Guest Opinions

Native Americans are wading more into politics. For ages, they were drowning in it

Dick Rush
Dick Rush

In 2018 there is increased attention to Native American political candidates, such as Paulette Jordan, reminding me of my experience with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. In 1976, I took a position as general manager of the businesses owned by the Tribe, headquartered near Plummer, Idaho. The Tribal Council was moving quickly to take advantage of new federal policies designed to promote tribal management of their own economic development. Prior to this time, the government had tried many different schemes such as relocating tribal members from reservations to large cities, or encouraging large companies to move to reservations.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribal history is full of stories of great leaders such as Chief Seltice, who negotiated for the Tribe during treaty discussions from 1850 to 1873. He also operated a 1,000-acre farm. Part of the treaty discussions centered around Hangman Basin and Hangman Creek. The Hangman designation came from the hanging of eight Tribal Chiefs. Although the U.S. government attempted to change the Hangman designation because of bad connotations, Hangman Creek still exists today.

After years of negotiation, on June 14, 1867, President Andrew Johnson wrote, “let these lands be set apart for the (Coeur d’Alene) Indians.” Seven years later, the Secretary of Interior canceled the reservation agreement without informing Chief Seltice. The Tribe had given up much of their aboriginal land in the treaty in order to keep a share of their valuable agricultural land. Now, they had neither the agricultural land nor claim to their original aboriginal land. Later, Seltice wrote, “Are we squirrels or treated like animals thus to drive us into the wilderness, where nothing can be raised to support people?”

In 1887 the Coeur d’Alenes again agreed to cede 3,500,000 acres to the United States for payment of $150,000 and to accept the Coeur d’Alene Reservation previously negotiated. Chief Seltice pleaded that “we want these lands preserved forever.” Government agents responded, “The Government will protect you and your lands.” Seltice responded, “We have put away your words in a safe place ... we shall not forget you nor your words.” In 1889, the Tribe ceded another 240,000 acres in the northern mining area of the reservation. This land included some of the most productive gold and silver deposits in the world. The government determined that the Tribe only needed agricultural lands, not minerals.

In 1887, Congress passed the Allotment Act, which divided the Indian land into 160-acre allotments even though some individual Indians already farmed larger acreages under Tribal arrangements. Once individual Indian landowners obtained title, much of the land was sold to white farmers. Then, in 1909, the eastern part of the reservation was opened for homesteading by white farmers.

When I started work for the Tribe in 1976, of the 540,000 acres of the original Couer d’Alene Reservation, only 70,000 acres remained in Indian ownership. In the ensuing 40 years, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe has grown its businesses and added social and medical services used by Indians and whites alike.

Dick Rush, of Moscow, has worked with the Tribe. He has also served as Director of the Idaho Department of Agriculture, State Director of the USDA Farm Service Agency, Administrator of the Idaho Wheat Commission, and sales and management positions with Boise Cascade Corp. in California and Oregon. He holds BS and MS degrees in Agricultural Economics from the University of Idaho and UC Davis.