North Central Washington

Okanogan tribes

Mending the connection between our present culture and the timeless land of the Okanogan

Today we know the Okanogan as a land stretching from the high Cascades to the Columbia river, from north-central Washington to south-central British Columbia.

According to Raufer (1966, p. 17), an ethnographical study made by Walter Cline and others in 1930 divided the Okanogan tribes into the Northern and Southern Okanogans. The Okanogan tribes of the South are called here by the name they used, 'Sin Equai'tku'. Early historians did not divide the Upper and the Lower Okanogans.

"The Okanagan-Colville language is classified in the Interior Salish division of the Salishan Language family ...Sanpoil-Nespelem––only the Sanpoil subgroup is still in existence. Sanpoil territory traditionally extended along both sides of the Columbia River from Grand Coulee to Rogers Bar and included the Sanpoil River drainage system upriver to Republic …Lakes––along both sides of the Columbia River from near Kettle Falls north to Revelstoke, including the Arrow Lakes and Slocan Lake areas." (Turner et. al., 1980, pp. 1-2).

"Four tribes made up what is known as the Okanogan grouping: the Colvile (Swhy-ayl-puh), the Sanpoil (Snpo-i-il), the Lakes (Si-na-aich-kis-tu), and the Okanogan. (All of them belong to the Interior Salish division of the Salishan language family) and speak closely related tongues, with dialect variations chiefly in pronunciation. The Okanogan had two main divisions, the Upper or Lake Okanagan of British Columbia and the Lower or River Okanogan, now on the Colville Reservation of north-central Washington State, where Colvile and Sanpoil still occupy ancestral lands. Most Lakes have also moved to this reservation, although a handful remain in British Columbia. Before whites arrived, all four tribes had an estimated population of ten thousand or more." (Mourning Dove, 1990, p. 145).

"Eventually these Interior Salishans were assigned to two reservations by presidential executive order. The Sanpoils, whose particularly conservative and inhospitable stance toward the government was encouraged by their prophet Kolaskin, became the nucleus for the Colville Reservation." (Mourning Dove, 1990, p. xxix).

The Colville Indian Reservation was originally created in Stevens County in 1872, then moved by President Grant three months later to Ferry and Okanogan County:

"I have the honor to invite your attention to the Necessity for the setting apart by Executive order of a tract of country herinafter described, as a reservation for the following bands of Indians in Washington Territory, not parties to any treaty …" [these included a total of 4200 Indians from eight main tribes in northeastern Washington.] (Winans, 1871, in Raufer, 1996, p. 136).

The original Nespelem, San Poil, Okanogan and Lakes nations were later joined by the Wenatchee, Entiats, Chelan, Methow, Palouse and Moses-Columbia band, followed by the remaining Moses Band in 1884 and finally Chief Joseph's Band of the Nez Perce following his people's unsuccessful attempt to flee to freedom in Canada. This made a total of eleven tribes.

The US government took back the north half of the original reservation in 1892, and in 1907, the north half of the Colville Indian Reservation was withdrawn from entry and set up as a National Forest. The Forest Service began managing the land to develop range land, preserve merchantable timber from fire and develop game and recreation facilities.

Aside from French-Canadian trappers, the first white explorer to enter the area was David Thompson of the Northwest Company of Montreal, a rival in the fur trade with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Thompson came down the Columbia River in the spring of 1811 and arrived at the Kettle Falls while people were busy with harvesting the salmon run.

The western half of Okanogan County, was set apart as an immense reservation under Chief Moses in 1879, even though these were not traditional grounds of Moses' people, the Columbians. The immense reservation was bounded by the Cascades on the west, Lake Chelan on the south, and the Okanogan River on the east. But within four years, white farmers and gold miners convinced the federal government to erase the reservation. In 1885, the Moses Reservation was restored to "public" domain, with small portions given over to Chief Sar-sarp-kin ("sar-sup-KEEN"), last Chief of the Sinlahekin Band of the Columbias (Briley, 2001).

To the north, the Okanogan becomes the Canadian Okanagan (spelled with an "a"), which was formerly the realm of the Okanagan-Similkameen Nation, encompassing many tribes and bands.

"Thus, since the early 19th century, the Okanagan people's traditional sustainable, largely communal, hunter-gatherer economy based on a spiritual connection with the land with built-in social controls against excessive exploitation of resources has changed irrevocably to a commercial, money-based one dependent upon the larger white society and in many cases upon its social assistance programs. In recent years, however, there has been a renewed desire and determination among certain individuals and bands to regain a greater measure of independence in their economic and social lives and to rekindle the spiritual dimension of their traditional relationship to the land. This is manifesting itself in programs for native youth, such as the Penticton-based En'Owkin Cultural Centre and in outreach programs for the non-native community." (Cannings and Durance, 1998).