On Sept. 20, 1974, Kootenai tribal chairwoman Amy Trice declared war on the United States.
"There was nothing else I could do," Trice told the Independent last week from her Bonners Ferry, Idaho home. Now 75, she's afflicted with cancer.
Her Kootenai band is one of seven that stretch across Montana, Canada, and Idaho. In 1855, the Kootenai, Salish, and Pend d' Oreilles ceded millions of acres to the U.S. government in exchange for the Flathead Indian Reservation and promises of health care, education, and financial support.
Some tribal members moved to the Flathead Reservation. The Idaho band stayed put and did not sign off on the Hellgate Treaty, meaning that when Trice came of age in the 1960s, her small band was landless and had no access to federal resources.
Tribal elders selected Trice to help. The events leading up to the war she waged on behalf of her small band are captured in the documentary Idaho's Forgotten War. Salish Kootenai College will screen the film this Saturday prior to a discussion about American Indian rights, featuring Trice and fellow activist Russell Means, an Oglala Sioux best known for participating in a 71-day armed standoff on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Means and Trice had a lot to fight for in the mid-'70s. Kootenai of the time were not integrated into mainstream society. Unable to make a living, they fell to hunger and sickness. They dwindled to fewer than 100. "The tribe was slowly dying out," Trice says.
Elders were frightened. They asked Trice, who had been educated in U.S. government schools, to step in. "They didn't know who else to go to," she says.
After she was elected chairwoman, Trice wrote letters to congress and the Bureau of Indian Affairs asking for federal recognition. She reminded the agency that it owed the Kootenai in exchange for taking its lands.
The BIA said the request wasn't feasible: Now totaling only 68 members, the Idaho band was simply too small.
Trice ran out of patience during the winter of 1973-1974 after an elderly Kootenai widower died of hypothermia in a dilapidated home.
"All I wanted to do was to see if we could get some decent housing for him," Trice recalls. "It was too late."
Unwilling to lose anyone else to hypothermia, Trice issued an ultimatum to President Gerald Ford: Send an emissary, or the Idaho Kootenai would declare war.
Ford never answered, Trice says.
On Sept. 21, 1974, the Kootenai equipped themselves with cardboard signs and set up roadblocks on either end of Bonners Ferry, demanding 10 cents from every motorist who drove through town.
The Kootenai weren't armed, but Trice's war came during a tumultuous time. A year before, the American Indian Movement took over Wounded Knee. The uprising on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota came in protest to strip mining on tribal lands and alleged misuse of tribal funds, and as an effort to reclaim South Dakota's Black Hills, which, AIM said, pointing to treaty agreements, still belonged to American Indians. Activists and federal agents exchanged gunfire during the 71-day siege. Two AIM members were killed.
The Wounded Knee conflict laid a foundation for Trice's war. Tension ran high. Idaho's governor deployed at least 70 armed officers who descended on Bonners Ferry.
Meanwhile, three bodyguards followed Trice wherever she went. While Trice forbade tribal members from carrying guns, AIM co-founder Dennis Banks was ready to act if the situation escalated. "I told (Banks) if you don't hear from me you can do whatever you want," Trice remembers. "Every half hour he would call my office...I told him if I didn't answer, that would be the signal that I was no longer there."
No one was hurt during the three-day war. The Kootenai raised roughly $3,000 in tolls and contributions, as well as a significant amount of media attention. The federal government finally paid attention. Idaho legislators stepped in to negotiate federal recognition. The Catholic Church donated 12.5 acres to the tribe. It served as a seed for future expansion of the Kootenai reservation.
Trice's victory marks one success of several for the indigenous rights movement, says Means. But he's troubled by current challenges American Indians face. "There isn't any self-determination," he says. "It's all now federal programs."
Means says it's imperative for American Indians to regain their language. It's a gateway to culture, a way to connect with indigenous roots. "Language to the Indian is his essence. Without our language, we're nothing more than brown Americans."
With that in mind, Means, 72, is working to sustain and grow a Lakota language immersion school on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
The Idaho Kootenai now total more than 160 members and operate a casino, which helps sustain them economically. But despite the successes, Trice, like Means, says there's still significant work to be done. And she won't let a cancer diagnosis stop her. "I'm going to fight," she says.
Salish Kootenai College screens Idaho's Forgotten War at the Arlee/Charlo Theater in Pablo Sat., May 7, from 3 – 6 PM. A panel discussion about indigenous activism will follow. Suggested donation is $4 for adults, $10 for families with children. Proceeds benefit the Adeline Mathias Endowment Project, a scholarship fund for American Indian students.