Kutenai Tribe

Kutenai Indians (corrupted form, possibly by way of the language of the Siksika, of Kútonâqa, one of their names for themselves). A people forming a distinct linguistic stock, the Kitunahan family of Powell, who inhabit parts of south east British Columbia and north Montana and Idaho, from the lakes near the source of Columbia river to Pend d’Oreille lake. Their legends and traditions indicate that they originally dwelt east of the Rocky mountains, probably in Montana, whence they were driven westward by the Siksika, their hereditary enemies. The two tribes now live on amicable terms, and some intermarriage has taken place. Before the buffalo disappeared from the plains they often had joint hunting expeditions. Recollection of the treatment of the Kutenai by the Siksika remains, however, in the name they give the latter, Sahantla (‘bad people’). They entertained also a bad opinion of the Assiniboin (Tlutlamaeka, ‘cat-throats’), and the Cree (Gutskiawe, ‘liars’).

Kutenai Tribe Language

The Kutenai language is spoken in two slightly differing dialects, Upper and Lower Kutenai. A few uncertain points of similarity in grammatical structure with the Shoshonean tongues seem to exist. The language is incorporative both with respect to the pronoun and the noun object. Prefixes and suffixes abound, the prefix aq(k)– in nouns occurring with remarkable frequency. As in the Algonquian tongues, the form of a word used in composition differs from that which it has independently. Reduplication is very rare, occurring only in a few nouns, some of which are possibly of foreign origin, There are a few loan-words from Sahshan dialects.

The Upper Kutenai include the following subdivisions:

  • Akiskenukinik
  • Akamik
  • Akanekunik
  • Akiyenik

The Lower Kutenai are more primitive and nomadic, less under the influence of the Catholic church, and more given to gambling. They have long been river and lake Indians, and possess peculiar bark canoes that resemble some of those used in the Amur region in Asia 1 . Of late years many of them have taken to horses and are skillful in their management. The Upper Kutenai keep nearer the settlements, often obtaining a living by serving the settlers and miners in various ways. Many of them have practically ceased to be canoe-men and travel by horse. Both the Upper and the Lower Kutenai hunt and fish, the latter depending more on fish for food. Physically, the Kutenai are well developed and rank among the taller tribes of British Columbia. Indications of race mixture seem to be shown in the form of the head. Their general character from the time of De Smet has been reported good. Their morality, kindness, and hospitality are noteworthy, and more than any other Indians of the country they have avoided drunkenness and lewd intercourse with the whites. Their mental ability is comparatively high, and the efforts of the missionaries have been rewarded with success. They are not excessively given to emotional instability, do not lack a sense of interest, and can concentrate attention when necessary. Their social system is simple, and no evidence of the existence of totems or secret societies has been found. The chieftainship, now more or less elective, was probably hereditary, with limitations; slavery of war prisoners was formerly in vogue; and relatives were responsible for the debts of a deceased person. Marriage was originally polygamous; divorced women were allowed to marry again, and adultery was not severely punished. Adoption by marriage or by residence of more than a year was common. Women could hold certain kinds of property, such as tents and utensils. A wergild was customary. Religion was a sort of sun worship, and the belief in the ensoulment of all things and in reincarnation prevailed. The land of the dead was in the sun, from which at some time all the departed would descend to Lake Pend d’Oreille to meet the Kutenai then living. In the old days the medicine-men were very powerful, their influence surviving most with the Lower Kutenai, who still paint their faces on dance occasions; but tattooing is rare. Except a sort of reed pipe, a bone flute, and the drum, musical instruments were unknown to them; but they had gambling, dancing, and medicine songs. The Lower Kutenai are still exceedingly addicted to gambling, their favorite being a noisy variety of the wide-spread guess-stick game. The Kutenai were in former days great buffalo hunters. Firearms have driven out the bow and arrow, save as children’s toys or for killing birds. Spearing, the basket trap, and wicker weirs were much in use by the Lower Kutenai. Besides the bark canoe, they had dugouts; both skin and rush lodges were built; the sweat house was universal. Stone hammers were still in use in parts of their country in the last years of the 19th century. The Lower Kutenai are still noted for their water-tight baskets of split roots. In dress they originally resembled the Plains Indians rather than those of the coast; but contact with the whites has greatly modified their costume. While fond of the white man’s tobacco, they have a sort of their own made of willow bark. A large part of their food supply is now obtained from the whites. For food, medicine, and economical purposes the Kutenai use a large number of the plant products of their environment 2 They were gifted also with esthetic appreciation of several plants and flowers. The diseases from which the Kutenai suffer most are consumption and ophthalmic troubles; venereal diseases are rare. Interesting maturity ceremonies still survive in part. The mythology and folklore of the Kutenai consist chiefly of cosmic and ethnic myths, animal tales, etc. In the animal tales the coyote, as an adventurer and deceiver, is the most prominent figure, and with him are often associated the chicken-hawk, the grizzly bear, the fox, the cricket, and the wolf. Other creatures which appear in these stories are the heaver, buffalo, caribou, chipmunk, deer, dog, moose, mountain lion, rabbit, squirrel, skunk, duck, eagle, grouse, goose, magpie, owl, snowbird, tomtit, trout, whale, butterfly, mosquito, frog, toad, and turtle. Most of the cosmogonic legends seem to belong to the north west Pacific cycle; many of the coyote tales belong to the cycle of the Rocky Mountain region, others have a Siouan or Algonquian aspect in some particulars. Their deluge myth is peculiar in several respects. A number of tales of giants occur, two of the legends, “Seven Heads” and “Lame Knee,” suggesting Old World analogies. The story of the man in the moon is probably borrowed from French sources.

While few evidences of their artistic ability in the way of pictographs, birchbark drawings, etc., have been reported, the Kutenai are no mean draftsmen. Some of them possess an idea of map making and have a good sense of the physical features of the country. Some of their drawings of the horse and the buffalo are characteristically lifelike and quite accurate. The ornamentation of their moccasins and other articles, the work of the women, is often elaborate, one of the motives of their decorative art being the Oregon grape. They do not seem to have made pottery, nor to have indulged in wood carving to a large extent. The direct contact of the Kutenai with the whites is comparatively recent. Their word for white man, Sūyäpi, is identical with the Nez Percé Suēapo 3 and is probably borrowed. Otherwise the white man is called Nūtlu’qenē, ‘straner.’ They have had few serious troubles with the whites, and are not now a warlike people. As yet the Canadian Kutenai are not reservation Indians. The United States seems to have made no direct treaty with the tribe for the extinguishment of their territorial rights 4

Within the Kutenai area, on the Columbia lakes, live a colony of Shushwap (Salishan) known as Kinbaskets, numbering 56 in 1904. In that year the Kutenai in British territory were reported to number 553, as follows: Lower Columbia Lake, 80; Lower Kutenai (Flatbow), 172; St Mary’s (Ft Steele ), 216; Tobacco Plains, 61; Arrow Lake (West Kutenai), 24. These returns indicate a decrease of about 150 in 13 years. The United States census of 1890 gave the number of Kutenai in Idaho and Montana as 400 to 500; in 1905 those under the Flathead agency, Mont., were reported to number 554. The Kutenai have given their name to Kootenai river, the districts of East, West, and North Kootenay, Brit. Col., Kootenai lake, Brit. Col., Kootanie pass in the Rocky Mountains, Kootenai County and the town of Kootenai, Idaho, and to other places on both sides of the international boundary 5.Citations:

  1. Mason in Rep. Nat. Mus., 1899[]
  2. Chamberlain in Verh. d. Berl. Ges. f. Anthr., 551-6, 1895.[]
  3. Parker, Jour., 381, 1840,[]
  4. Royce in 18th Rep. B. A. E., 856.[]
  5. Am. Anthrop., IV, 348-350, 1902[]


Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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