Coeur d’Alene

Vincent Perdue 9-22-11

Pre-Contact Traditional Diet and Health        

The Coeur d’Alene tribe, also known as the Schitsu’umsh, live in the region of northern Idaho and surrounding areas.   They were hunter-gatherers, as the area they lived in was profuse in game and other food resources (Since 1).  They regularly hunted deer and gathered roots, etc.  They also entered into marriage partnerships and food exchanges among their Salish neighbors (Since 1).  The Coeur d’Alene travelled to Spokane Falls to fish and trade with the Spokane. The Coeur d’Alene brought venison, which was rare in Spokane territory, and trade, for being able to fish below the falls for salmon.  They would also entered into direct trade for dried salmon and bitterroot, which was scarce back home (Since 1).  They also traded with Pacific Coast peoples for dentalium and abalone shells used in artistic ornaments and jewelry (Since 1).

The Spokanes made seasonal rounds, as their landscape was rich in fish, game animals, berries, and roots (Since 3).   The land sustained all their necessary needs of food, lodging, tools, and clothing.   To access the benefit that the land provided, the Coeur d’Alene had to travel freely within this landscape.  Along with their walking trails, they used curved-up and “sturgeon-nosed” pine and cedar bark canoes to navigate the lakes and rivers of this area (Since 3).  They had a sophisticated knowledge of the landscape in interacting with the seasons.  They knew when and where to move in order to gather roots, berries, or game animals as they became available.  This was coordinated with their five seasons (Since 4). The blooming of the sunflower in the spring was the beginning of root season whereupon they would break camp along the shores of the Coeur d’Alene and Hayden Lakes and travel to the prairie country and rolling hills west and south of Hangman Creek and Tekoa Mountain (Since 4).  These were the best root areas.  Sixteen types of roots were dug with a curved digging stick called a pitse’ (Since 5)This tool was usually made from the wood of the serviceberry bush, with a handle of elk antler and the tip charred to make it hard (Since 5).  Of the roots gathered, camas, cous, and bitterroot were the most important (Since 5).  They used easily made cedar-bark baskets to gather the roots.  Other baskets were made for storage and even used in cooking, by adding hot rocks to the tightly coiled waterproof basket (Since 5).  Baskets of dried berries, roots, fish and meat would be placed in earthen pit caches for storage.  Use of these caches provided for a diverse and balanced diet and provided sustenance during lean times (Since 6).  During the spring and early summer, some families would travel to the lakes to fish for lake trout and whitefish (Since 6).  April was the height of the spring fish runs.  Various fishing techniques were used.  For hooks they used bone or wood.   Lines were of Indian hemp, which grew in abundance along the St. Joe and Coeur d’Alene Rivers (Since 6).   Three pronged spears, dip nets of hemp twine, and willow constructed traps were extensively used.  During the summer and early fall, was the time of the salmon runs.  Families would travel to Spokane Falls or even further up the Columbia River.  It was a time of trading and social intertribal meetings (Since 10).   Late fall was the season of intense hunting of deer, elk, and bear (Since 11).  A common method of hunting was driving the deer into a lake where others were waiting (Since 11).  From the shore or in canoes, they would spear, club, shoot arrow, and drown their prey.  Along with fish, large quantities of meat would be dried and stored in earthen caches for later use.   Fish and fresh meat was roasted.  If dried it was prepared by boiling (Since 11). 

Bows for hunting were made with dogwood.  The short  bows with three foot arrows made of serviceberry wood were extremely powerful.  Thought not accurate for long distance, they were very suitable for the forested mountains from where they hunted (Since 12). 

Late fall was the time for the last digging of roots.  Water potatoes were gathered along the waterways and marshes (Since 12).  During the winter, families would travel to their winter camps or villages.  The processing of foods such as berries, nuts and roots, were done with mortars and pestles made from round river stones (Cordage 1).  As can be seen, their life-style was far from sedentary.  Plus, the rich diversity of foods, kept the tribe healthy.

Post-Contact Health and Diet

Today the Coeur d’Alene people’s health is ravaged with food-related illnesses (Hand 1). Diabetes, obesity, high-blood pressure, are, just some of the illnesses due to a diet of highly refined and processed foods.  Fried foods, is one of the main contributors to this problem. 

This problem, though not unique to just Indians, is made more problematic by variables unique to reservations (Hand 2).  Many are located where access to large grocery stores and supermarkets are low.  Unproductive land pervades where most reservations are located and the arable land, which is available, is leased to non-natives who are involved with large scale mono-culture of commodity agriculture (Hand 2).  These tribes usually have limited access to land for traditional gardens.  Therefore traditional garden food production is very limited with no control of imported foods into their communities. 

Food Activist of the Coeur d’Alene tribe are working to remedy this dire situation (Hand 2).  The cultural importance of traditional food and its production is being taught to the younger generation, some who have never hunted, or dug for camas roots (Hand 3).  According to these activists, losing their food traditions is the same as losing their identity, more damaging culturally than even the health problems associated with highly refined food ingestion.  

Through recognizing the cultural importance of food and taking control of their diets, the hope is to reactivate agricultural traditions and become more food self-sufficient, to have a connection with the land and the foods they produce (Hand 3).

For many Americans, including Indigenous peoples, poor health is a severe problem due to lifestyle choices.  Educating ourselves and deprogramming our consuming tendencies, can help bring about a healthy lifestyle without the diseases prevalent by consuming food industry products (Mihesuah introduction).  Higher activity levels and nutritious foods, preferably self-grown is the core to the solution.  Increased awareness by many Indigenous peoples has led to many, planting, cultivating, and processing their own foods.  Our health is dependent on exchanging bad habits for those that provide real sustenance, for mind, body, and spirit.


Cordage People-Coeur d’Alene TribeVillages on the Rivers.  (accessed September 19, 2011), http://

Hand, Guy.  Coeur d’Alene Tribe:  Reconnects To Food Traditions.  September 16, 2011. food -traditions.

Mihesuah, Devon, A.  Recovering Our Ancestors’ Gardens.  Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Since Time Immemorial:  Pre-Contact Society.  (accessed September 5, 2011).