Cliff SiJohn, Coeur d’Alene Cultural Historian, Walks On

Cliff SiJohn passed away December 24. He was serving as director of cultural awareness at the Coeur d’Alene Hotel/Casino at the time of his death.

SiJohn had been in poor health for several years due to diabetes and exposure to Agent Orange during the 18 months he spent in Vietnam. Blindness overtook him and his final months were spent in a wheelchair, but nothing kept him from his work or his passion for passing on the culture of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.

Following his time in Vietnam he worked as a police officer in Tacoma, Washington—the first Native American to do so. Later he worked as a drill instructor for the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, Washington before moving into jobs with other tribes before returning to the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in Idaho as executive director in 1984. In 1998 he joined the Coeur d’Alene Casino in Worley, Idaho as one of its executive managers.

It was his knowledge of the history and the culture of the Coeur d’Alene people, the Schitsu’Umsh, for which he was known. He did the in-house training for employees at the casino, helping to educate them about the tribe and its history. He gave innumerable banquet speeches, keynote speeches, and blessings at get-togethers including serving as emcee at powwows. His knowledge of tribal history was evident in his talks and his memory was infallible as he spoke without notes due to his blindness.

The terms talks and speeches don’t begin to define these presentations. SiJohn was an orator. He could put words together to command attention and listeners hung on every word, images forming in their minds. When he told of the slaughter of more than 900 Indian horses by the U.S. Army, the listener felt as though he were there.

SiJohn once said his step-grandfather was a great orator. Perhaps that is where he received this ability. He learned the old stories from this man and other elders who would gather at night, in a large room with beds all around. As a child he would listen, and he would remember. The stories went back before the arrival of white men, about raids in Blackfeet and Crow country. He also learned about the arrival of Scotchmen in 1809, part of the David Thompson party. A few years ago SiJohn welcomed a group of golfers from Scotland and told of that first meeting when they talked and smoked. “Neither one of their people would ever be the same. The sun set that day on an era that was thousands and thousands of years old,” he related.

SiJohn was active in many areas and last September received the Governor’s Award in the Arts in Idaho.

“His life was dedicated to working with tribes in the Inland Northwest and he spent much of his life on this earth sharing Native culture to the world and for that we are thankful. Our hearts and prayers are with his wife, Lori, and their family, as they mourn their loss,” Coeur d’Alene Vice Chairman Ernie Stensgar said about SiJohn.

Several hundred people filled the Longhouse in Worley for his funeral on December 28. Representatives were there from many tribes including Umatilla, Colville, Kalispel, Spokane, Nez Perce plus others including some from Canada and Montana. An eagle staff made in 1984 by SiJohn’s father, Francis, and since used at many ceremonies, was used for the last time in his honor.

Francis Cullooyah, a tribal elder from the Kalispel Tribe, spoke about his long association with SiJohn from growing up together to the present. “Cliff never failed to mention the relationships of the Kalispels, the Coeur d’Alenes, the Spokanes and some of the Flathead people. I know he is going to be missed as the voice of the horse at the Julyamsh Powwow. It’s going to be awhile before somebody fills his shoes.”