proven that these artifacts were left by ancestors of the Ktunaxa or by another, possibly Salishan, group.[citation needed] Human occupation of the Kootenay Rockies by 11,500 before the present (BP) has been demonstrated by dated sites with evidence of quarrying and flint-knapping, especially of quartzite and tourmaline.[citation needed] This oldest assemblage of artifacts is known as the Goatfell Complex, named after the Goatfell region about 40 km east of Creston, British Columbia on Highway 3. These artifacts have been found at quarries in Goatfell, Harvey Mountain, Idaho, Negro Lake and Kiakho Lake (both near Lumberton and Cranbrook), North Star Mountain just west of Creston on Highway 3, and at Blue Ridge. All these sites are within 50 km of Creston, with the exception of Blue Ridge, which is near the village of Kaslo, quite a distance north on the west side of Kootenay Lake.

Archaeologist Dr. Wayne Choquette believes that the artifacts represented in the Goatfell Complex, dated from 11,500 BP up to the early historical period, show that there has been no break in the archaeological record. In addition, it appears that the technology was local. No evidence supports conjecture that the region's first inhabitants emigrated from this area, nor that they were replaced or succeeded by a different people. Choquette concludes that the Ktunaxa today are the descendants of those first people to inhabit the land.[citation needed]

Other scholars such as Reg Ashwell suggest that the Ktunaxa moved to the British Columbia region in the early half of the 18th century, having been harassed and pushed there from East of the Rockies by the Blackfoot. Their language is isolated from that of Salish tribes common to the Pacific Coast. In addition, their traditional dress, many of their customs (such as their use of teepee-style portable dwellings), and their traditional religion have more in common with Plains peoples than with the Coastal Salish.[26]

The Goatfell assemblage of artifacts suggests that prior to 11,500 BP, the people who came to inhabit the Kootenays may have lived in what is now the southwestern United States, during a period when British Columbia was beneath the Cordilleran ice sheet of the last Ice Age. The Goatfell Complex, and specifically the techniques of manufacture of the tools and points, are part of a tradition of knapping that existed in the North American Great Basin and the intermontane west of the continent in the late Pleistocene. The prevailing theory is that as the glaciers retreated, people moved northward, following the revival of the flora and fauna to the north.[citation needed]

From the time of the first Ktunaxa settlement in the Kootenays, until the historical period beginning in the late 18th century, there is little known of the people's social, political, and intellectual development. Stone tool technologies changed and became more complex and differentiated.[citation needed] They were probably big game hunters in their earliest prehistoric phase. The Ktunaxa were first noted in the historical record when mentioned on Alexander Mackenzie's map, circa 1793.

As temperatures continued to warm, the glacial lakes drained and fish found habitat in the warmer waters. The Lower Kootenay across the Pacific Northwest made fishing a fundamental part of their diet and culture, while maintaining the old traditions of game hunting.[citation needed]

Early history

Anthropological and ethnographic interest in the Ktunaxa were recorded from the mid-19th century. What these European and North American scholars observed has to be viewed with a critical eye, since they did not have the theoretical sophistication expected of anthropologists today. They imputed much of their own cultural values into what they were able to witness among the Ktunaxa. But their accounts are the most detailed descriptions of Ktunaxa lifestyles at a time when Aboriginal lifeways all over the world were dramatically changing in the face of settlement by Europeans and European Americans. citation needed]

The earliest ethnographies detail Ktunaxa culture around the turn of the 20th century. Europeans observed the Ktunaxa enjoying a stable economic life and rich social life, based on a detailed ritual calendar. Their economic life focused on fishing, using fish traps and hooks, and travelling on the waterways in the sturgeon-nosed canoe. They had seasonal and sometimes ritual hunts for bear, deer, caribou, gophers, geese, and the many other fowl in Lower Kootenay country. As mentioned above, the Upper Kootenay often crossed the Rockies to participate in the bison hunt. The Lower Kootenay, however, did not participate in communal bison hunts; these were not important to their economy or culture.[citation needed]

The Ktunaxa conducted vision quests, particularly by a young man in a passage to adulthood. They used tobacco ritually. They practiced a Sun Dance and Grizzly Bear Dance, a midwinter festival, a Blue Jay Dance, and other social and ceremonial activities.[citation needed] The men belonged to different societies or lodges such as the Crazy Dog Society, the Crazy Owl Society, and the Shamans' Society. These groups took on certain responsibilities, and membership in a lodge came with obligations in battle, hunting, and community service.

The Ktunaxa and their neighbors the Sinixt both used the sturgeon-nosed canoe. This water craft was first described in 1899 as having some similarity to canoes used in the Amur region of Asia.[27] At the time, some scholars believed in a theory of dispersal, concluding that similarities of artifacts or symbols among cultures represented that a superior culture had transmitted its elements to another culture. Since then, however, most scholars have concluded that many such innovations arose independently among different cultures.

Harry Holbert Turney-High, the first to write an extensive ethnography of the Ktunaxa (focusing on bands in the United States), records a detailed description of the harvesting of bark to make this canoe (67):

"A tree […] growing rather high in the mountains is sought. Finding one of the desired size and quality, a man climbed it to the proper height and cut a ring around the bark with his elk-horn chisel or flint knife. In the meantime a helper cut out another ring at the base of the tree. This done, an incision was made down the length of the trunk connecting the two rings. This cut had to be as straight and accurate as possible. A stick of about two inches in diameter was used carefully to pry the bark from the tree. The bark was wrapped up so that it would not dry out on the way to camp. The inside, or tree-side of the bark sheet, became the outside of the canoe, while the outside surface became the inside of the boat. The bark was considered ready for immediate use. There was no scraping or seasoning, nor was it decorated in any way."

Christian missionaries traveled to the Ktunaxa territories and worked to convert the peoples, keeping extensive written records of the process and of their observations of the culture. As a result of their accounts, there is more information about the missionary process than about other aspects of Ktunaxa history at the turn of the 20th century.

The Ktunaxa had been exposed to Christianity as early as the 18th century, when a Lower Kootenay prophet from Flathead Lake in Idaho by the name of Shining Shirt spread news of the coming of the ‘Blackrobes’ (French Jesuit missionaries) (Cocolla 20). Ktunaxa people also encountered Christian Iroquois sent west by the Hudson's Bay Company. By the 1830s the Ktunaxa had begun to adopt certain Christian elements in a syncretic blend of ceremonies. They were influenced less by European missionaries than through their contact with Christian Natives from other parts of Canada and the United States.

Father Pierre-Jean de Smet in 1845-6 was the first missionary to tour the region, with a view to establishing missions to minister to Native peoples, and assessing the success and needs of those already established.[citation needed] The Jesuits had made it a priority to minister to these newly discovered non-Christians in the New World. While there was missionary activity in Eastern North America for 200 years,the Ktunaxa were not the objects of the church's attentions until the mid-late 19th century. A Jesuit named Philippo Canestrelli lived among the Ksanka people of Montana in the 1880s and 90s, and wrote a much celebrated grammar of their language, published in 1896. The first missionary to take up a permanent post in the Yaqan Nu’kiy territory, i.e. the Creston Band of Lower Kootenay, was Father Nicolas Coccola, who arrived in the Creston area in 1880. His memoirs, corroborated by newspaper reports and Ktunaxa oral histories, are the basis for the early 20th-century history of the Ktunaxa.

In the first stages of Ktunaxa-European contact, mainly the result of a gold rush that began in earnest in 1863 with the discovery of gold in Wild Horse Creek, the Ktunaxa were little interested in European-driven economic activities. Traders worked to recruit them to trap in support of the fur trade, but few Lower Kootenay found this worthwhile. The Lower Kootenay region is, as mentioned above, remarkably rich in fish, birds, and large game. As the economic life of the Yaqan Nu’kiy was notably secure, they resisted new and unfamiliar economic activities.

Slowly though, the Yaqan Nu’kiy began participating in European-driven industries. They served as hunters and guides for the miners at the Bluebell silver-lead mine at Riondel. The richest gold mine ever discovered in the Kootenays was discovered by a Ktunaxa man named Pierre, and staked by him and Father Coccola in 1893.[citation needed]

Ktunaxa girls, photographed by Edward S. Curtis in 1911

20th century

While there was sometimes conflict between the Yaqan Nu’kiy and the local settler community at Creston, their relations were more characterized by peaceful coexistence. Their conflicts tended to be over land use. In contrast, relations between the Lower Kootenay and the surrounding European society in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, deteriorated. In 1974, the Lower Kootenay officially declared war against the U.S. government over land claims.

By the turn of the 20th century, some Yaqan Nu’kiy were engaged in agricultural activities introduced to them by the European settlers, but their approach to the land was different. An example of the type of conflict which would come up between European settlers and Native farmers is shown by a newspaper article in the Creston Review dated Friday, August 9, 1912:

"A dispute over the rights to cut hay on the flat lands, between the Indians and the white men, which might have resulted in bloodshed, was settled Wednesday by W.F. Teetzel, government agent, of Nelson, who told both Indians and whites that if violence is done, no one would be allowed to cut hay on government land. […] The principal trouble this year occurred when some Indians threatened Frank Lewis and drove him from the hay he had already cut. The Indians claim they have cut land at this particular place for years while the old-time ranchers say that hay has never before been cut there. Mr. Lewis complained to Policeman Gunn who, as the definite boundry [sic] of the Indian reservation is not known was at a loss what to do because no violence was committed whereby he could act. […] Mr. Teetzel arrived from Nelson Wednesday and in conference with Chief Alexander, got him to promise to see that Mr. Lewis got his hay, and warned him to keep the Indians from violence under penalty of losing the right of cutting hay on the flats. This warning he also gave to the white men. This is not the only one of the cases occurring this year. One farmer whose place is located near the reservation has been continually bothered by the Indians cutting his fences and turning their cattle in to graze on his property." Yet, in the very same year we hear this report in the Creston Review, June 21, 1912: "[Indian Agent Galbraith] says everything is in good condition and the majority of the Indians are at work picking berries for the ranchers who find their help useful and profitable."

These examples illustrate the dynamic of relations between two peoples: the Ktunaxa whose lands have been vastly reduced by the introduction of a reserve system, and the European settlers who are constantly looking to expand their industries and their access to the land.

During the 20th century the Yaqan Nu’kiy gradually became involved in all the industries of the Creston valley: agriculture, forestry, mining, and later health care, education, and tourism. This process of integration separated the Yaqan Nu’kiy from their traditional lifeways, yet they have remained a very successful and self-confident community. They also gradually gained more control over their own affairs, with less involvement from the Department of Indian or Aboriginal Affairs and more self-government. Like most tribes in British Columbia, the Yaqan Nu’kiy did not have a treaty defining their rights regarding their territory. They have been working on a careful and more or less cooperative treaty negotiation process with the government of Canada for decades.[citation needed] The Creston Band of the Ktunaxa today has 113 individuals living on the reserve, and many others living off-reserve and working in various industries in Canada and the United States.[citation needed]

Through long years of integration, the Ktunaxa feel that they have lost some traditions that are very important to them. They are taking bold steps to change this, particularly to encourage language study. There are a total of 10 living fluent speakers of Ktunaxa in both the U.S. and Canada. The Yaqan Nu’kiy have developed curriculum for grades 4–6, and have been teaching it for four years. They are involved in designing curriculum for grades 7–12, which requires meeting B.C. curriculum guidelines. Concurrent with this, they are recording oral stories and myths, as well as to videotaping the practice of their traditional crafts and technologies, with spoken directions.

"Kootenai Nation War"

On September 20, 1974, the Kootenai Tribe headed by Chairwoman Amy Trice declared war on the United States government. Their first act was to post tribal members on each end of the highway that runs through the town. They asked motorists to pay a toll to drive through the land that had been the tribe's aboriginal land. (About 200 Idaho State Police were on hand to keep the peace and there were no incidents of violence.) The money would be used to house and care for elderly tribal members. Most tribes in the United States are forbidden to declare war on the U.S. government because of treaties, but the Kootenai Tribe never signed a treaty.

The dispute resulted in the concession by the United States government and a land grant of 12.5 acres (0.051 km2), the basis of what is now the Kootenai Reservation.[28]

In 1976 the tribe issued "Kootenai Nation War Bonds" that sold at $1.00 each. The bonds were dated 20 September 1974 and contained a brief declaration of war on the United States. These bonds were signed by Amelia Custack Trice, Tribal Chairwoman, and Douglas James Wheaton, Sr., Tribal Representative. They were printed on heavy paper stock and were designed and signed by the western artist Emilie Touraine.[citation needed]

See also


  • Boas, Franz, and Alexander Francis Chamberlain. Kutenai Tales. Washington: Govt. Print. Off, 1918.
  • Chamberlain, A. F., "Report of the Kootenay Indians of South Eastern British Columbia," in Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, (London, 1892)
  • Finley, Debbie Joseph, and Howard Kallowat. Owl's Eyes & Seeking a Spirit: Kootenai Indian Stories. Pablo, Mont: Salish Kootenai College Press, 1999. ISBN 0-917298-66-7
  • Kootenai Culture Committee (Autumn 2015). "The Traditional Worldview of the Kootenai People". Montana-The Magazine of Western History. Helena, Montana: Montana Historical Society Press. 65 (3): 47–73. 
  • Linderman, Frank Bird, and Celeste River. Kootenai Why Stories. Lincoln, Neb: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. ISBN 0-585-31584-1
  • Maclean, John, Canadian Savage Folk, (Toronto, 1896)
  • Tanaka, Beatrice, and Michel Gay. The Chase: A Kutenai Indian Tale. New York: Crown, 1991. ISBN 0-517-58623-1
  • Thompson, Sally; Kootenai Culture Committee; Pikunni Traditional Association (2015). People Before The Park-The Kootenai and Blackfeet Before Glacier National Park. Helena, Montana: Montana Historical Society Press. 
  • Turney-High, Harry Holbert. Ethnography of the Kutenai. Menasha, Wis: American Anthropological Association, 1941.


  1. ^ "Aboriginal Ancestry Responses (73), Single and Multiple Aboriginal Responses (4), Residence on or off reserve (3), Residence inside or outside Inuit Nunangat (7), Age (8A) and Sex (3) for the Population in Private Households of Canada, Provinces and Territories, 2016 Census - 25% Sample Data". www12.statcan.gc.ca. Government of Canada. Retrieved 2017-11-23. 
  2. ^ "American FactFinder - Results". factfinder.census.gov. U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved 2018-01-13. 
  3. ^ Auld, Francis. "ʾa·qanⱡiⱡⱡitnam". Facebook (in Ktunaxa). Retrieved 22 June 2017. 
  4. ^ "Pronunciation Guide to First Nations in British Columbia". Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. 2010-09-15. Archived from the original on 2014-01-23. Retrieved 2013-05-14. 
  5. ^ Kootenai Reservation, Idaho, United States Census Bureau
  6. ^ "Ktunaxa", Language Geek
  7. ^ "Ktunaxa Nation Council Society", Indian and Northern Affairs Canada website
  8. ^ Ktunaxa Nation website
  9. ^ Ktunaxa Nation
  10. ^ Lower Kootenay Band - The Yaqan Nukiy
  11. ^ Aqam - St. Mary's Band
  12. ^ Tobacco Plains Band Archived 2012-04-02 at the Wayback Machine.
  13. ^ Aboriginal Canada - First Nation Connectivity Profile Archived 2013-02-06 at the Wayback Machine.
  14. ^ ?Akisq'nuk First Nation
  15. ^ First Peoples Language Map - ?Akisq'nuk First Nation
  16. ^ Source for Population: Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), Registered Population as of June, 2011 Archived 2014-12-05 at the Wayback Machine.
  17. ^ Shuswap Nation Tribal Council (SNTC) Archived 2012-04-11 at the Wayback Machine.
  18. ^ Shuswap Indian Band
  19. ^ The name is derived from Kenpesq't - ‘reaching for the highest part of the sky’ or ‘touching the sky close to heaven’, the name of several of their chiefs: Yelhellna Kinbasket (from Adams Lake), his son Paul Ignatious Kinbasket and his grandson Pierre Kinbasket
  20. ^ Kootenai Tribe of Idaho
  21. ^ Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation
  22. ^ The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation Archived 2013-04-15 at the Wayback Machine.
  23. ^ The Sinixt Nation
  24. ^ Anderson, Frank W. (1972). The Dewdney Trail. Canada: Frontier Press. pp. 9–10. 
  25. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Kutenai Indians". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 
  26. ^ Reg Ashwell, Indian Tribes of British Columbia, Hancock House (1977/2012, p. 55
  27. ^ Mason in Rep. Nat. Mus., 1899, June 19, 2012
  28. ^ Idaho’s forgotten war, University of Idaho

External links

  • Official website of the Ktunaxa Nation
  • Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, official website
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