Spokane Indian Reservation


Last Updated: 12 months

The Spokane ancestral homelands were located along the Spokane River from the Idaho border to the confluence of the Spokane and Columbia Rivers. Although not participants to the early signed treaties, the Spokane Indians were recognized, and maintained their identity and ties to traditional lands.


A series of events delayed establishment of a Spokane Indian Reservation until I881. Following the adoption by Congress of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, The Spokane Tribe adopted and approved a Tribal Constitution in 1951. It was not until The Indian Self Determination Act of 1975 that the authority of tribal government was reaffirmed and the right to effective tribal self-governance was added and recognized.

Tribal government quickly evolved as an effective organization. Today, there are over 400 employees.

A Federal government-to-government model has broadened the Self-Determination Act to promote Memorandum of Agreements between the tribe and each federal agency; and tribal exercise of control over federally funded programs (638 contracting). The tribe has actively pursued 638 contracts for a number of current programs, especially in health and human services, and recently transportation, and has demonstrated great success in the development and effectiveness of the administration of tribal programs and services.

Today, the Spokane Tribe of Indians is governed by a constitution and led by five Tribal Business Council Members who are voted into office every three years. As Tribal leaders, the Tribal Business Council is required to make decisions that may affect the entire Tribal population, and at times, for generations to come.

Historical Spokane Tribal Territory

The traditional Spokane homelands extended along the Spokane River from the present day city of Spokane east to the Idaho border and west to the confluence of the Spokane and Columbia Rivers.

The Spokane shared both economic and cultural ties to neighboring groups including both the Kalispel to the east, and the Chewelah to the north. According to Grant et al., 1994, the Spokane lived in autonomous bands that joined together for fishing and trading, however the majority of their actions were decided at the band level.

The Chewelah occupied the Colville Valley to the north. The Chewelah were an offshoot band of the Kalispel that migrated to the Colville Valley, and were later absorbed into the Spokane Tribe.

Prior to the formation of the Spokane Indian Reservation, it has been documented that the Spokane utilized over three million acres of land.

The Spokane lived in small villages made up of bands, which were grouped into three divisions along the Spokane River. The Lower Spokane occupied the area around the mouth of the river and upstream to Tum Tum. Their camps centered around the Little Falls of the Spokane.

The Middle Spokane occupied the area around Hangman or Latah Creek. Their territory bordered the Coeur d’Alene to the south, and extended west to Idaho.

The Upper Spokane lived primarily along the Little Spokane River. They occupied the region from the mouth of Latah Creek to the village of Tum Tum, and east to Lake Coeur d’Alene.

As hunter-gatherer peoples, the various groups were seasonally on the move from one site to another to hunt, fish or harvest the many resources upon which they relied both for subsistence and for trade. The very nature of their lifestyle, perceived as they were as “roaming bands” by the agrarian settlers that encroached into the territory, would lead to the pressure to remove Indians onto reservations.

The Spokane Treaties History

Treaty negotiations, designated early on as “treaties of cession,” with the regional tribes spanned the period of 1854-1855. Governor Stevens first met with Spokane Garry, the leader of the Upper Spokane, in 1853, the year Washington Territory was created.

Despite good relations between Stevens and Chief Garry, immediately upon his return to Olympia, Stevens recommended that the Indian title to the land between the Cascade and Rocky Mountains be extinguished and that the Indians be placed on reservations. To that end, Stevens met with the western Washington tribes to negotiate treaties of cession in the spring of 1855.

Some 5,000 Indians, including a delegation of Spokane, met with the governor, and rejected his proposal for the creation of a single, large joint reservation. Stevens later had to settle for three separate treaties and three reservations for the Yakima, the Nez Perce, and the Walla Walla, Umatilla and Cayuse. The Spokane were not party to these treaties.

Stevens returned to the Columbia Plateau to meet with the Spokane in December, 1855. This was a period of white encroachment into Indian territories and the newly created Indian reservation lands, and the rich farmlands were being overrun.

Indian Wars broke out between the white settlers squatting on Indian lands and the tribes. Stevens negotiations with the Spokane were halted when the Yakima went to war. Although he was to return the following year, he was unable. The continued invasive settlement on Indian lands led to hostilities; which the Spokane joined. With their allies, they defeated Colonel Steptoe at Pine Creek.

Retaliation by Colonel George Wright was particularly brutal and resulted in the hanging of several Indians. He also destroyed 690 horses. Wright negotiated a treaty with the Spokane that was never presented to Congress.

The Spokane, with other tribes of northeastern Washington and northern Idaho remained without a treaty during the 1860s. In the meantime, white settlers and miners continued to move onto unceded Indian Territory. Two consecutive presidential executive orders were issued to attempt to establish a reservation for the Colville (Methow, Okanogan, San Poil, Lake, Colville) Kalispel, Spokane and Coeur d’Alene.

The first established reservation extended from the Spokane and Little Spokane rivers north to the Canadian border, from the Columbia River east to Pend Oreilles River and the 117th Meridian. However rather than move six hundred settlers off the reservation, and move all the Indians onto it, a second order was issued that restored the reservation to public domain.

The order established a new reservation for the area (now the Colville Indian reservation), but the Spokane would be required to move from their traditional area of occupancy. The Spokane wanted to remain in their own country along the Spokane River, and refused to remove to the newly created reservation.

During the next three decades, white settlers in the Spokane Falls area exerted pressure on the Spokane to cede their landholdings and to remove to one of the region’s reservations. Most of the Spokane reluctantly moved to the Spokane Indian Reservation established by [the third] executive order issued 1881.

There also remained small bands that continued to traverse their former territories during this period, as well, and the off-reservation bands of the Spokane continued to refuse to relocate.

Three simultaneous events succeeded in destroying the former economy of the Spokane and surrounding tribes: the depletion of the salmon runs, the destruction of the buffalo herds and white settlement across the region.

Already legislation was put into motion to satisfy the demands of settlers who desired the agricultural land located within the reservation boundaries.

Following relocation on reservations the tribes were also subjected to the General Allotment Act of 1887, also known as the Dawes Act. This policy was designed to effectively dissolve Indian reservations and open reserved Indian lands to white settlement.

It was believed that through the process of assimilation, tribal ties would be destroyed, and the Spokane Indian Tribe would disappear as an identifiable social entity. Between 1902 and 1908 Congress implemented the general allotment policy on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and in the Colville Valley among the Chewelah.

The sole objection to the General Allotment Act came from a Senator Henry Teller of Colorado, who argued that “individual ownership of the land was alien to the Indian way of thinking and that there was no good reason to force Indians to give up communal land tenure.” 

He also insisted that, “past experience indicated that allotment would not guarantee the Indians productive farms, but it did provide an easy method for non-Indians to gain possession of Indian land.” Popular opinion held sway. The experiment to turn hunter-gatherer peoples to sedentary farmers was a failure.

Grant et al. further claimed that, “The law was designed to undermine traditional tribal values and social structures. Of equal importance, it also threatened to remove reservation timber resources from tribal control,” since timberland was unsuitable for farming purposes it was anticipated these lands would be among the lands sold. During this period, the Spokane came very close to losing their forest lands.

The delay to implementing The Dawes Act on the Spokane was due in part to the Chief Lot and Chief Garry’s bands living in the area around Spokane Falls who refused to move and their continued occupancy of highly desired non-reservation lands. The Northwest Indian Commission was created specifically to meet with the Upper and Middle Spokane.

A separate agreement was made with them, although their adamant request for a separate Spokane reservation along the Little Spokane was denied. They were offered monetary compensation for lands lost and for rebuilding on an area reservation of their choice, but the agreement was not ratified until 1892.

Nearly half of the Upper and Middle Spokane joined the Lower Spokane on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and the rest were granted allotments on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation.

The Chewelah located in the Colville Valley to the north were also given the choice to join one of the reservations in the region. Some chose to remove; but others remained in the Colville Valley. Post-allotment, all Indian held titles to the land there were sold with the exception of two allotments, that of the last remaining Chewelah chief and his brother. The Chewelah are now considered a band of the Spokane.

Spokane Tribal Identity

The Spokane Tribe of Indians was subject to termination efforts, including children being sent to boarding schools in Fort Spokane located on the west end of the Reservation. Still, the Tribe holds fast to its traditional culture, values and language.

Another result of Tribal self-governance is the ability to run its own educational system. Beginning in Head Start at the age of three, children are re-learning their Native language. Similar Salish dialects are spoken throughout the Northern Columbian Plateau and the Spokane Tribe of Indian’s language department is teaching a dialect common to the Flathead or Kalispel Indians.

While it seems that economic development success would depend on enculturation into the surrounding and larger culture, the Spokane Tribe of Indians has been successful at balancing both economic development and cultural preservation.

The Tribe has a Cultural Preservation Office and a Tribal Historic Preservation Officer that are concerned with preserving archaeological sites and cultural resources, mainly along Lake Roosevelt and the Little Spokane River. The Tribe has also been concerned with cultural resource areas in ceded lands. Some of these sites are located in Spokane, WA.

Further cultural preservation efforts include the Lake Roosevelt Fisheries Evaluation and Monitoring Program, a Tribal hatchery and large forestry department. All of these are designed to manage the Tribes natural resources.

Cultural preservation efforts can be recognized by attending the local annual Labor Day Powwow located in Wellpinit, WA. Here you will witness traditional Spokane drum songs and dances. In particular, common only to the Spokane Tribe is the Happy Dance.

In addition, you can witness traditional stick games, an all-inclusive game of chance played with drumming, wagering, and singing.

Prior to contemporary powwow drumming and singing, women did not participate in what was then considered medicine dances. Rather, the women would gather and play stick games. 

The Spokane Tribe of Indians also participates in the annual Powwow located at Riverfront Park in Spkane, WA. This is a large gathering and located at a traditional site that has been used for hundreds of years by the Spokane Tribe.

Spokane Tribal Lands

The Spokane Indian Reservation is located in Stevens County, WA. The Spokane Tribe of Indians also owns land in Airway Heights, WA, also referred to as the West Plains Development Site located in Spokane County, and the Mistequa site in Chewelah, WA, located in the northern region of Stevens County.

Spokane Tribal Economy

Until the 1990’s the socioeconomic condition of the Spokane Tribal Reservation was bleak. Poverty, unemployment and a large Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) presence was overwhelming. While conditions currently do not match surrounding counties or that of the United States, marked improvements have been made with the development of Tribal Casinos in Chewelah and Two Rivers, WA. Unemployment rates decreased and per capita incomes increased.

Current, off reservation tribal enterprises include Chewelah Casino and SpoKo Fuel, Airway Heights SpoKo Fuel, and the Spokane Tribal Water Laboratory according to the Spokane Tribe of Indians Enterprise Board of Directors Report 2008. While the Two Rivers Casino/Amphitheater and SpoKo Fuel are located on the reservation, they are located approximately 27 miles from the central location of Wellpinit on the southeast border of the reservation. Two Rivers Marina/Houseboat, RV Park and Marina Store are also located at this location.

Spokane Reservation Population and Education

According to 2010 Census data, the Spokane Indian Reservation’s population comprised 4.80 % of Stevens County Population at that time. Stevens County population in 2010 was 43,531, of which the Spokane Indian Reservation’s population was 2,094. In comparison, neighboring Spokane County’s population was 471,221 in 2010. Spokane County is the most populous county in Eastern Washington and contains the City of Spokane, the second largest city in the state.

Of the 2,094 people living on the reservation, 79.3 percent identified themselves as American Indian or Alaska Native (AIAN), an increase of almost 3 percent from the year 2000 counts. Total American Indian representation on the reservation was 1,661. Tribal Enrollment reports that in 2010, tribal membership was 2,696 for both on- and off- reservation.

The White population was the second largest racial group living on the Spokane Reservation at 14.1 percent. This was more than a four percent reduction since 2000.

The third largest racial group identified as Two or More Races made up 5.8 percent of the population. This category increased by more than 2% from the 2000 Census. The majority of this group consisted of White and AIAN which made up 4.5 percent of the reservation population.

The 2010 Census reported that 119 people, 5.7 percent of the population, identified themselves as being Hispanic. Of the 119 people, 82 were American Indian or Alaska Native.

The predominant race in Stevens County is White, which made up 89.4 percent of the people in the county. The American Indian and Alaska Native made up the next largest racial group. This is largely due to the Spokane Indian Reservation residing within the boundaries of Stevens County. There are 752 American Indian and Alaska Natives that live in Stevens County that do not live on the reservation.

The reservation has a significant percentage of individuals under the age of 20, indicating a growing population. However, beginning at the age of 25, there are an increasing number of individuals leaving the reservation. This most likely means that there are not enough jobs for the 25 to 29 year cohorts, causing some individuals to seek opportunity elsewhere.

There is little opportunity for young adults as they finish high school, so they tend to migrate elsewhere. The result is a large aging population and dwindling youth.

In addition to a growing population, there are increasingly more elderly individuals as the Baby Boomers age. The total reservation population has a similar age/gender distribution as the AIAN Only population which is not surprising given that the AIAN population makes up the majority of individuals on the reservation.

At advanced ages women tend to outlive men, which is also true for the general population in the US.

There were 1,002 people on the reservation over the age of 24. Of these people, 84.0 percent graduated from high school. Additionally, 40.3 percent continued their education at college. Of those who pursued higher education, 18.0 percent received some degree. Females on the reservation are more inclined to enroll in college than the males, with 39.2 percent of the female population pursuing a higher education compared with 28.6 percent of the male population.Females were also more likely to receive a degree, with 21.5 percent of the female population earning a degree of some kind, compared to only 14.8 percent of males.

Of the AIAN population on the Spokane Reservation,  83.9 percent of that population had a high school degree or higher and 41.9 percent continued onto college.

Females were more likely to attend college than males with 50.5 percent continuing onto college, while 34.7 percent of males pursued a higher education.

Like the total population, females were more likely to earn degrees. Of the AIAN population, 15.6 percent of females earned a Bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 8.9 percent for males.

The data indicates that the reservation population is more likely to drop out of high school and not pursue higher education than the off reservation general population. A high school education is the highest level of education completed by most people on the reservation (43.8%).

The neighboring counties have a larger percentage of people attending and graduating from college across all the categories of higher education.

Associate’s degrees may be earned on the reservation through the Spokane Tribal College located in Wellpinit. However, even with this resource, the attainment of an Associate’s degrees is almost half of that in Stevens County. The number of Bachelor’s degrees on the reservation is close to that of Stevens County, with 9.0 and 13.4 percent respectively.

Employment on the Spokane Indian Reservation

The 2006-2010 ACS survey estimated that 1,334 people were 16 years of age and over in the total reservation population. Of those individuals, 764 were in the civilian labor force, 554 were not in the labor force and 135 of the total population were at the age of retirement (65 years and over).

560 individuals from the total reservation population were employed while 220 were not. ACS reported zero persons serving in the armed forces. Tribal sources, however, report that there are 6 enrolled members serving in the U.S. Military.

Management, professional and related occupations was the largest category comprising of 40.4 percent of all jobs. Service occupations were the second largest occupation category providing 22.9 percent of jobs. Sales and office occupations followed in third which employed 17.1 percent of all workers.

Overall, these top three occupations provided 80.4 percent of jobs for both sexes. The number of women employed in each category almost doubled the men, while men held a higher portion of jobs in the bottom two occupations.

Income / Poverty Level on the Spokane Reservation

According to the 2006-2010 ACS, the Spokane Indian Reservation per capita income was $14,287. This was $7,486 less than Stevens County. Reservation median earnings were significantly less by $10,749. Male capita and median earnings from both regions are higher than their counterpart earnings; however, AIAN male earnings were $3,328 less than Steven County males. SIR females, on the other hand, made $434 more than Stevens County females.

The largest group of 153 households or 22.0 percent earned between $35,000 to $49,999. 52.6 percent of the Spokane Indian Reservation earned less than $35,000.The second largest group consisted of 129 households made less than $10,000. 44 households made between $100,000 to $149,999 and no households made $150,000 or more.

The Spokane Indian Reservation per capita income is $7,486 less than that of Stevens County. Reservation median income was $10,749 less than Stevens County. Reservation male year-round workers earned less than county males. Females from both populations earned less than the males, however. Reservation females earned $434 more than county females.

ACS reports that there are 203 reservation households or 29.1 percent of households which are below the poverty level. Reservation families with a female householder, with no husband present made up 48.0 percent of family households below the poverty level.

Spokane Reservation Housing and Transportation

In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that there were 777 housing units on the Spokane Indian Reservation with 2 units, off the reservation, on tribal trust lands. 92.0 percent of those units were occupied.

The AIAN population lived in 470 of the 716 occupied units; 73.4 percent of these homes were owned and 26.6 percent were rentals.

According to the 2010 Census, 85.2 percent of the homes were built after 1970. Three significant periods of housing growth took place on the reservation during 1970 to 1979 with 237 units (30.4 percent), 1980 to 1989 with 173 units (22.2 percent), and 1990 to 2000 with 175 units (22.5 percent). Only 14.9 percent of the homes were built before 1950.

92.3 percent of workers used a car, truck, or van as their means of transportation.

The Moccasin Express, the Tribe’s public transportation program implemented in 2010, provides bus shuttles for over 300 (on-reservation) community members monthly and student/employee van pools for on- and off-reservation members.

Spokane Reservation Community

The Spokane Tribe of Indians values the extended family, or more specifically, the inclusion and taking care of extended family. It is not uncommon for parents and grandparents to take care of their children and grandchildren for a lifetime.

Others build or purchase homes in very close proximity. Additionally, it is also not unlikely that “outsiders” are adopted into families. With such close-knit families, relationships within the community are also tightly inter-woven.

The idea of extended family expands into surrounding local Tribes, such as the Kalispel, Colville and Coeur d’Alene. This makes sense since some of these additional tribal members were once members of the three original Spokane bands. This expansion is also due to inter-tribal marriages and relationships.

With such an expanded kinship within the community, it is often difficult for Tribal members to find a mate that is not related to them. Population analysis and forecasting may be an important step when considering current Tribal enrollment practices.

Spokane Tribal Enrollment

The population of the Spokane Indian Tribe is determined by tribal policy rather than geographic location. Generally speaking, this means members need to have a blood quantum equal to or greater than 25 percent of Spokane blood to qualify.

Groups that are defined in this manner will usually, at some point, have to redefine the policies of membership due to the blood quantum decreasing. With small populations on a long enough timeline, the blood quantum will continue to drop without some sort of marriage customs to prevent the decline.

Most tribes will choose to redefine the enrollment policy rather than eliminate membership qualification. It is not uncommon to reduce the blood quantum needed, or remove blood quantum as a requirement to membership altogether.

The number of enrolled Spokane tribal members has been increasing since 1950, but the rate at which the tribe was growing had been slowing until 2010. In 2010, there was a 90 person increase in population.

This large increase is most likely related to a positive net migration of people into the tribe, which means that the tribe admitted new members that were beyond those accounted for by the regular birth rate, probably through marriage to non-tribal members who were taken into the tribe.

The fastest growing population on the Spokane Indian Reservation was the Two or More Races population, which grew by 64.9 percent from 74 to 122 people. This classification, which is meant to capture diversity, most likely included some individuals previously classified as American Indian and Alaskan Native as well as those identified as White. It should be noted that the Two or More Races category did not exist prior to 2000.

Reservation Communities

Wellpinit and Ford are the only two communities on the Spokane Reservation, with tribal headquarters in Wiellpinit. The Spokane Tribe also has trust lands in Airway Heights, WA (SpoKo Fuel only)  and Chewelah, WA (Chewelah Casino and SpoKo Fuel only).