COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho – According to Idaho’s official timeline, nothing noteworthy happened here in 1974. Somehow, all the state historians and educators missed the fact that north Idaho’s tiny Kootenai Tribe declared war on the U.S. government that year and saved itself from extinction.
A new documentary by Sonya Rosario offers the inspiring story through the recollections of former tribal Chairwoman Amy Trice and others who were involved in “Idaho’s Forgotten War.”
Events took place in September 1974 in the rural community of Bonner’s Ferry, against a national backdrop of political upheaval and American Indian activism. The Kootenai people had been living in dire poverty since refusing to sign the Hellgate Treaty, which caused a massive land transfer from three Northwest tribes to the U.S. government more than 100 years earlier.
The film begins with an explanation that the Kootenai Tribe was bound by a covenant with the Creator to care for the land forever, so they didn’t want to make treaties to give it away. But the absence of a tribal leader’s “X” on the Hellgate document nearly resulted in the people’s annihilation because the federal government took the land anyway, yet was not compelled to offer any recognition or compensation.
Once 4,000 strong, by 1974 the Kootenai’s numbers had dwindled to 68 souls clinging to life in dilapidated shelters on 10 acres of church ground. Their homes were in such disrepair that a man was able to crumble a shingle in his hand and blow it away. Then, when an elder froze to death in a house that let the rain and snow in, Trice had to take drastic action.
“There’s a reason for it, why we’re put here on Earth and you know in your heart what you want; and I guess with me it was always to have my people,” she says in the film. “Before I knew what was going on and what was going to happen, I did not know that it was prophesied that this day would come, that we were going to come out of bondage.”
Trice had asked the BIA for help, then Washington, D.C., but her pleas fell on deaf ears.
On Sept. 20, 1974, she notified President Gerald Ford that he should dispatch a high-level emissary by midnight to begin treaty negotiations. If he failed to do so, the Kootenai would declare war on the United States and set up roadblocks along a major north/south transportation route. When no emissary showed up, Trice announced the war’s beginning and started praying harder than usual.
Tribal members with signs flanked the highway, requesting a 10-cent toll from vehicles passing through their country. County Sheriff Chris Ketner was sympathetic. He knew the people had nothing and that Trice wasn’t a troublemaker. Many other non-Indians who felt the same gave much more than 10 cents. The money was used to feed the support troops who came to help, some of whom were bodyguards and warriors dispatched by the American Indian Movement.
When the state patrol arrived to put down the “Indian insurrection,” the atmosphere became a tinderbox.
The film recounts events that followed though interviews with tribal members, police, elected officials and the impressions of some locals who were in Bonners Ferry at the time.
The final cut of “Idaho’s Forgotten War” was screened in September in the town’s Rex Theatre to a standing-room-only crowd of community members, with American Indians coming from as far away as New York.
Movie actress Anna “Patty Duke” Pierce, of Coeur d’Alene, also selected the film to be screened as part of a fundraiser for a women’s shelter there, which Trice attended with some family and friends.
“Today, I’m happy the children who weren’t born yet got to see the film,” she told the audience gathered at the Song Bird Theater. “I wanted to get the story out a long time ago. It shows we can do something.”
The war resulted in federal recognition and 12.5 acres of trust land. Money for new buildings and services followed.
“Idaho’s Forgotten War” is scheduled for another showing March 2009 at the University of Idaho in Coeur d’Alene. Meanwhile, Rosario has entered it in the Sundance Film Festival.
“This documentary will inspire viewers to believe in a better way of life and smaller tribes to remain resilient in seeking federal recognition for their people,” she wrote on her Web site.
A trailer is available at www.you tube.com/watch?v=G6qJJr3E.