Ktunaxa Group Near Tipis (ca. 1900)
Total population
Regions with significant populations
United States (Idaho, Montana, Washington), Canada (British Columbia)
English, Kutenai (Kitunahan)
Christianity, other

The Ktunaxa (English pronunciation: ;[1] Kutenai pron. ), also known as Kutenai (English ), Kootenay (predominant spelling in Canada) and Kootenai (predominant spelling in the United States), are an indigenous people of North America. There are four bands that form the Ktunaxa Nation and the historic allied and through intermarriage kindred Shuswap Indian Band in British Columbia, in Montana together with the Bitterroot Salish (also known as Flathead) and Upper Pend d'Oreilles they are part of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation. There are also the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho in Idaho and small populations in Washington in the United States, where they are part of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.[2]

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


  • Communities 1
  • History 2
    • Origins 2.1
    • Early history 2.2
    • 20th century 2.3
      • "Kootenai Nation War" 2.3.1
  • See also 3
  • Literature 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


There are 4 bands in southeastern British Columbia, 1 band in northern Idaho, 1 band in northwestern Montana, and there are also small populations in Washington.[3][4][5]

Canada - British Columbia

Ktunaxa Nation Council (KNC) (until 2005 Ktunaxa/Kinbasket Tribal Council (K/KTC))[6]

  • Lower Kootenay First Nation (aka Lower Kootenay Indian Band[7] - 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-Canadian 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[8] (aka St. Mary's Bandʔaq̓amniʔk 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 First Nation (aka Tobacco Plains Indian Bandʔa·kanuxunik, Akan'kunik, or ʔakink̓umⱡasnuqⱡiʔit - ‘People of the place of the flying head’,[9] 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)[10]
  • ?Akisq'nuk First Nation[11] (aka Columbia Lake Indian BandA·kisq̓nuknik̓, ʔakisq̓nuk oder ?Akisq'nuk - ‘place of two lakes’,[12] 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)[13]

Shuswap Nation Tribal Council,[14] one of the two tribal councils of the Secwepemc

  • Shuswap Indian Band[15] (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’,[16] 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

Kootenai Tribal Council

United States - Montana

Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation

United States - Washington

Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation


The Ktunaxa people today live in southeastern British Columbia, Washington State, Idaho, and Montana. In Montana they are known as Ksanka. Ktunaxa is the term that these tribes call themselves, which is pronounced Ta-na-ha, with a barely perceptible ‘k’ sound at the beginning of the word. Traditionally these people have been known as Kootenay or Kootenai, which is an anglicisation of the Blackfoot word used to refer to the Ktunaxa, so in some of their tribal organizations and activities, the Ktunaxa refer to themselves as Kootenay, or in Montana, Kootenai.

There is a cultural distinction between 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, also situates this group in the broader context of all the Ktunaxa tribes.


There are a number of possibilities regarding the origins of the Ktunaxa. One theory is that they originally lived on the prairies, and were driven across the Rockies by the Blackfoot[21] or by famine and disease.[22] Some Upper Kootenay participated in a Plains Native lifestyle for part of the year, crossing the Rockies for the bison hunt. They were relatively well known to the Blackfoot, and sometimes their relations with them were violent. Some Ktunaxa remained on or returned to the Prairies year round and had a settlement near Fort Macleod, Alberta. It is this group of Ktunaxa who suffered greatly partly because of the depredations of the Blackfoot, and partly because of smallpox. After their numbers were greatly reduced, these Plains Ktunaxa returned to the Kootenay region of British Columbia.

There is an origin story, told by some of the Ktunaxa themselves, that the people are originally from the Great Lakes region of Michigan, however to date there is no evidence that this is the case, not in the archaeological nor in the historical record.

The archaeological record of what is now considered Ktunaxa territory in British Columbia boasts some of the oldest man-made artifacts in Canada, although it has not been proven that these artifacts were left by ancestors of the Ktanaxa or by another, possibly Salishan, group. There is evidence of quarrying and flint-knapping, especially of quartzite and tourmaline, which demonstrates human occupation of the Kootenays by 11,500 before the present (BP). This oldest assemblage of artifacts is known as the Goatfell Complex, named after the Goatfell region about 40 km east of Creston on Highway 3. These artifacts are 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 is of the opinion that from the technology represented in the Goatfell Complex at 11,500 BP up to the artifacts of the early historical period, there has been no break in the archaeological record and no evidence of any technology that was not a local development significant enough to demonstrate the emigration of the region's first inhabitants, or their replacement by a different people. It is Choquette's conclusion that the Ktunaxa today are the descendants of those first people to inhabit the land. However, other opinions suggest that they instead moved to the British Columbia region in the early half of the 18th century, having been harassed and then pushed there from East of the Rockies by the Blackfoot, since their traditional dress, many of their customs (such as their use of teepee style housing) and their religion have more in common with Plains peoples.[23]

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 as the flora and fauna also moved northward.citation required

From the time of the first Ktunaxa settlement in the Kootenays, until the historical period, which for the Ktunaxa began with their mention on Alexander Mackenzie's map, circa 1793, there is little known of their social, political, and intellectual development. Stone tool technologies changed and became more complex and differentiated. They were probably big game hunters in their earliest prehistoric phase. As temperatures continued to warm, the glacial lakes drained, fish found habitat in the warmer waters, and the Lower Kootenay most likely became more focused on fishing, while maintaining the old traditions of game hunting. The Upper Kootenay, inhabiting an essentially different climate, did not become the avid fishermen that the Lower Kootenay did.

Early history

Anthropological and ethnographic interest in the Ktunaxa began in 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 we expect of anthropologists today, and they imputed a great deal of their own cultural values into what they were able to witness among the Ktunaxa. They remain, however, the most detailed descriptions of Ktunaxa lifestyles at a time when Aboriginal lifeways all over the world were dramatically changing in the face of a self-confident, commerce- and resource-driven European expansionism.[citation needed]

The earliest ethnographies detail Ktunaxa lifestyle around the turn of the 20th century. The Ktunaxa lifestyle, when first observed by Europeans, was full and rich. They observed a stable economic life and a rich social life with 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. There were also 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, but the Lower Kootenay did this only as an individual pursuit, and therefore it was not an important part of their economic life. citation required

Ktunaxa social life as observed by the anthropologists consists of vision quests, reverence of tobacco, a Sun Dance, and Grizzly Bear Dance, a midwinter festival, a Blue Jay Dance and other social and ceremonial activities.citation required There were different societies or lodges that people belonged to, such as The Crazy Dog Society, the Crazy Owl Society, and the Shamans’ Society. These groups took on certain responsibilities in Ktunaxa society, 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 being peculiarly shaped and having some resemblance to canoes that were used in the Amur region of Asia.[24] Harry Holbert Turney-High, the first to write an extensive ethnography of the Ktunaxa, (focusing on the American bands), records a detailed description of the harvesting of the 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."

The process that defines the entry of the Ktunaxa into the written record of the European immigrant society that was growing around them is the arrival of Christianity to their territory and their early relation to it. There is more information about this process than about any other sequence of events that the Ktunaxa were involved in 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’ (Cocolla 20). Ktunaxa people also encountered Christian Iroquois sent west by the Hudson's Bay Company. By the 1830s there was a blending of Native and Christian ceremonies among the Ktunaxa, which occurred without the presence of European missionaries or pressure, but rather 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 required It had been a priority of the Jesuits to minister to these newly discovered non-Christians in the New World. This is a phenomenon that had been ongoing in Eastern North America for 200 years, but the Ktunaxa were not the objects of the church's attentions until the mid-late 19th century. A Jesuit by the name of 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. It is from his memoirs, corroborated by newspaper reports and Ktunaxa oral histories that the early 20th century history of the Ktunaxa is constructed.

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. There was an attempt 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, and so the economic life of the Yaqan Nu’kiy was notably secure, and thus resistant to new 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 required

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 are characterized much more by peaceful coexistence, and never reached the pitch of the relations between the surrounding European society and the Lower Kootenay in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, who officially declared war against the U.S. government in 1974 over land claims. The conflict that there was between the Creston Band and the local settlers usually had its origin in land use.

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, but a careful and more or less cooperative treaty negotiation process with the government of Canada has been ongoing for decades. The Creston Band of the Ktunaxa today boasts 113 individuals living on the reserve, and many others living off-reserve and working in various industries in Canada and the United States.

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 rectify this situation. There are 10 living fluent speakers of Ktunaxa both in 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 currently involved in designing curriculum for grades 7–12, and this requires meeting special B.C. curriculum guidelines. Concurrent with this, there is a vibrant effort to record oral stories and myths, as well as to videotape and describe the making of their traditional crafts and technologies.

"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 and they politely 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) that would become what is now the Kootenai Reservation.[25]

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 War Bonds were signed by Amelia Custack Trice, Tribal Chairwoman and Douglas James Wheaton, Sr., Tribal Representative. The bonds themselves were printed on heavy paper stock and were designed and signed by the western artist, Emilie Touraine.

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, Béatrice, 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. ^ "Pronunciation Guide to First Nations in British Columbia". Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. 2010-09-15. Retrieved 2013-05-14. 
  2. ^ Kootenai Reservation, Idaho United States Census Bureau
  3. ^ Language Geek information about Ktunaxa
  4. ^ Ktunaxa Nation Council Society infopage, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada website
  5. ^ Ktunaxa Nation website
  6. ^ Ktunaxa Nation
  7. ^ Lower Kootenay Band - The Yaqan Nukiy
  8. ^ Aqam - St. Mary's Band
  9. ^ Tobacco Plains Band
  10. ^ Aboriginal Canada - First Nation Connectivity Profile
  11. ^ ?Akisq'nuk First Nation
  12. ^ First Peoples Language Map - ?Akisq'nuk First Nation
  13. ^ Source for Population: Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), Registered Population as of June, 2011
  14. ^ Shuswap Nation Tribal Council (SNTC)
  15. ^ Shuswap Indian Band
  16. ^ 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
  17. ^ Kootenai Tribe of Idaho
  18. ^ Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation
  19. ^ The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation
  20. ^ The Sinixt Nation
  21. ^ Anderson, Frank W. (1972). The Dewdney Trail. Canada: Frontier Press. pp. 9–10. 
  22. ^  "Kutenai Indians".  
  23. ^ Indian Tribes of British Columbia, Reg Ashwell, Hancock House, page 55, 1977, June 19, 2012.
  24. ^ Mason in Rep. Nat. Mus., 1899, June 19, 2012
  25. ^ Idaho’s forgotten war

External links

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