Filmmaker Sonya Rosario revives awareness of three-day bloodless conflict
By Estar Holmes, Today correspondent
Story Published: Oct 29, 2008
COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho – According to Idaho's official timeline,
nothing noteworthy happened here in 1974. Somehow, all the state
historians and educators missed the fact that north Idaho's tiny
Kootenai Tribe declared war on the U.S. government that year and
saved itself from extinction.
A new documentary by Sonya Rosario offers the inspiring story through
the recollections of former tribal Chairwoman Amy Trice and others
who were involved in "Idaho's Forgotten War."
Events took place in September 1974 in the rural community of
Bonner's Ferry, against a national backdrop of political upheaval and
American Indian activism. The Kootenai people had been living in dire
poverty since refusing to sign the Hellgate Treaty, which caused a
massive land transfer from three Northwest tribes to the U.S.
government more than 100 years earlier.
The film begins with an explanation that the Kootenai Tribe was bound
by a covenant with the Creator to care for the land forever, so they
didn't want to make treaties to give it away. But the absence of a
tribal leader's "X" on the Hellgate document nearly resulted in the
people's annihilation because the federal government took the land
anyway, yet was not compelled to offer any recognition or compensation.
Once 4,000 strong, by 1974 the Kootenai's numbers had dwindled to 68
souls clinging to life in dilapidated shelters on 10 acres of church
ground. Their homes were in such disrepair that a man was able to
crumble a shingle in his hand and blow it away. Then, when an elder
froze to death in a house that let the rain and snow in, Trice had to
take drastic action.
"There's a reason for it, why we're put here on Earth and you know in
your heart what you want; and I guess with me it was always to have
my people," she says in the film. "Before I knew what was going on
and what was going to happen, I did not know that it was prophesied
that this day would come, that we were going to come out of bondage."
Trice had asked the BIA for help, then Washington, D.C., but her
pleas fell on deaf ears.
On Sept. 20, 1974, she notified President Gerald Ford that he should
dispatch a high-level emissary by midnight to begin treaty
negotiations. If he failed to do so, the Kootenai would declare war
on the United States and set up roadblocks along a major north/south
transportation route. When no emissary showed up, Trice announced the
war's beginning and started praying harder than usual.
Tribal members with signs flanked the highway, requesting a 10-cent
toll from vehicles passing through their country. County Sheriff
Chris Ketner was sympathetic. He knew the people had nothing and that
Trice wasn't a troublemaker. Many other non-Indians who felt the same
gave much more than 10 cents. The money was used to feed the support
troops who came to help, some of whom were bodyguards and warriors
dispatched by the American Indian Movement.
When the state patrol arrived to put down the "Indian insurrection,"
the atmosphere became a tinderbox.
The film recounts events that followed though interviews with tribal
members, police, elected officials and the impressions of some locals
who were in Bonners Ferry at the time.
The final cut of "Idaho's Forgotten War" was screened in September in
the town's Rex Theatre to a standing-room-only crowd of community
members, with American Indians coming from as far away as New York.
Movie actress Anna "Patty Duke" Pierce, of Coeur d'Alene, also
selected the film to be screened as part of a fundraiser for a
women's shelter there, which Trice attended with some family and friends.
"Today, I'm happy the children who weren't born yet got to see the
film," she told the audience gathered at the Song Bird Theater. "I
wanted to get the story out a long time ago. It shows we can do something."
The war resulted in federal recognition and 12.5 acres of trust land.
Money for new buildings and services followed.
"Idaho's Forgotten War" is scheduled for another showing March 2009
at the University of Idaho in Coeur d'Alene. Meanwhile, Rosario has
entered it in the Sundance Film Festival.
"This documentary will inspire viewers to believe in a better way of
life and smaller tribes to remain resilient in seeking federal
recognition for their people," she wrote on her Web site.
A trailer is available at www.you tube.com/watch?v=G6qJJr3E.