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White sturgeon have spiritual significance to the
Kootenai Tribe of Idaho
Morgan Winsor
Taking care of his people
Tribal Chairman Gary Aitken’s job is to help the Kootenais
Idaho’s forgotten war
The three-day war in Idaho's Panhandle that created a reservation and saved a people

by Leah Andrews

Ask most people about Idaho’s most recent war and prepare for blank stares, but ask former Kootenai Tribal Chairwoman Amy Trice about the war and she will give a knowing nod.
Trice lived it. At 34 years old she led her tribe into war against the United States on September 20, 1975.
"I’m hoping that my children, my grandchildren will know," Trice said. "They will know how at one time their grandmother was crazy."
It is easy to pass over the Kootenai war, since it only lasted three days and there was no bloodshed, but Trice says that if it were not for that war there would be no one left in her tribe.
"It was so depressing out here," she said sitting in her living room with a majestic view of mountains. The house and the mountains are on land that is now the Kootenai Indian Reservation. "There were only two or three houses left. The kids were on their own."
They had no future. They were lost. People lived in anything, anyplace. "We had a man who died, living in a place with the water pipes frozen and holes in the roof. At the time we didn't know he had Alzheimer's disease," she said. "It was snowing and he died of exposure. It was so sad; no one seemed to care."

A road sign along the highway
near Bonners Ferry

So Trice and others decided that war was the only way to make people care. Her first act was to post two young tribal members at a dirt federal road along Highway 95 with shotguns, and they would stop cars along the road and ask for a fifty-cent toll to use the road that passed through the land that had been the tribe’s aboriginal land.
It drew a large amount of attention, including local and national media. This was an unusual circumstance. Most tribes in the United States are forbidden to declare war on the U.S. government because of treaties, but the Kootenai Tribe never signed a treaty.
"We were the only ones to never sign a treaty. Today we haven’t even signed it. That is why we can still do whatever we want because we are not a treaty people," Trice said. She sees no reason for her tribe to sign one.
"That’s one good thing about us. We did not sign a treaty, never will. Why should I have to sign a treaty when this is my country?"
Before declaring war the Kootenai Tribe had no reservation and also had trouble being recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or by the Federal Government for aid and other help. When the media showed up to cover the war, they also covered poor housing conditions of tribal members and the lack of medical care they received.
"So many people died of TB, small pox and chicken pox because of the inadequate housing," Trice said. "It was a hard life."

The tribe knew they had to do something, and in the end Trice said that their only option was to go to war.
But she knew that was a large risk: "I asked myself am I doing right, or am I just killing off what’s left of us."

Amy Trice

But the three-day gamble was not only bloodless, it was a victory for the tribe. It resulted in the concession of 10.5 acres that would become the seed for what is now the Kootenai Reservation. It also led to recognition by the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. That recognition brought new houses from the department of Housing and Urban Development to the reservation, as well as funds to pave the road to the reservation, and this was only the beginning.
"After three days we got all of that, they (the Bureau of Indian Affairs) said just to quiet it down," she said.
Trice said the results were amazing, especially considering that the most dangerous "weapon" she had in her office was a fly swatter.
"We had a lot of help not only from people per se but also a lot of help from our Creator, because like I said, a lot of things happened that should not have happened," Trice said. "I mean you look at Wounded Knee and there was a lot of bloodshed there."
They also received over $7,000 from the toll where people often gave more than fifty cents and from people who sent money when they heard about the cause.
Trice said that one of the most interesting donations came from a ship in the Mediterranean.
"I even had a young man that was 17 years old that was a chef on one of the big ships originally from Israel. He was in the Mediterranean on one of the ships there and he wrote and sent I think it was $20," Trice said. "He said his tribe has been at war for thousands of years and he hopes and prays that this doesn’t last that long, I thought that was touching."
Trice still keeps in touch with him and thinks of him.
The tribe that Trice went to war to save from dying out is now prosperous. It has a medical center, a tribal council that is involved in politics on and off the reservation, a sturgeon fish hatchery, a tribal school, and a hotel and casino. Their land has also grown considerably since 1975.
Trice’s legacy also lives on through her son Gary Aitken, who is currently chairman of the tribe, and through her grandchildren who may one day also lead the Kootenai Tribe. One of her granddaughters is studying to be a doctor.
Yet Trice fears some have forgotten what it took to give the tribe a reservation and recognition. She is currently working on a book about Idaho’s three-day war, and hopes that some day tribal members will be able to read about their rich and unique history.
"I hope that book comes out so they will know exactly what happened," she said.
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