What is a homeland? What is needed to preserve a homeland? Our ancestors have always said water is the lifeblood of everything. Whatever came in or through our homelands with the water, we utilized for the continuation and betterment of our Tribe. For the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, the issue of water rights in the Coeur d’Alene-Spokane River Basin Adjudication (CSRBA) has always been about continuing to provide all people with the resource of water to continue the traditions we have held since time immemorial.
An agreement between the Tribe and the United States established the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in 1873. It says in part, “the Coeur d’Alene Reservation shall be held forever as Indian land and as homes for the Coeur d’Alene Indians ...” That was written in 1873, 1887 and again in 1889 when the Tribe was repeatedly forced to give up more and more land. The 1887 agreement signed by the United States again promised the Tribe a homeland, but that same year, Congress passed the Homestead Act and opened up the Reservation to settlement.
The Tribe has been fighting for its homeland ever since, while at the same time welcoming those who came here seeking a better life. We fought to force mining companies in the Silver Valley to clean up a legacy of pollution in the region and we fought for ownership of the lake in order to preserve this homeland for all who call North Idaho and the Coeur d’Alene Reservation home.
The CSRBA came to North Idaho in 2007, despite an abundance of water in the Basin and no desire by the Tribe to fight over water rights. The Tribe was forced to file claims for water and then forced to defend its claims from challengers, including the State of Idaho, mining companies, and citizen’s groups. These challengers objected to every claim the Tribe made, including water for domestic household use, and forced the Tribe to defend its traditional uses of water. Fortunately the Idaho Supreme Court rejected the arguments that the Reservation had a narrow and limited agricultural purpose. When the Tribe made a claim to maintain the lake level and for adequate instream flows it was not to “stick it” to the State of Idaho or the property owners, it was merely to make sure there would be enough water in the lake for things like fishing, hunting, gathering, and cultural purposes.
The Coeur d’Alene Press, in its article “Level Decision” on Sept. 7, 2019, inaccurately stated the Coeur d’Alene Tribe will have no say in lake levels. It also narrowly focused on the lake level maintenance claim and off-reservation in-stream flows and ignored the myriad other issues surrounding this complex adjudication. The Court may have not agreed with the Tribe’s lake level maintenance claim, but the Court unequivocally agreed that the Reservation was established for a broad homeland purpose, which entitles the Tribe to an array of water rights to fulfill that purpose. Significantly, the decision also firmly entitles the Tribe to water in Lake Coeur d’Alene to fulfill the purposes of the Reservation.
We are pleased the Idaho Supreme Court’s decision upholds our rights to water throughout the Reservation and in Lake Coeur d’Alene. The next phase of this case will be determining the amount of water necessary to fulfill these purposes. It’s in everyone’s best interest that there is sufficient water in Lake Coeur d’Alene to maintain it into perpetuity. Lake shore property owners and the State of Idaho should be our allies in this fight, especially if the State of Washington someday decides it needs upstream water for irrigation projects. North Idaho’s economy depends on a healthy lake with adequate levels to fulfill a homeland purpose and we should all be in this together.
We welcome the support of all our neighbors, but will continue to fight on our own if necessary.
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Ernest L. Stensgar is Chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.