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Editors: Spencer C. Tucker , James Arnold , and Roberta Wiener
Date: 2011
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 5)

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A Plateau tribe having three geographic divisions—upper, lower, and middle—who lived along the Spokane River in eastern Washington state and northern Idaho. The Spokanes (Spokans) have also been known as Muddy People as well as Sun People, probably after a faulty translation of their name. Their self-designation was Spoqe'ind, meaning “round head.” Today they live on reservations in Washington and Idaho as well as in regional cities and towns. Spokane is a dialect of the interior division of the Salishan language family.

The Spokanes probably originated in British Columbia along with other Salish groups. Each division of the Spokanes was composed of a number of bands, which were in turn composed of groups of related families. Bands were led by a chief and a sub-chief, who were selected on the basis of leadership qualities. Several bands might winter together in a village and at that time select an ad hoc village chief. Decisions were made by consensus. In the historic period, as authority became more centralized, there was also a tribal chief.

The Spokanes were seminomadic for nine months a year; during the other three months they lived in permanent winter villages. The men's realm consisted of tool making, warring, hunting, fishing, and later caring for horses, as they were expert horsemen.

The Spokanes built typical Plateau-style semiexcavated, cone-shaped wood-frame houses covered with woven matting and/or grass. Longer lodge-style structures of similar construction were used for communal activities. Temporary brush shelters served as summertime houses. Later, skin tepees replaced the original structures.

Fish, especially salmon, was the staple of the Spokane diet. Trout and whitefish were also important. These were mostly smoked, dried, and stored for the winter. Men hunted local big game and, later, buffalo on the Plains. Important plant foods included camas, bitterroot and other roots, bulbs, seeds, and berries.

Women made coiled baskets of birch bark and/or cedar root; they also wove wallets and bags of strips of hide and sewed tule mats and other items. These goods were sometimes traded with other Native American peoples and with whites.

After they acquired horses from the Kalispel people around the mid-18th century, the Spokanes began hunting buffalo on the Great Plains. This was especially true of the upper division. By the time they encountered the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805, Page 753  |  Top of Articletheir population had already declined significantly as a result of smallpox epidemics.

Following the Lewis and Clark visit, the North West, Hudson's Bay, and American Fur companies quickly established themselves in the area. Missionaries arrived in the 1830s and found the Spokanes to be reluctant converts, and the influence of Christianity acted to create factionalism within the tribe. Interracial relations declined sharply in the late 1840s with the November 29, 1847, Whitman Massacre and the closing of the Protestant mission. Severe smallpox epidemics in 1846 and again in 1852 and 1853 helped spur the rise of the Prophet Dance and the Dreamer Cult.

After white miners had effectively dispossessed the Spokanes from their territory, they joined with the Coeur d'Alenes, Yakimas, Palouses, and Paiutes in the short-lived 1858 Coeur d'Alene War (part of the Yakima-Rogue War). The Spokanes then remained on their land when they could or settled on various reservations. Despite pleas from Chief Joseph, they remained neutral in the 1877 Nez Perce War. In that year the lower division agreed to move to the Spokane Reservation (officially declared a reservation in 1881 and encompassing 154,898 acres). Ten years later the other two divisions as well as some remaining lower Spokanes agreed to move to either the Flathead, Colville, or Coeur d'Alene reservations. The local fort, Fort Spokane, became a Native American boarding school from 1898 to 1906. There were also conflicts over land with nonnatives in and around the city of Spokane at this time.

In the early 20th century, much tribal land was lost to the allotment process as well as to “surplus” land sales to non–Native Americans. Dams built in 1908 (Little Falls) and 1935 (Grand Coulee) ruined the local fishery. Uranium mining began in the 1950s. The Spokane tribe successfully fought off termination proceedings begun in 1955. In 1966 the tribe received a land claims settlement of $6.7 million.



Carpenter, Cecelia S. They Walked Before: The Indians of Washington State. Tacoma, WA: Tahoma Publications, 1989.

Ruby, Robert H., and John A. Brown. The Spokane Indians: Children of the Sun. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3301300695