It was the discovery of silver and gold in the hills above Lake Coeur d'Alene that finally pushed the Coeur d'Alene Indians onto a reservation in the 1870s. Now it is the tribe - small, at just 1,450 members - that is pushing back against mining, and that is making some people uncomfortable.
a letter to the Idaho Conservation League last February, Matthew
Fein, who represents the mining companies, said environmentalists
shouldn't be "duped" by the tribe's efforts to clean up pollution
in the Silver Valley.
Tribe is involved in this issue for one reason only - money," he
wrote. "It serves their interest to prolong the fight so they can
continue to receive millions in taxpayer money studying issues
Mining officials note that the tribe
has received millions from the Department of Interior to fund
research projects, while touching little of the monies it has
amassed from its successful gambling operations.
Others criticize the tribe for putting on a
green facade. Kootenai County Commissioner Bob MacDonald says the
tribe "talks environmental, but it doesn't act it. Some of their
own farmlands don't use best management practices and have lots of
erosion. That pollution ends up in the lake."
Members of the tribal council say that any money they get from
lawsuits will go exclusively toward cleanup activities.
Coeur d'Alene biologist Phil Cernera, who has
worked for other tribes in the region, says the Coeur d'Alene tribe
is "head and shoulders above most tribes. The tribal council is
well-educated and trusts its staff. They've taken the high road on
"The tribe has always tackled
tough issues," echoes Bob Bostwick, a public relations specialist
the tribe hired five years ago. Bostwick notes that the tribe owns
and operates a medical center, a gambling casino, a 6,000-acre farm
and a shopping center. In the past 25 years, its staff has grown
from three to 350.
progressive leadership," he says, "there's not much you feel like
you can't accomplish."
One potentially giant
accomplishment still waiting on the horizon is a bid to assert
ownership of Lake Coeur d'Alene, along with some 20 miles of the
lower river up to the town of Cataldo. A tribal lawsuit brought in
1993 contends that President Ulysses S. Grant gave the lake to the
tribe in an 1873 executive order establishing the reservation.
The state of Idaho maintains that Grant had no
right to give away the lake without congressional approval, and
that the state assumed ownership of all waterways when Idaho became
a state in 1890.
The courts have yet to rule on
the case's merits. At issue is whether the tribe even has the right
to sue the state in federal court. The U.S. Supreme Court heard
arguments on that point in October and is expected to rule sometime
Bostwick says the tribe would never
have brought the lawsuit over ownership if the mining companies and
the state and federal governments had taken better care of the
river and the lake.
Despite the tribe's
insistence on ownership and a comprehensive cleanup, Bostwick says
it doesn't seek to destroy the Silver Valley's remaining mining
industry, which employs 500 people.
"The tribe might be the best
friends the mining companies have," he says. "A few years ago, we
went to Congress and said, "The mining companies need help; they
can't fund this cleanup by themselves."
"But allowing the industry to
avoid any payment at all is unacceptable."