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Kalispel Encampment

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Victoria Bowman Leach and Jesse Fountain demonstrate how to prepare a camas oven. Photo courtesy Bonner County Historical Society. Victoria Bowman Leach and Jesse Fountain demonstrate how to prepare a camas oven. Photo courtesy Bonner County Historical Society.

June 28-30 event offers highlights of the fur trade and the area's Salish people


In the spring of 1812, fur agent and surveyor David Thompson left the Inland Northwest for good, paddling upstream from Kettle Falls in late April with a canoe brigade that carried almost five tons of beaver pelts. On May 8th he struggled up Athabasca Pass on maddeningly loose snow, “not hard enough to bear us without Paws [snowshoes], yet very slippery with them.” Four days later, he and voyageurs Pierre Pareil and Joseph Coté—the same two men who with Thompson had crossed Athabasca Pass the previous January, built a series of cedar plank bateaux, traveled the entire length of the Columbia, and wintered at Saleesh House near modern Thompson Falls, Montana—gummed a birch bark canoe and paddled down the Saskatchewan River, bound for Lake Superior and ultimately Montreal. It was there that Thompson set to work on the first accurate maps of the area north of the 46th parallel and west of the Rocky Mountains. He was still refining trails around the area of Saleesh House when the U.S.-Canadian boundary settlement finally came under serious political discussion in 1843.

Meanwhile, back in the Salish country of the Flathead, Clark Fork, and Pend Oreille Rivers, life carried on just fine without Thompson, even though the fur trade business that he and his men had introduced brought irrevocable change. Many of his crew remained behind to marry Salish women and raise families, bringing familiar French and Scottish names into tribal world. Local people continued to follow their ever-changing annual round, digging camas and running horses in the same meadows Thompson marked on his large maps. Bands and families flowed up and down the drainage that Thompson called the Saleesh River, gathering at encampments to carry on with a culture that now combined European trade goods with untold generations worth of hunting and fishing, plant gathering and food preservation, traditional dances and craft work, stories and laughter.

This June 28 through 30, the Kalispel Tribe and the David Thompson Bicentennials Partnership will sponsor a Kalispel encampment along the Clark Fork River, not far upstream from the vanished buildings of Saleesh House. The event, a continuation of previous encampments and educator workshops graciously sponsored by tribes Thompson met during his journeys west of the Continental Divide, will take place at Rocky Point Ranch, which is located 10 miles east of Thompson Falls, Montana. Find out more about the ranch at www.rockypointranch.com 

As with past encampments, the focus will be on partnership and education, with credit, renewal units, or clock-hours available for teachers from Montana, Idaho, and Washington. The general public is also warmly invited, but due to limited space at the ranch site, pre-registration will be required. Go to www.montanahistoricalsociety.org to find a complete schedule and both print and online registration forms.

The encampment kicks off on Thursday afternoon with fur trade-era demonstrations by the Thompson Falls Brigade, a welcome by Kalispel elder Francis Cullooyah, and supper catered by Shantel Revais. After a tipi-raising contest, preparation of camas bulbs, and the creation of an earth oven to bake them in, tribal elders from several different parts of the river will offer words around the campfire. This Thursday evening event is open to 150 participants

Friday will be devoted to a variety of classes for a total of up 100 participants.  The schedule begins with coffee and tea at the fur traders’ camp, breakfast for participants, then the preparation and ceremonial lighting of the camas oven fire at 8 am. Attendees will have an opportunity to choose from a wide variety of morning classes, then cycle through three more choices on Friday afternoon and Saturday.

Instructors include some of the most respected Salish language speakers and tribal historians from the northern Plateau, including Johnny Arlee, JR Bluff, Francis Cullooyah, and Pat Pierre. 

Traditional craft and skill instructors include Victoria Bowman Leach, Davonica Browneagle, Wilma Cullooyah, Glenn Leach, Wendy Ostlie, Raymond Finley, and Tim Ryan. They will share their knowledge of tipi construction, fish traps and hooks, beadwork, basketry, weaving hemp cordage, and plant uses. 

Traditional meat drying will be overseen by Bill Tanner and Bob and Kelly Woodcock. A camas oven bake, which will form the center of the encampment, is under the charge of Arlene Adams. 

In additional to tribal language and culture, Friends of Spokane House instructors Dean Bakke, Tom Cornwall, Bill and Bob Delyea, Dan Day, Bob and Peg Twyman, and Mark Weadick will offer classes in traditional fur trade skills that cover aspects of fuel, cordage, food, sign talk, firearms, history, and women of the fur trade. The Northwoods Canoe Company will have replica fur trade canoes on hand for those who want to engage in a voyageur paddle on the scenic Clark Fork River.

After a catered supper on Friday evening, the world-renowned Frog Island Singers will lead drumming and dancing.

On Saturday afternoon, the cooks will open their camas bulb oven and share the same foods that Salish people offered to David Thompson and his crew two hundred years ago. This traditional feast will connect the evening meal with final words that will cap off the encampment.

For further information and the online registration form, go to www.montanahistoricalsociety.org and click on “2012 teacher workshops.”


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Author info

Jack Nisbet is a teacher, naturalist, and writer who lives in Spokane, Washington

Tagged as:

Homepage, Headlines, David Thompson, Kalispel Encampment, Montana Historical Society, fur trade, Salish, Kalispel Tribe, David Thompson Bicentennial Partnership, Saleesh House

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