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Early Inhabitants

The first humans called themselves the Ktunaxa. Their history does not speak of any other home. They are the people of this land, and they have stories that tell of living a nomadic life in this trench from a time before the last ice age had cleared the land. They lived nomadically, moving from hunting ground to hunting ground, lake to river, as the seasons changed. They crossed the Rocky Mountains to hunt buffalo, competing with their archrivals the Blood and the Cree. Artifacts confirm they ranged as far north as what is now the city of Edmonton to gather the buffalo robes and meat for their families.


The Ktunaxa have a distinctive language that was used by seven groups of people, five in what is now Canada and two in what is now Montana, Idaho and Washington states. The language has no links to other languages. It was never written, although there are many pictographs and some petroglyphs throughout the Kootenays. For many years, the Ktunaxa were called the Kootenay Indians, thus the name of the area. The people numbered in the thousands, but never increased enough to stress the land. They erected the pole skeletons for their tepees for long use, covered them with hides when they lived there; took the hides when they left. In the winter, they lived in kekules, shelters dug into the ground and covered with poles and dirt to keep out the cold. They had a varying system for leadership, which was shared by the men and the women and depended on what leadership was needed. Did they need to consult the duck shaman? The wise person about the elk? Did they need knowledge about the salmon coming from the ocean to spawn?


War, sickness, spirituality-different wisdom for different situations. Twice a year all the Ktunaxa peoples would gather, once at Athalmer and once at Castlegar. Perhaps they would hunt or fish together or decide how to respond to invaders, or plan a new way to provision for the season. At those times, they would celebrate the givingand taking of names, the coming of age, the marriages, and they would grieve for those who died. Punishment would be meted out to offenders.

Games and songs and feasting created the ambience. The Ktunaxa, like other American nations, did not see their land as a personal possession. They belonged to the land, and they used it for their time, leaving it in good, or better, shape when they moved on. They used its resources for food and shelter and tools. They mined tourmalinite and chert for their knives and spearheads. Their canoes were of bark. Wild horses ranged widely.

With all these gifts from the land, the Ktunaxa felt the land, the Ktunaxa felt the only thing they owned was knowledge. For more than 10,000 years, that was the rhythm in the oval of the Kootenay and Columbia rivers, whose paths parted north and south in the Rocky Mountain Trench, crossed the next mountain range west, and after returning to a second rendezvous, flowed together again from Kootenay Lake south to the ocean. In about the middle of this basin, the widest part of the whole trench, the Ktunaxa would gather often at Aqkts ga ktleet, 'meeting of two creeks' and connoting a wet place, an important meeting place because it so well afforded their travel north and south, east and west. That place would become Cranbrook.

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