The Spokan or Spokane people are a Native American Plateau tribe who inhabited the eastern portion of the Washington state and parts of northern Idaho in the United States of America. The current Spokane Indian Reservation is located in eastern Washington, centered in Wellpinit. The reservation is located almost entirely in Stevens County, but also includes two small parcels of land (totaling about 1.52 acres) in Lincoln County, including part of the Spokane River. In total, the reservation is about 615 square kilometers or 237 square miles.
The city of Spokane, Washington takes the tribe's name, which means “children of the Sun” or “Sun People”. Spokan or Spokane is a name the Native people gave themselves and one of their native legends says it came from the noise a snake made when a person beat on a hollow tree where the snake was hiding. The Spokane language belongs to the Interior Salishan language family. The precontact population of the Spokane people is estimated to be about 1,400 to 2,500 people. The populations of the tribe began to diminish after contact with settlers and traders due to diseases the Spokane people had never been exposed to previously; thus in 1829 a Hudson Bay trader guessed there were about 700 Spokane people in the area. Populations have been steadily increasing and tribal membership in 1985 was around 1,961 and in 2000 the US census reported the resident population of the reservation to be around 2,000 people.
For thousands of years the Spokane people lived near the Spokane River in eastern Washington and northern Idaho surviving by hunting and gathering. Spokane territory once sprawled out over three million acres (12,000 km²) of land. The Spokane bands were semi nomadic moving around for 9 months of the year and settling in permanent winter villages for the other 3. The first contact the Spokane people had with white men was fur traders and explorers. The Lewis and Clark expedition encountered the Spokane tribe in 1805. Already the Spokane people were dwindling in population from introduced diseases like smallpox. Shortly after the encounter with the Lewis and Clark expedition fur traders and settlers arrived. In 1810 the North West Company opened the Spokane House near the confluence of the Spokane and Little Spokane Rivers as a trade post. The Spokane House was followed by the Pacific Fur Company’s Fort Spokane in 1811 which later became a boarding school for the Spokane children from 1898 to 1906. The Spokane Reservation was established in 1881. In 1877 the Lower Spokane people agreed to move to the Spokane Reservation and in 1887 the Upper and Middle Spokane people agreed to move to the Colville Reservation, but not all the Spokane people actually moved from the land causing some conflict with white settlers including the Coeur d’ Alene War of 1858 when the Spokanes teamed up with the Coeur d'Alenes, Yakimas, Palouses, and Paiutes but remained neutral in the Nez Perce War of 1877 despite pleas from Chief Joseph.
More recently, around the 1950s uranium was discovered on the reservation and was mined from 1956 to 1962 out of an open pit and from 1969 to 1982 at the Midnite Mine. The now inactive mine is on the list of Superfund cleanup sites with contaminants including metals, radionuclides and acidic drainage. The creation of dams has also impacted the Spokane people. The creation of the Little Falls dam has ended most of the salmon run at Spokane Falls while the Grand Coulee dam ended all salmon runs on the Spokane River.
The Spokane tribe was divided into three geographic divisions, upper, lower, and middle. Each area was then divided into bands which were composed of groups of related families or kin groups. Individual bands were led by a chief and a sub chief who were both selected to lead based on their leadership qualities. Decisions were made by consensus of the group. Usually the husband of a Spokane woman would join his wife’s people and although less likely it could go the other way. There was mobility between bands, where a person or family could spend one winter with a band and the next winter with another.
The Spokane diet consisted of fish, local game, and plants. They hunted whitetail deer and mule deer, essential nutrients in the winter. Individual hunters would track the deer and kill them using a bow and arrow. Fish, especially salmon, were a huge part of the Spokane diet and also a large part of the trade economy. The Spokane people also ate trout and whitefish. These fish would be smoked or dried for trade or stored for winter. Fish eyes were considered delicacies. Plants gathered by women provided nearly ½ of the caloric intake for the Spokane tribe.
Men of the Spokane tribe created tools, fished, hunted and eventually cared for horses which became essential to the Spokane lifestyle. They were introduced to the Spokane tribe from either the Nez Perce, the Kalispel, or the Flathead tribe. By about 1800 the Spokane tribe was acquiring herds, showing that the use of horses was fully in swing for the tribe by then. Spokane women made coiled baskets out of birch bark (or out of cedar roots) and also wove wallets and bags from strips of animal hide. They would also sew mats and other items which were sometimes traded with other Native peoples and white traders and settlers. Women tended to gather plants which consisted of about ½ of the Spokane people's daily caloric intake. Some of the plants they gathered were camass roots and local berries and barks. The digging sticks the women used to gather food was seen as a rite of passage for young girls when they received their first digging stick. Women’s graves were often marked with these sticks.
The Spokane religion is The Dreamer Cult, also called Washani meaning “worship” or “dancers”. The Dreamer Cult is a Plateau Indian religion that emerged from the pressures of colonization. The Washani developed in the Columbia Plateau tribes and was a mix of traditional spirituality and aspects of Christianity. The Dreamer prophets rejected non-Native culture and belief systems. The prophets advocated returning to traditional ways of life which “[p]rior to contact, Plateau Indian spirituality revolved around a complex of Winter dances, personal vision quests, and seasonal feasts tied to the annual subsistence cycle and the acquisition of guardian spirit powers”(Fisher). A few examples of spiritual dances include The Prophet Dance and the Spirit Dance which took place in mid January where the people involved sought to identify with his spirit. In the Spirit Dance a shaman would call upon the spirit to visit an individual. It is believed The prophet Smohalla in a vision “foresaw the disappearance of the whites, the resurrection of the Indian dead, and the restoration of the world to a pristine state. This millennial transformation required no acts of violence-indeed, most Dreamers counseled pacifism-but to achieve it the Indians had to obey the instructions of the Creator as conveyed through the prophets"(Fisher). The Dreamer Cult remained prominent within the Columbia Plateau until the early 1890s when the major prophets died and their followers began to lose faith in the promise of a world free of white people. The closest contemporary religion to the Washani is the Seven Drums Religion.
As retold in The Spokane Indians: Children of the Sun