Unlike any other racial or ethnic minority in Idaho, enrolled members of the state’s five federally recognized American Indian tribes possess a legally defined identity. That status and the sovereignty inherent in it have helped to shape the relationship between Native and non-Native Idahoans. Simply put, sovereignty is the right and the power of a people to determine their own destiny; to make their own laws and handle their own affairs. Tribal sovereignty predates the United States and is inherent, meaning that it does not derive from any source other than its own existence. Treaty rights are the most visible living embodiment of sovereignty. Moreover, present day struggles over land, water, hunting and fishing rights, and political jurisdiction can only be understood through the lens of tribal sovereignty.

The histories of the Coeur d’Alene and Shoshone-Bannock peoples in 19th-century Idaho illustrate the evolution of modern tribal identities, in part as a defense of sovereignty. While each people’s modern identity and tribal government have deep roots in indigenous culture, landscape and heritage, they are also historically derived, creative adaptations to Euro-American colonization. Idaho’s tribes endured that colonial invasion later than most Native peoples of the United States. These are not examples from the distant past, but rather modern examples of colonial invasion and tribal cultural preservation and innovation that continue to shape government-to-government interactions in Idaho today.

Fort Hall, Idaho 1885

Idaho State University
Fort Hall, 1885.


The sovereignty of the modern Shoshone-Bannock Tribes originated in the kinship of the people. At the most basic level, all Shoshone and Bannock people are linguistically related. Both tongues are part of the larger Numic language family (Bannock being a dialect of Northern Paiute). While the languages are mutually unintelligible, intermarriage and social fluidity led to substantial bilingualism. The words Shoshone and Bannock are essentially renderings of how they referred to themselves to outsiders. “Shoshone” derives from sosoni’, a reference to the grass used to build traditional dwellings. Internally, however, Shoshone and Bannock people simply referred to themselves as “the People” — Newe in the Fort Hall Shoshone dialect. This term recognized the interrelationship of the people and reflected the fluidity of pre-contact Newe society.

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While today’s tribal members might refer to themselves as Shoshone-Bannock or more simply “Sho-Ban,” they are keenly aware of their family origins. This awareness extends beyond larger Shoshone or Bannock identity to the level of historic bands and is rooted in kinship. Before the arrival Euro-Americans in the early 19th century, band identities were not concrete. Extended family groups that lived and travelled together within a traditional “native land” — debia’ in Shoshone and tebíwa in Bannock — were the fundamental building blocks of Newe society. In many cases groups were known by “food names,” references to the most important resource taken in a given area. For example, the people gathered near Salmon Falls were called agai’-deka’, literally “salmon eaters.” While the food name groups were not permanent political entities, some did form the basis of what later became “bands.” The acquisition of horses brought greater mobility and a relatively greater cohesion to Newe bands by the early 19th century. Leaders who traditionally organized communal food gathering efforts and negotiated access to the resources with other groups emerged as band chiefs. Their power, however, was limited; they could speak only for the people who chose to follow them at any particular time. The later arrival of Euro-Americans, first as agents of the fur trade and then of the expanding United States, put a premium on band and tribal organization and it was during the Idaho territorial phase that modern Shoshone-Bannock tribal identity began to coalesce through the treaty making process.


Historic Fort CDA

Davidson, I. G. via Denver Public Library
Bird’s-eye view of Fort Coeur d’Alene, along the lake, 1870s or 1880s.

The Schitsu’umsh (translates as “the ones that were found here”) people traditionally inhabited upwards of 5 million acres of land at the heart of the Spokane River drainage system in what is now Northern Idaho and Eastern Washington. The tribe (known as the Coeur d’Alenes to outsiders) utilized the extensive waterways and Lake Coeur d’Alene to provide an abundant life characterized by a kinship system and a sacred relationship with the landscape.

The story of the Coeur d’Alenes (Schitsu’umsh) in the 19th century region that became Idaho is a narrative not only of identity and tribal sovereignty, but also of religion. Jesuit missionaries under the direction of Pierre DeSmet first encountered Coeur d’Alene tribal members in early 1842. During the early period of Jesuit residency at the Schitsu’umsh Mission, the Jesuits lived like the Coeur d’Alene people, using native hunting, fishing and gathering tactics to survive in the harsh climate of the forested Northern Plateau lake region. The Jesuit priests who worked at what they eventually christened “Sacred Heart Mission” were Europeans whose French was better than their English (if they spoke English at all). As such, 19th century non-Indian interaction in Coeur d’Alene Country flowed along European, not American, channels.

By the 1850s, Sacred Heart Mission had evolved into the center of non-Indian power for the entire region. Sacred Heart Mission became a popular “stopping-off” place for traders and travelers in the region, who could expect a friendly reception and opportunity for food while resting animals and evaluating trails. While the Jesuits’ early vulnerability made them less likely to engage in harsh missionary tactics, they rejected religious practices such as the use of medicine bundles, forbade traditional polygamy, forced a monogamous marriage contract, and burned ceremonial and dance materials. Schitsu’umsh tribal members went underground with traditional practices. Acceptance of some Jesuit teachings did not mean that Coeur d’Alene people rejected their own practices, as many chose to accept the new faith while maintaining tribal cultural traditions. Tribal Jesuit missionaries reported high conversion rates, but these were over counts. The missionaries did not bother to report the number of tribal members who combined the old with the new, and they ignored tribal members who maintained traditional practices, refused to attend Mass, and stayed away from the mission.


In 1863, gold rushes brought permanent white settlement to the western reaches of Shoshone-Bannock country and led to the creation of Idaho Territory. Unable to grasp the nature of Newe society and politics, Euro-American officials sought to superimpose familiar structures drawn from their own political culture. To that end they sought a “head chief” who could speak definitively and act decisively for all the people they presumed to be under that leader’s control. To protect their people, and resources, leaders like Taghee had to deal with the colonizers. In doing so they adapted to an alien political system but also laid the groundwork for modern tribal identity and sovereignty.

Sho-Ban banner
By the time that Taghee led the mixed band of Fort Hall Shoshone-Bannocks to Fort Bridger, Wyoming, in the early summer of 1868 he had experienced a half-decade of frustration dealing with a confusing and seemingly powerless array of white negotiators. He had met with Utah Territorial governor James Doty in 1863 at Soda Springs but the Senate never ratified the resulting treaty. Four years later Idaho governor David W. Ballard made another, also unratified, treaty with the Bannock leader at Long Tom Creek. The Fort Bridger council was part of a larger national effort to solve the “Indian problem.” Gen. Christopher Augur represented the “Great Peace Commission” in the council with Taghee and the Eastern Shoshone leader Washakie. The general tried to get both to agree to a single reservation but Taghee refused. “I want the Port-Neuf Country and the Kamas Plains,” he said, “We want a home for ourselves.” In addition to a the reservation, Taghee’s people also retained the right to “hunt on the unoccupied lands of the United States.”

Shoshone-Bannock historical map

Courtesy of Greg Smoak
Map sent to Washington in 1863 by James Doty showing the territory of the interrelated Shoshonean bands.

Native understandings of a treaty rarely meshed with the actual desires of federal or territorial officials. While Taghee believed that he had secured a homeland for “his people,” the equestrian Shoshone-Bannock bands that wintered around Fort Hall, the government moved to concentrate all of the Newe bands of Southern Idaho at Fort Hall. Beginning in 1869 with the arrival of the Boise Shoshones, Newe groups from across the southern half of the territory were cajoled or coerced to move to Fort Hall. The policy forced the government to concede that all Shoshones and Bannocks who enrolled at Fort Hall became parties to the Fort Bridger treaty. The decision, along with the treaty itself was fundamental in the transformation of sovereign Newe bands in to the modern Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.

The Fort Bridger treaty remains the basis for the government-to-government relationship between the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and the United States. This fact is well understood by tribal leaders and members who consistently assert their sovereignty. Moreover, the treaty’s importance to modern Shoshone-Bannock identity receives graphic representation on the nation’s flag. Emblazoned beneath the tribal seal are the words “Fort Bridger Treaty of 1868.”


As Sacred Heart Mission developed into a center of colonial authority, a young, charismatic Catholic tribal leader emerged within the Coeur d’Alene tribe. Andrew Seltice gained a reputation for adherence to Catholic law and became one of the Schitsu’umsh Tribe’s most prominent farmers. During the wide-ranging Northern Plateau War of 1858, Jesuits identified the young emergent leader Seltice as a moderate who did not favor the inciting of violence. Seltice consolidated his farm holdings throughout the 1850s, and began hosting popular annual feasts for upwards of 500 people at his home in the Spokane Valley. He emerged as a leader of the Schitsu’umsh when sitting tribal leader Vincent acknowledged Seltice’s growing following and transferred power to him in August 1865.

Like tribal chiefs before him, Seltice’s authority was fragmented by the local tribal leaders who maintained village power. Throughout the 1860s, however, Seltice came to represent — to Jesuits and government officials — the voice of the entire Schitsu’umsh Tribe (known to outsiders by the 1860s as the Coeur d’Alene people). While he maintained a close relationship with the Jesuit mission throughout his tenure as chief, Seltice was very much a Coeur d’Alene leader who asserted power independent of the mission. His commitment to the preservation of Schitsu’umsh land and resources led him to use non-Indian definitions of “civilized” — Indians who farmed, dressed in western clothing, and attended Christian churches— as a negotiating tool. This policy of external assimilation enabled the Schitsu’umsh to maintain a relatively large portion of aboriginal territory in the heart of what became Northern Idaho; it also resulted in a self-conscious reshaping of tribal identity. Catholic Coeur d’Alene leaders used the non-Indian image of the Coeur d’Alenes as Christian farmers to argue that tribal members needed their land base just like whites did — and for the same purposes, which included farming and raising Christian families. Seltice’s assimilation policy contributed to a non-Indian image, played out in regional newspapers, of the Coeur d’Alenes as hardworking  and more capable of self-government than other tribes in the region.

Sources and Further Reading

Rodney Frey, Landscape Traveled by Coyote and Crane: The World of the Schitsu’umsh

John Heaton, The Shoshone-Bannocks: Culture and Commerce at Fort Hall

Joseph Seltice, Saga of the Coeur d’Alene Indians: An Account of Chief Joseph Seltice

Gregory E. Smoak, Ghost Dances and Identity: Prophetic Religion and American Indian Ethnogenesis in the Nineteenth Century

Laura Woodworth-Ney, Mapping Identity: The Creation of the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation

While culturally alien, a single Coeur d’Alene leadership voice became more necessary as outside pressures on Coeur d’Alene Territory continued to mount. Non-Indian outsiders rushed to Coeur d’Alene Country during the 1870s at the rumors — some true — of gold findings. The Coeur d’Alenes were left without a treaty guaranteeing title to their territory when they were passed over for treaty negotiations in 1855 by Isaac I. Stevens, then the governor of Washington Territory. Indian agents assigned to the Coeur d’Alene Tribe chronicled widespread trespassing and invasion throughout the 1870s and 1880s, including timber theft, illegal liquor sales, and episodes of violence, including murder. Some agents participated in these illegal activities, while others reported feeling helpless against the onslaught of white traffic. The combination of tribal lobbying and non-Indian clamoring for Coeur d’Alene land, timber and other resources resulted in two federally sanctioned negotiations, in 1887 and 1889. The 1887 Agreement confirmed the boundaries of the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, created by Presidential Executive Order in 1873. The Coeur d’Alenes gave up aboriginal title to the huge territory that they once claimed in return for assurances that the 1873 boundaries would be maintained and upheld. The 1887 Agreement received broad support from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the Jesuit Mission, but it languished in Congress as non-Indian land and resource interests pressured their congressional representatives. Instead, Congress appointed yet another commission to negotiate with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, this one expressly focused on procuring the waterways and timber of the northern portion of the reservation. When it became clear during the 1889 negotiations that government officials were unwavering, Seltice and other tribal leaders agreed to sell the northern third of the reservation (about 185,000 acres). The 1889 Agreement resulted in the transfer of the lands adjoining the Coeur d’Alene Lake, Coeur d’Alene River and St. Joe River, areas at the time still inhabited by the most traditional Schitsu’umsh people.


The story of Coeur d’Alene and Shoshone-Bannock sovereignty is one of both cultural persistence and innovation. As with all of Idaho’s American Indian tribes, the sovereignty of both peoples predated Euro-American colonization. The Schitsu’umsh and Newe endured invasion during Idaho’s territorial period and in defense of their lands and sovereignty each adapted older forms of government and conceptions of identity to new realities. That development did not end with Idaho statehood. In the twentieth century both peoples adopted constitutions and bylaws that defined tribal membership and set the stage for economic development, cultural preservation efforts, and modern assertions of sovereignty. The tribal identities that emerged from the complex interchange of indigenous culture, historical pressures, and innovative adaptations to Euro-American colonization remain a crucial factor in Idaho society and politics today. One need look no further than the 2001 Supreme Court decision Idaho v. United States (533 U.S. 262), which resulted in the transfer of the management of the lower third of Lake Coeur d’Alene from the state of Idaho to the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, or the successes of Shoshone-Bannock tribal members in asserting treaty fishing rights to witness the survival of tribal sovereignty in Idaho today.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.