Kutenai Indians

Kutenai Indians. Said to be from a term applied to this tribe by the Blackfoot Indians and believed by Turney-High (1937) to have come originally from the name of a Kutenai tribe or division called Tunaha. Also called:

  • Flatbows, the name given often to the Lower Kutenai, the origin of which is unknown.
  • Kúspe(lu, their Nez Perce name, signifying “water people.”
  • Sán’ka or asán’ka, own name, significance unknown.
  • Shalsa-‘ulk°, by the Sinkiuse and said to be from a place name, but see below. Skelsá-ulk, Salish name, signifying “Water People.”
  • Slender Bows, name sometimes given as an interpretation of their own name, but erroneously.

Kutenai Connections. The Kutenai were placed by Powell in a distinct stock called Kitunahan, but some linguists regard them as remote relatives of the Algonquians and Salishans.

Kutenai Location. On Kootenay River, Kootenay Lake, Arrow Lake, and the upper course of the Columbia River, except for the bend between Donald and Revelstoke; in southeastern British Columbia; north-western Montana; northeastern Washington; and the northern tip of Idaho. In modern times they have settled as far southeast as Flat-head Lake. (See also Canada.)

Kutenai Subdivisions

The Kutenai were separated into two general divisions, the line between ex-tending roughly from north to south through Libby, Mont. The Upper Kutenai lay to the east on upper Kootenay River and depended more upon hunting, especially of the bison, while the Lower Kutenai were largely fishermen. Turney-High (1937) gives the following bands:

(1) Tuna a, whose original home was on the Plains and who have now been destroyed and their descendants incorporated with the other bands
(2) Tobacco Plains or People-of-the-Place-of-the-Flying-Head, esteemed to be the mother band of the tribe (on Kootenay River at the International Boundary Line?the Fernie Band was a subdivision)
(3) Jennings Band (about Jennings, Mont.)
(4) Libby Band (at Libby, Mont.)
(5) Bonner’s Ferry Band (at Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho)
(6) Fort Steele Band (at Steele, B. C.)
(7) Creston Band (at Creston, B. C.)
(8) Windermere Band (a very modern band at Windermere, B. C.).

To these may be added the very modern Dayton-Elmo Band on Flathead Lake drawn from the Jennings and Libby bands.

Kutenai History. From information collected by Turney-High (1937), it would seem that the Kutenai formerly lived east of the Rocky Mountains, extending at least as far as MacLeod, Alberta. Their oldest settlement in their present territories would seem to have been at Tobacco Plains whence they gradually spread to the north, west, and south, and in recent times to the southeast. Their country was traversed early in the nineteenth century by David Thompson (1916) in the interest of the Northwest Company, and Kootenai House was established in 1807. With the running of the International Boundary, their country was divided between the Dominion of Canada and the United States to the considerable inconvenience of the tribe. Missionary work among them, particularly work among the Upper Kutenai, has been very successful.

Kutenai Population. Mooney (1928) estimated the Kutenai population to be 1,200 in 1780. In 1890 those in the United States were estimated at 400 to 500. In 1905 they numbered 554, and those in British territory the year preceding were enumerated at 553. The census of 1910 gave 538 in the United States. The Report of the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs for 1924 returned about 450, and that of the United States Indian Office only 129 under that name. The latter figure is evidently defective, as the Census of 1930 returned 287 of whom 185 were in Montana and 101 in Idaho. In 1937 there were 118 in Idaho.

Connections in which the Kutenai have become noted. The Kutenai are noted for their peculiar language, which differs from the speech of all their neighbors and has been given an independent position as the Kitunahan stock. They have given their name to Kootenay or Kootenai River, also called the Flat Bow or MacGillivray, which flows through British Columbia, Montana, and Idaho; to Kootenay Lake in British Columbia; to Kootenai Mountains, and Kootenai Falls, Mont.; Kootenai County, Idaho; and to a post village, Kootenai, in Bonner County, Idaho.


Swanton, John R. The Indian Tribes of North America. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 145. Washington DC: US Government Printing Office. 1953.

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