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Skolaskin of the whitestone Sanpoil


imageThe Legend of the Whitestone

            It would seem that long ago a skunk, a coyote and a rattlesnake each had a farm on the top of the Whitestone.  These were the days before the skunk was as odorous as he is now, but was esteemed a good fellow and pleasant company by other animals.  As in some other small communities, jealousies, dissensions and intrigues arose in this one.  The result was that the coyote and the rattlesnake took a mean advantage of the skunk at night when he fell asleep and threw him off the rock away down into the river.  He was not drowned, however, but floated on and on far away to the south and west until he came to the mouth of the river where lived a great medicine man and magician. To him the skunk applied and was fitted out with an apparatus warranted to give him immunity from and conquest over his enemies.  Back he journeyed to his old home, where he arrived much to the surprise of the coyote and rattlesnake, and commenced to make it so unpleasant for them with his pungent perfumery apparatus, the gift of the magician, that they soon left him in undisputed possession of his rocky home which he has maintained ever since.1

            The Sanpoil Indians lived along the upper Columbia and Sanpoil Rivers. Both they and their neighbours to the east (the Spokane Indians) would venture out on the plateau scrubland for camas roots and small game.  They were pacifists who distributed food and goods among themselves on the basis of need and elected their chiefs by a free vote of all men and women of the village.  They ate salmon, game, roots and berries.  The men hunted and fished with spears; the women dug the roots and gathered the berries.2  With the coming of the white man, the Sanpoil began a little trading with them. By 1850, their winter village at Whitestone held about 250 people.3

            With great cunning, Isaac Stevens, who was territorial governor and superintendent of Indian affairs for Washington Territory, crafted a stunning treaty in 1855 at the expense of the Indians of the Northwest.  He obtained sixty thousand square miles of territory in exchange for three reservations. Though the Sanpoil did not sign Steven’s treaty, over the next twenty years they were pressured to either homestead or live on reservations.4

            In the spring of 1859, the Congress of the United States of America ratified the treaties negotiated by Isaac Stevens.  President James Buchanan declared the Indians' title to the lands of Oregon and the Washington Territory null, and opened up the country to settlers.  The Indians were in turn expected to immigrate to the holdings on the reservations allotted them and to take up Christianity, English literacy, and farming.  In practice, large numbers of Indians did none of these things. One of the most influential prophet dreamers of the river Indians was a man named Smohalla.  Speaking to Captain E. L. Huggins, he expressed the views of most of the Indians of the area when he said, "My young men shall never work.  Men who work cannot dream, and wisdom comes to us in dreams...  We simply take the gifts that are freely offered.  We no more harm the earth than would an infant's fingers harm its mother's breast."5

            The chief at Whitestone at this time, Quetalikin, resisted the disposition of Sanpoil land  despite the US unilateral declared reservation established between Kettle Falls and Okanogan.  This exclusivity of the reserve was just as quickly disestablished when valuable mining sites were discovered on the reservation.6


Smohalla and Skolaskin

            Around the 1870s there immerged among the Sanpoil a young man born up river from Whitestone who was to become their spiritual leader.  His name was Skolaskin.  He had been an average boy until he was afflicted with an illness that took him near death.  It left him crippled and bent.  He would walk with his hands on his knees or with a stick.  While sick in a delirium, Skolaskin had a vision that he was sent back from death to preach to his people.7

            At first, Skolaskin had few followers. There were other more recognized dreamers and priests. One day, however, Skolaskin rode into the camp of Suiepkine, one of the most followed dream prophet of the Sanpoil and Okanogan.  Skolaskin proclaimed that Suiepkine was out of favour with God and that to show his displeasure, God would cause the earth to tremble and shake.8

            In the night of December 14, 1872, the earth began to tremble.  Cliffs crumbled and fell into the river.  The river bank itself cracked and water filled the lodges of the people.  The people were filled with fear as aftershocks continued to rumble.  Skolaskin was seen as a great prophet and an answer to their prayers, for he had been to the dead and back.  The chief at Whitestone, Quetalikum, became a follower, as did most of the people of that village.  Skolaskin had strict rules: No gambling (which was a favourite past time of the Indians), no adultery, no drinking. He had lieutenants who enforced his rules.  They built a "Skookum House" (strong house or jail) to enforce the law.9

            A year after the earth quake, Skolaskin had firm control over the community.  The American government wanted to open up the Colville Reservation north of the Columbia River to whites as well as to other Indian tribes, among them Chief Moses and his Sinkiuse people, but Skolaskin trusted neither the white man nor his ideas.10 

            Skolaskin was also a source of frustration to the Jesuit missionaries.  He not only forbade the Black Robes from saying mass for their converts and baptizing, but denied them even to enter Sanpoil country.11  In December of 1876, Father Urban Grassi, a Jesuit, received permission to visit at Whitestone.  Skolaskin allowed him to come to one of his services on the condition he did not speak. Despite these conditions, the priest spoke at the service, but it was as if he spoke to the wind.  He was told he had no right to impose his faith on others who had a different faith.  The Sanpoil did not condemn the priest's beliefs, but they wanted to be left in peace and treated with respect.  After two days the priest left, telling the people that they would never reach heaven by the supplication of their prophet.12

            Skolaskin maintained the isolation of his people from the government, the church and even other Indian tribes.  He did not recognize the creation of the Colville Reservation.  The government took advantage of this sought to create tension among the various First Nations tribes.  The government negotiated with Chief Moses and the Sinkiuse, creating a permanent home for them on the Nespelem River, near the Sanpoil.  Shortly after this, they looked to the Colville Reservation as a new homeland for the Nez Perce people also, again without negotiation with the Sanpoil.  The Nez Perce had been  driven out of their land in Oregon and tried to escape to Canada but failed.  In October of 1877, just 64 kilometres from the Canadian border, they were overcome by U.S. troops.   Once the Nez Pierce and The Sinkiuse were established on the land the Sanpoil considered theirs, the tensions were set.  Skolaskin made it difficult for these other tribes.13

            Richard Gwydir, the Colville Indian agent, called a council of the Sanpoil, the Sinkiuse, and the Nez Perce.  His goal was to resolve the problem of their co-existence on the same reservation.  First, Gwydir went  to Whitestone to speak with Skolaskin.  Skolaskin made it clear that they would never share their land -- with neither the Nez Pierce, nor the Sinkiuse, nor the white man, nor anyone.  Gwydir turned to face the gathering of people and gave the following speech:

            The sooner you Sanpoils fall into line, the sooner your conditions will be bettered... Whistlepossum, [Hustl-pzustmn, Walking Heart, commonly known as Lot, dubbed "Whistlepossum" by the report of the Federal Census of 189014], chief of the Spokane, Tonkasket, chief of the Okanogan, and Moses, chief of the [Sinkiuse], have taken this advice and their people have mills and schools, and are taken care of by the government until such time as they will be able to take care of themselves, while you, refusing to listen to the Great Father or take his advice, will be treated like disobedient children, who refuse to obey their fathers, and be punished according to your disobedience. When your chief, who should talk words of wisdom to you, says that you will oppose the will of the Great Father, he talks foolish. As well might a few trees on the mountain try to stop the avalanche as for you to attempt to oppose the will of the Great Father.15 


           The council took place a short time later at Nespelem.  A riot was narrowly averted when the Sanpoil began objecting to the merger and Chief Moses tried to arbitrate on the side of the government.16

            Skolaskin continued to encourage rebellion between the tribes until one of his lieutenants killed a Sinkiuse. The U.S. Department of the Interior took advantage of this incident and had Skolaskin taken into custody.  On November 21, 1889, he was taken to Fort Spokane, then to Fort Vancouver, and ultimately to Alcatraz, an island prison in San Francisco Bay.  There he languished in homesickness and with the dampness of the of the climate, so different from his homeland.  The military was uncomfortable with him there because he had never been charged nor convicted of a crime.  He was merely a detainee.       

            A reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle published an article questioning Skolaskin’s imprisonment. The official response was that “He is a ward of the nation and not a citizen of the United States, therefore the military...with consent of the Department of Interior, has a perfect right to place him where he can do no harm.”  Despite this defense, the newspaper article drew considerable sympathy for Skolaskin's case.  In 1892, the government offered him a conditional release if he signed a paper agreeing to obey the Indian agent and not make trouble.          

            Back at Whitestone, in Skolaskin's absence, an elder supported by the agency officials succeeded Skolaskin.  The agency set up a lumber mill and encouraged houses of wood to replace mat lodges and tepees of hide.  Drinking and crime increased. With Skolaskin gone his wives left his lodge and his influence was lost.  The Indians of the Colville Reservation had ceded the northern half of the reservation, opening it to miners.       

            On his return, ignoring the conditions set on him, Skolaskin protested the influx of mining.  He had no remaining authority, however, and his voice remained largely unheard.17  By 1897, the lower half of the reservation was inundated with miners, some of whom stole from the Indians, vandalized their burial mounds and dynamited their fishing sites. The chief took the matter to court but a federal judge ruled that, for the purpose of mining, the Indians’ title to the land was null.

            A chief from a neighbouring village, Nespelem George, was recognized as the official chief of all the Colville agency and began receiving government supplies.18  In 1906, the government proceeded to sell off land in the southern reservation not already claimed. Skolaskin made a trip to Washington, D.C. to protest.  He was received with respect but nothing changed.19

            In his declining years, Skolaskin accepted an allotment.  He let Nespelem George cut his long braids.  In 1918, he asked Father Celestine Caldi, the Jesuit rector of St. Rose's Church in Keller, to baptise him. “I originated a religion. Conditions changed.  I am the only one left.  I want to be a Catholic.”  He died the winter of 1921-22.20

Columbia River with Whitestone at left


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1  T W. Symons, The Symons Report, 1882, provided by Bill Kunz, 2000.

2  Robert Clark, River of the West: A Chronicle of the Columbia. New York:  Picador, 1997, p 188.

3  Ibid., p 189.

4  Ibid., p 149.

5  Ibid., p 181.

6  Ibid., p 190.

7  Ibid., p 190-191.

8  Ibid., p 191.

9  Ibid., p 191-192.

10  Ibid., p 193.

11  Ibid., p 194.

12  Ibid., p 194-195.

13  Ibid., p 200.

14  Edward Sheriff Curtis, North American Indian.  Norwood, MA:  Plimpton Press, 1911,  volume 7, p 55.

15  Robert Clark, River of the West: A Chronicle of the Columbia. New York:  Picador, 1997, p 203.

16  Ibid., p 204.

17  Ibid., p 205-209.

18  Ibid., p 209.

19  Ibid., p 210.

20  Ibid., p 211.