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Tribal Profile: Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation


Tribal Profile: Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation

Allotment land on the Colville Reservation.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker


The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation are indigenous to the Plateau region of the Pacific Northwest. The current reservation is 1.2 million acres located in North Central Washington state.


As of the 2000 census there were 9,358 enrolled tribal members, but the numbers now are closer to 10,000. Membership is based on the ability to document at least one quarter Indian blood.


There are 12 bands and tribes in the Colville Confederation. 11 of them had close ties to one another for hundreds of years, with one, the Nez Perce, not having a shared culture. The 11 bands were semi-nomadic, living along the banks of the Columbia River during the summertime where they fished for salmon which was a staple food and central to the culture of the tribes. A site known as the Kettle Falls was a major fishing ground for the tribes during the summer when annual gatherings were held, attracting tribes from all over the plateau region to take part in fishing, games of chance, courting rites, horse races and other social and ceremonial activities. The building of the Grand Coulee Dam flooded the falls in the 1930's, severely impacting Colville culture.

Today the tradition of horse racing continues on the reservation with the Omak Stampede and the annual World Famous Suicide Race, in which riders race down a 62° hill into the Okanogan River, swimming the horses to a finish. Salmon fishing is still a highly valued cultural activity, as is hunting, stick games, powwows, and language revitalization.

Political Organization:

Historically the tribes were governed by a system of traditional hereditary Chiefs, but after coming under the colonizing force of the United States the tribes became subject to the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. The IRA imposed a system of government modeled on American government, complete with a boilerplate Constitution which the tribes adopted. Today decisions are made by a tribal business Council consisting of elected representatives from several reservation districts. There is also a judicial arm of the tribal government.


For hundreds if not thousands of years the tribes of the Colville reservation lived free, surviving off what the land and rivers gave them. The bands of the Methow, Entiat, Colville, Okanagon, Lakes, Wenatchee, Nespelem, Palus, San Poil, Chelan and Moses shared similar lifeways based on their relationship with the Columbia River in the summer months, with their winter grounds characterizing their distinctions as separate tribes. The Nez Perce are the only tribe that are part of the Colville Confederation but were originally not a Columbia River tribe.

Not long after the Lewis and Clark expedition made contact with Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest, the Hudson Bay Company established the first trading post in the region (1807). In 1853 the territory of Washington was created as settlers and squatters relentlessly invaded Indian lands. No treaty was ever made by the United States with the Columbia River Indians to purchase their land as had been done hundreds of times in Eastern lands; instead, land was divided up among the tribes and the Colville reservation was created by executive order of President Grant in 1872. The original reservation encompassed several million acres of land rich in minerals and resources, and only a few weeks after the original executive order a new executive order was issued moving the reservation boundaries to west of the Columbia River and covering only 2.8 million acres, with no consultation ever conducted with the Indians.

In 1885 Chief Joseph and his band of Nez Perce, after an unsuccessful attempt to cross the border into Canada to avoid confinement to a reservation, were not allowed to return to their former homeland in the Wallowa Valley in Oregon or the newly established Nez Perce reservation in Lapwai, Idaho. Chief Moses of the newly established Colville Confederation invited Joseph and his people to come live with them on the Colville reservation, and Joseph would live out his final days there and be buried in Nespelem which became the location of the tribal headquarters and Bureau of Indian affairs agency.

A succession of unilateral actions by the United States in the late 1800's would result in the reservation being reduced by more than half its original size, with the North half being ceded by act of Congress around the time the land was found to be rich in gold and silver. The Allotment Act would result in the checker-boarding that characterizes today's reservation.

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