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Coeur d'Alene (Schitsu'umsh)

Essay by Rodney Frey

Oral Traditions and Origin

Before the coming of Human Peoples the world was inhabited by powerful Animal Peoples, also known as the "First Peoples." Prominent among them were Coyote, Crane, and Chief Child of the Yellow Root. It was through their actions that the world was prepared for the coming of Human Peoples. It was a time in which dangerous monsters were slain, the features of the landscape were formed and implanted with "gifts" to sustain body and spirit, and the ceremonies, social practices and "teachings" necessary to bring order and happiness were brought forth.

Map of Northwest Tribal Territories
Map of Northwest Tribal Territories

In a canoe made from the throat of Monster Fish, Chief Child of the Yellow Root traveled the waters of Lake Coeur d'Alene and slew numerous monsters. The Awl, Comb, Bladder and Lasso were transformed from "man-eaters" into items helpful to the Human Peoples. Upon completing his journey, Chief Child of the Yellow Root became the Moon. Concerned about each other's welfare during a severe winter, Rabbit and Jack Rabbit traveled to the other's home, bringing camas and pitch with them. Upon meeting on Tekoa Mountain and finding the other doing well, they left their "gifts" on the mountain's slopes. Crane would teach of the importance of sharing with those in need, as he hunts the deer and unselfishly provides venison to the starving villagers. Going up the Columbia River, it was Coyote who released the Salmon and other Fish Peoples trapped by the Swallow Sisters at Celilo Falls. The camas and fish would help nourish and the pitch help warm those who would be coming. Coyote tricked Rock into chasing him throughout the country and eventually into the Lake, ridding the land of the monster who had been crushing the lodges of the other Animal Peoples. And in so doing many of the near-by mountains and prairies were created, as well as the "blue" of Lake Coeur d'Alene. As he hunted the deer and unselfishly gave the venison to starving villagers, it was Crane who taught of the importance of sharing with those in need. It is also Crane who taught of the consequences of selfishness. But the trickster Coyote did not always learn his lessons and inevitably attempted to hunt "too many deer" or foolishly "take the easy way out." When Coyote was self-serving, he often failed in his schemes and deceptions, resulting in his own death. It would then be his wife, Mrs. Mole, who would have to jump over him several times to bring him back to life. But when Coyote sought to assist others, he was rewarded with success.

After the Gobbler Monster had swallowed most of the Animal Peoples, Coyote tricked the Monster into swallowing him as well. Once inside the monster's stomach, Coyote was able to free the other Animal Peoples and kill the monster. From the parts of the Gobbler Monster the various Human Peoples, including the Schitsu'umsh or Coeur d'Alene, were created and placed on their respective lands. To the west and northwest of the Coeur d'Alene were the Spokane and Kalispel, to the north and northeast the Kootenai and Pend Oreille, to the east the Flathead, and placed to the south and southwest of the Coeur d'Alene were the Nez Perce and Palus.

Homeland and Population

For the Coeur d' Alene, who call themselves the Schitsu'umsh, literally meaning, "the ones that were found here", and often prounounced Skitswish by neighboring tribes, they were forcibly relocated to what would become the Panhandle region of Idaho. It was a landscape of some 4,000,000 acres of fir, ponderosa and cedar-forested mountains, freshwater rivers, lakes and marshlands, and white pine and perennial bunchgrass and fescue wheatgrass-covered rolling hills and prairie. The territory of the Coeur d'Alene extended from the southern end of Lake Pend Oreille in the north running along the Bitterroot Range of Montana in the east to the Palouse and North Fork of the Clearwater Rivers in the south to Steptoe Butte and up to just east of Spokane Falls in the west. At the heart of this region was Lake Coeur d'Alene. It was a homeland inundated with "gifts" from the Animal Peoples that would provide for some 5,000 Coeur d'Alene.

Schitsu'umsh children
Schitsu'umsh children dressed for a play, 1937

Seasonal Round, Subsistence, and Religion

Traveling by canoes along the waterways and by foot over the dirt trails, the Coeur d'Alene families followed well-established, seasonal patterns of movement throughout their homeland and beyond. Their canoes were fashioned from long strips of bark from either the cedar or, unique in its application among the Coeur d'Alene, pine trees. In the spring, the 35 or so semi-permanent, winter villages located along the shores of Lake Coeur d'Alene and banks of the St. Joe, Spokane, and Coeur d'Alene Rivers where abandoned for the root gathering areas located in the prairie county. Primary among the 16 species of roots relied upon were bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva Pursh), camas (Camassia quamash Pursh), and cous (Lomatium cous).

During the spawning runs of spring and into the fall, families also traveled to the fishing areas. Using a three-pronged spear, hemp-twine nets, and weirs, the cutthroat trout (Salmo clarki) and mountain white fish (Prosopium williamsonii) were regularly fished. As anadromous fish did not enter Lake Coeur d'Alene, chinook and sockeye salmon, and steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus tshawyscha, O. nerka, and Salmo gaidener respectively) were fished and traded for at locations such as Spokane Falls, Kettle Falls and as far away as Celilo Falls. During these trading gatherings, the Coeur d'Alene would exchange dried venison and deer hides for salmon, and renew social ties with dancing and feasting.

During the summer, individuals, both men and women, could be found in the adjacent mountains, fasting and seeking visions. As with preparations for a hunt or travel into a distant country, a sweat bath would often precede the journey to a fasting site. The small, domed-shaped, earth-covered lodge might be addressed as "Grandmother" or "Great Grandfather of Grandfathers." In the steamed-heat, prayer would be offered and bodies and souls spiritual renewed and cleansed.

As the Animal Peoples had originally prepared the world, they continued to prepare and nurture the lives of individual Human Peoples. After giving up food and water for a certain number of days, the spirit of one of the Animal Peoples, such as the Elk, Wolf, or Hawk, might appear to the vision seeker and bestow suumesh, "medicine," translated as "spiritual power." Often in the form of a "song," suumesh could provide hunting or healing powers, and help guide an individual throughout his or her life. Acquiring suumesh was an important part in becoming an adult.

Suumesh songs might also entitle an individual to be acknowledged and relied upon as a shaman. The shamans would help coordinate hunting rituals and the burial of the dead, and apply their powers in healing ceremonies and during the collective ceremonials, such as the Winter Medicine Dances. Illness was often attributed to either an "object" having been "shot" into the individual or "soul loss." A shaman would use his songs and a "sucking tube" to extract the "object." But "soul loss" was typically untreatable and fatal. For the Coeur d'Alene, both men and women could become a shaman.

By mid-summer and into early fall, the last of the camas would have been dug and the berry picking would begin. Traveling into the higher hills and along the mountain creeks, 22 types of berries were gathered, primary among them chokecherry (Prunus viginiana L.), huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum Dougl.), and serviceberries (Amelanchier alnifolia Nutt.). As with the root digging, fishing, and game hunting, prayer would precede the activities associated with gathering berries. Facing the direction of the highest mountain, an elder would hold out a basket of freshly-picked berries and thank Amo'tqen, the Creator, often translated, the "one who presides at the head mountain," for what was received. In late fall the "water potato" (Sagittaia latifolia Willd.) was gathered along the marshy regions of Lake Coeur d'Alene. Of all the regional tribes, only the Coeur d'Alene gathered this particular root.

The fall was the season for intensive game hunting, including reliance on the white-tail deer (Odocoileus virginianus), mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), elk (Cervus canadensis), moose (Alces alces), and black bear (Ursus americanus). One common method of hunting the deer and unique to the Coeur d'Alene involved "drivers" who would herd the deer toward a water crossing or lake, where hunters from canoe could easily club, spear or shoot the animals. The Coeur d'Alene hunters used a rather short, sinewed-back, recurved bow of amazing strength, which was particularly well-adopted for hunting in the confines of forested regions. The deer and elk were often addressed as "Brothers" and would "offer themselves up" only to deserving and respectful hunters. As with the roots and berries gathered, and fish caught, a portion of the meat from the hunt would be freely given to families and individuals most in need.

With the coming of winter, the families would return to their village sites along the lake's shore and rivers' banks. These were the sites of the "long communal houses." Up to 90 feet in length, the lean-to structured lodges were constructed with poles and coverings made of tule reeds tied into mats. The communal lodges could accommodate several families, each represented by a separate "fire pit." In addition to the communal lodges and used throughout the year were conical structured, tule-mat covered lodges. There is no evidence of use of the semi-subterranean pit house typically used by other tribes in the region.

During the long winter nights, the elders would re-tell the oral traditions of Coyote, Crane, and Chief Child of the Yellow Root, the young learning of and the old renewing in the "teachings" offered. Given the animating power of the spoken word, in the act of telling the stories of the Animal Peoples, that which was described was brought forth and perpetuated, Lake Coeur d'Alene re-created "blue" and the camas and deer re-invested in the hills. This was also the season that witnessed "stick games" and other recreational activities, as well as the important Winter Medicine Dances. Communal deer hunting and ice fishing would continue throughout the winter, culminating a yearly subsistence-cycle in which roots and berries, fish and salmon, and game meat each contributed about a third to the total diet of the Coeur d'Alene.

The culmination of the year's spiritual cycle was the Winter Medicine Dances, also known as the Jump Dances. (See also "The Sanpoil and Nespelem: Salish Peoples of Northeastern Washington".) At the height of cold weather in January and February, certain individuals would sponsor the Dances. Held in the communal lodges, the dances would begin and end with sunset and sunrise over two or three consecutive nights. Holding or wearing some item representative of his associated Animal spirit, individuals would in turn step forward and give thanks for any "good fortune"and ask for success in future hunts, and berry and root gatherings. Each would then sing his particular suumesh song. To the rhythm of the song all the participants would "jump" dance, hopping with both feet together clock-wise around the lodge. As each lead singer danced, his voice and actions took on the characteristics of his Animal suumesh, be they a Bear, Hawk or Wolf. The Blue Jay was considered the most powerful of all such spirits. Upon "Blue Jaying," the dancer might "fly" to the rafters of the lodge and out into the night uncontrollably, eventually to be "captured" by the shaman. It was understood that if one did not sing his suumesh song he would become sick, but in properly caring for his suumesh, he would prosper. During the night, shamans also blessed the participants and doctored the sick. Through the Jump Dance, the suumesh powers acquired from the Animal Peoples would be redirected to bring health and well-being to all the Human Peoples.

Social Organization and Intertribal Relations

The Coeur d'Alene were organized into three loosely-structured bands, each corresponding to the winter village sites. The core of one band was located at the north end of Lake Coeur d'Alene and along the Spokane River, while the other two were situated along the St. Joe and Coeur d'Alene Rivers respectively. Each band comprised several extended families, each of which could function autonomous of the others and could realign itself with a different band. Reflecting a fundamentally egalitarian social structure, there were no hereditary clans, no class structure, and slavery was not practiced. Kinship was bilaterally based, with the same terms used to address a cousin from one's mother's or father's family.

Leadership within the bands, villages and extended families was in the hands of elected head chiefs and sub-chiefs. Any male was eligible to become a chief, though sons of former chiefs were often so elected. It was at "Head Waters," the rather large village near what would become the city of Coeur d'Alene, that the generally recognized head chief of all the Coeur d'Alene resided. Chiefs of all levels had primarily an advisory role, leading by example and ruling by consensus. They often exhibited qualities of cooperation and generosity. Chiefs had no coercive or punitive powers. Able to freely speak at public gatherings, women were able to exert considerable influence over public opinion.

Intertribal relations with other Salish-speaking tribes, such as the Spokane, Flathead, Kalispel, and Pend Oreille, were generally friendly, though conflicts were not unknown. Coeur d'Alene families regularly traveled with members from these tribes to distant salmon fishing sites, and, after the coming of the horse, into the buffalo hunting country of Montana, renewing established trading partnerships. But with the Kootenai, and the Sahaptin-speaking Nez Perce and Palus, tensions erupting into periodic skirmishes occurred. Warfare typically resulted from avenging a transgression, and not entailing territorial conquest or enslavement of populations. In preparations for battle, Coeur d'Alene warriors sought spiritual assistance by singing their suumesh songs and dancing in imitation of the war deeds they were about to accomplish.

Euro-American Historic Contact

The first influences of Euro-Americans on the Coeur d'Alene occurred well before either people actually set eyes upon the other. By the 1760s, the horse, reintroduced into the New World by the Spanish, had become fully integrated into Coeur d'Alene society. The horse eased the travel to the salmon fishing sites and allowed travel into the distant buffalo country to the east. With the horse a new food source was acquired. Pursuit of the buffalo also heightened conflict with the Blackfeet and Crow who inhabited that country. Tule-mat lodges gave way to the plains-style tipis.

As early as the mid-1770s, a series of smallpox epidemics ravaged the population of the Coeur d'Alene. By 1854 there were only some 500 Coeur d'Alene, having numbered 5,000 but 80 years earlier. With the devastation to the population also came loss of social and economic expertise and collective wisdom, as well as further susceptibility to Blackfeet and Crow raids.

In May of 1806, on their return trip from the Pacific Ocean, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark met three "Skeet-so-mish" (Schitsu'umsh), and reported some 120 lodges along "Wayton Lake" (Lake Coeur d'Alene). In 1809, David Thompson established the Kullyspell House on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille and the fur trade had begun. Guns and other trade goods were acquired in exchange for beaver. It was during this time that the Schitsu'umsh were "named." It was likely French-speaking Iroquois trappers living among the Flathead who found the Schitsu'umsh shrewd traders and named them "Coeur d'Alene," literally, "heart of an awl," or "Pointed Hearts." The fur trade was a mixed blessing. New material goods made life easier, but access to alcohol and exposure to various diseases brought further ruin.

Schitsu'umsh man named Jim Eaglehead plowing
Schitsu'umsh man named Jim Eaglehead plowing, Idaho

Long before the arrival of the "Black Robes," Circling Raven had foretold their arrival among the Coeur d'Alene. (See also "Jesuits and the Coeur d'Alene Treaty of 1858".) Beginning in 1831 successive delegations of regional Indians, including the Flathead, left for St. Louis to request the presence of the Jesuit missionaries. The fourth delegation succeeded in meeting Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet in 1839. In 1842, DeSmet journeyed among the Coeur d'Alene and in 1848 the Mission of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was established at Cataldo. With the Jesuits came the introduction to a new form of prayer and the "reduction system,"self-sufficient farming communities. By the 1890s, the Coeur d'Alene were known as successful farmers of oats, potatoes, and wheat, using state-of-the-art farm equipment, often employing white laborers, and typically owning two homes, one on their farms and the other used on weekends at DeSmet were Mass was celebrated. In 1877 the Mission of the Sacred Heart was moved to DeSmet, named after their "beloved priest." Despite initial successes many families resisted religious conversion, objecting to the authoritarianism of the priests and alien theological concepts such as "redemption" and "hell." The Jesuits endeavored to suppress many ceremonial practices, such as the use of suumesh and the Winter Medicine Dances. Children were forced to attend the Catholic boarding school at DeSmet, where they had their hair cut and were prevented from speaking their native language. The original desire for the Black Robes may have been prompted by the lure of protection they would bring against the military strength of the Blackfeet and the mysterious diseases that were killing so many. Despite its initial harshness, Catholicism remains a vital part of contemporary Coeur d'Alene identity and religious practice.

Schitsu'umsh village of Desmet
Schitsu'umsh village of Desmet, Idaho 1909

With ever-increasing encroachment by whites onto Coeur d'Alene lands, partly spawned by the discovery of gold in the 1860s, tensions grew between Indians and whites. In May of 1858, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Steptoe led a detachment of some 150 poorly equipped troops and 50 Nez Perce scouts through Coeur d'Alene territory. With Spokane, Palus and Yakima warriors joining the Coeur d'Alene, the Indians outnumbered the soldiers and defeat was imminent. While surrounded one night, the Coeur d'Alene allowed safe passage of Steptoe's troops, provided they leave their weapons behind. The victory was known by the Coeur d'Alene as the Hn-Givsumn Battle, referring to the name of the near-by creek, translated, "where they made ropes." Colonel George Wright responded to the "defeat" with his own victories over the allied tribes at the Battle of Four Lakes and the Battle of Spokane Prairie, followed by a "scorched earth" policy. On his way to the Cataldo Mission, Wright had 900 horses killed and large quantities of food destroyed, even among the Coeur d'Alene who had not participated in the Steptoe defeat. Wright lured several Yakima and Palus and at least one Coeur d'Alene leader into his camp, and, without benefit of trial, had them hung. Hn-Givsumn was re-named by the locals, Hangman Creek.

Through a series of Executive Orders of 1873, 1887 and 1889, the Coeur d'Alene Reservation was established and the land base of its people significantly reduced. Much of their former territory was acquired without remuneration for ceded lands. The 1887 agreement also resettled many Spokane families onto the Coeur d'Alene Reservation. In 1909, the Allotment Act was implemented on the Coeur d'Alene Reservation, resulting in a reduction in size of individual land holdings, rendering most agricultural practices infeasible, and an opening up of "unused" reservation lands to white ownership. Once successful farmers, by 1921 only four Coeur d'Alene families were able to productively continue farming their allotments.

Today some 70,000 acres of the 345,000 acre Coeur d'Alene Reservation are owned by its 1,550 enrolled members. In an ongoing legal dispute with the state of Idaho, the United States District Court in 1998 ruled that the Tribe has legal jurisdiction over the southern third of Lake Coeur d'Alene.


As Henry SiJohn, a contemporary elder, stated, "We survive by our oral traditions, which are our basic truths, our basic facts, handed down from our elders. They are the basis of our songs, our vision quests, our sharing." Despite overwhelming Euro-American societal forces that inadvertently or overtly sought their demise, the "teachings" of the Animal Peoples and the Coeur d'Alene people have shown amazing resilience. The voices of the Animals Peoples continue to be heard as the oral traditions are shared by the elders and suumesh songs are sung prior to a deer hunt, in the Sweat House, or during a Jump Dance. As Crane first instructed, an ethic of sharing with all those in need, be they Indian or white, exemplifies the operations of the state-of-the-art Benewah Medical Center and Tribal School. The same attitude oversees the distribution of gaming profits from the highly successful Bingo/Casino Hall. Profits have gone into the local school systems and land acquisition, attempting to insure future economic self-determination. The Coeur d'Alene have taken an active role in the clean-up of mining pollution along the Coeur d'Alene River, and continue to view the lakes and rivers, and the surrounding mountains with their deer and camas as "family."


Amo'tqen - the Creator

"Black Robes" - Jesuit Priests

"Jump Dance" - two to three-day ceremony of prayer and dancing held during the winter

Schitsu'umsh - literally meaning, "the ones that were found here," and often historically spelled Skitswish, referring to the Coeur d'Alene people

Suumesh - "medicine" or spiritual power and guidance


Study Questions

  1. What is the significance and role of the Animal Peoples, also known as the First Peoples, in the lives of the Coeur d'Alene?
  2. What is the role of the oral traditions and how do they continue to influence the lives of the Coeur d'Alene today?
  3. Outline the seasonal round of the Coeur d'Alene, identifying the primary "gifts" (both subsistence and spiritual) received during each season.
  4. What is suumesh, and how is it acquired and applied to the lives of the Coeur d'Alene?
  5. What ceremony culminates the year's spiritual cycle? Discuss the nature and significance of that ceremony? For more detail, consult Verne Ray's Sanpoil and Nespelem study.
  6. Discuss the nature of "leadership" among the Coeur d'Alene.
  7. What was the influence of horses and disease on the Coeur d'Alene?
  8. What is the meaning of the terms, "Coeur d'Alene" and "Schitsu'umsh," and how did each term come into use?
  9. What was the influence of the Jesuits on the live of the Coeur d'Alene?
  10. What was the Hn-Givsumn Battle and discuss its aftermath?
  11. What was the location where the Coeur d'Alene were placed by Coyote and compare that area with the size and location of their contemporary reservation?
  12. As the Coeur d'Alene share many cultural forms with the Sanpoil and Nespelem, as all three tribes are Salish-speakers, it would be instructive to make comparisons with and learn more about them in Verne Ray's study.

About the Author

Rodney Frey is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Idaho. He received a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of Colorado in 1979 under the guidance of Deward Walker. Frey has been conducting applied research projects on the Crow Reservation since 1974 and the Coeur d'Alene Reservations since 1989. Currently he is working with Coeur d'Alene elders on a manuscript entitled, The World of the Coeur d'Alene Indians: Landscape Traveled by Crane and Coyote. For further information, you can access Frey's home page at:

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