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The Kootenai Tribe’s forgotten war

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BONNERS FERRY, Idaho – The date was Sept. 20, 1974 when Amy Trice, then chairman of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, declared war on the United States. The tribe only numbered 67. The odds certainly weren’t good but the outcome, now 36 years later, has been very good.

In a recent interview Trice talked of those days and the improvements seen now. “We didn’t have any housing, no jobs, nothing. They asked if I’d run for the council and I said if I’m put in I will do my best to do what I can for my people. I got on and we hired Doug Wheaton. He was my right hand man. We sat down, talked, and wrote letters to the BIA and others and asked for grants to build houses and build a highway. Our highway was bad and people would get stuck in it every spring from the rain. We were told (by BIA) we had to have at least 125 members (or they couldn’t help). That made me mad. Doug and I discussed it and decided there was no place else to go. So we said, ‘let’s go to war.’ We said it jokingly but it turned serious and we did go to war.”

The war didn’t involve guns and violence but did involve charging others to drive across tribal land. It also had the larger impact of alerting many people to the conditions on the reservation. It got national attention. It was even reported internationally in such places as France, Germany, Israel and Ireland. And, it has resulted in drastically improved conditions for the Kootenai people.

Asked about the results, she said, “I think it’s wonderful! We got a hatchery and just got another place at Twin Rivers and we’re going to put in another hatchery there. We just bought another property adjacent to the Kootenai River Inn.” Highways and housing are much improved as well.

She does have one regret. “Teenagers now just take it for granted. They should use grants to go to school and get educated, that’s the next step for our tribe to excel.” The tribe has increased to 141 members.

Sonja Rosario decided to produce a documentary, which she titled, “Idaho’s Forgotten War: A Lost Tale of Courage.” It was scheduled to air on Idaho Public Television Aug. 10. Rosario had heard from tribal Chairman Velma Bahe about Trice in 2002 but had put it aside. In 2006, she received another call, this time from Valerie Fast Horse on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation saying Trice had double pneumonia and if she were to pass away, “Idaho would lose its history and the Kootenai Tribe would lose its past.”

“The film is really a dedication to what Amy did and why she declared war against the U.S. government,” Rosario said. “It’s also a dedication to those who are no longer with us, can no longer speak on their behalf. It’s a testament to what one person can do when they take action.

“As far as I know Amy is the only woman in U.S. history to declare a war against the government. That’s an incredible statement coming out of Indian country where women traditionally are the matriarchs and men are in leadership. This is probably the last American Indian war declared officially, with a war bond and an official letter sent to the government and a letter sent to President Ford. This is huge. It’s a testament to what one can do and will do when you love and are committed to your community.

“There had to be a lot of love coming from Amy Trice for her people to have taken the stand she did at that time. It was just off the cuff of 1973, the American Indian Movement and Wounded Knee. There was a lot of violence against American Indians at this time. There was a concern she’d be murdered.

“The Idaho senators at the time wanted to make sure Amy and the Kootenai Tribe got what they needed to move in a direction to enhance their lifestyle: health wise, spiritually, and emotionally. These were people who had been forgotten for a long time.

“Amy is an incredible woman. I am honored and blessed to have gotten to know her personally and professionally. Emotionally and spiritually she has been a pillar for me.”