Chief James Allan, Chairman, Coeur d’Alene Tribe

This interview took place in Plummer, Idaho, at tribal headquarters of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe on the morning of February 14, 2017, in preparation for honoring the Coeur d’Alene Tribe as Watershed Heroes on March 10, 2017.

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John Osborn (JO) Would you begin by describing for us: who is the Coeur d’Alene Tribe? We recognize that the Tribe has been living along Coeur d’Alene Lake from time immemorial. But tell us more about the Coeur d’Alene people.

Chief James Allan, Chairman, Coeur d’Alene Tribe. A century of hard-rock mining massively polluted the waters of the Coeur d’Alene Basin. There would be no cleanup – no hope for protecting Coeur d’Alene Lake and the Spokane River from mining pollution – without the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.

Chairman Allan  That is a good question: who are the Coeur d’Alenes? You have to go back to our namesake. When the trappers came here and traded with us, the French have a name for us: Coeur d’Alene. “Coeur d’Alene” means shrewd traders. The Coeur d’Alene people have always been smart, astute business people. You can look back at our history, we wanted to make sure we got a fair shake. From the time our ancestors were here at the lake until now, we remain a major player in the region because that’s who we are.

In our own language, we are the Schitsu’umsh, which means “those who are found here.” We have always been here and we always will be here. Our people have always lived in this area and we have always had close ties to the lake. The lake is central to our identity and our livelihood even today, that’s why we work so hard to protect it.

We are also honest people. Throughout history and still today, when people deal with the Coeur d’Alenes, people get what they saw. That was honesty.

We place our focus on our tribal people and the future. That’s who I think the Coeur d’Alene people are.

(JO) Tell us about yourself, and your responsibilities as Tribal Chairman?

Chairman Allan  I’m the oldest of six siblings from a household of a single mom who raised us. I’m the first in my family to go to college. Within my family there were expectations of me to carry on for my family. So that’s who I am. I’m from here. I was born and raised here. I’m nobody special. I’m just here to do my best for my family and for my people.

As Tribal Chairman, what are your responsibilities? What’s your “job description”?

Chairman Allan  I take my responsibility as the leader of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe very seriously. As the Chairman, I’m the spokesperson and the person out front. But it goes deeper than that. I’m tasked with making sure everything we do today will protect our kids in the future. I have two children. I want to make sure that whatever the Coeur d’Alene Tribe is doing – whether businesses we are doing or lawsuits that we’re involved with — I want to make sure it’s for the long haul and not short-term gain.

Coeur d’Alene Lake. Considered one of the most lovely lakes in the world, Coeur d’Alene Lake is in peril from many challenges, including massive pollution from a century of upstream mining and smelting. (photo: Coeur d’Alene Tribe)

(JO) “Water is Life” is a phrase that has captivated and energized people around the world in recent months over the Dakota Access Pipeline and efforts by the Standing Rock Sioux. But it’s worth noting that the Coeur d’Alene Tribe has — for decades — worked to protect the waters of the Coeur d’Alene Basin and ancestral homeland.   Would you describe generally your Tribe’s relationship to the earth, especially water and Coeur d’Alene Lake?

Chairman Allan  I always like to quote Felix Aripa, one of our long-time elders. “Water is the life of us all,” he said. I even have a picture out in the lobby and it says that. People ask, “What do you mean by that?” I think it’s pretty simple. The Earth’s surface is 70 percent water. Our bodies are over 50 percent water. When I was little we were taught you wake up every morning and drink a glass of water to greet the day: what gives us life is water.

Just as our ancestors depended on the lake and the rivers, we are water people even today. The lake is of the utmost importance to us – historically, spiritually, culturally – and now it’s my turn in that long line of people to protect the water that is at the center of life for us all.

As Americans when we go out to explore the universe we’re always looking for water to see if it can sustain life. We as humans sometimes don’t get that right. Sometimes we let money distract us and we may exploit or sacrifice our natural resources to get a short term financial benefit. But it’s very simple. If we don’t protect that water source, we’re going to be in a world of hurt. Our world is full of examples where this has happened and yet it doesn’t seem like human kind has learned how important it is to protect our environment and our water. We all need it to survive.

(JO) Let’s now focus on Coeur d’Alene Lake. Over the years it has been described by visitors as one of the world’s most lovely lakes.   People see Coeur d’Alene Lake and they see its beauty. But what they see is on the surface.   There was a time several generations ago when the Basin was pristine and intact. In the blink of an eye, all of that changed. The forces of “Manifest Destiny” converged here in the Spokane River-Coeur d’Alene Lake Basin: the coming of the railroads, mining, logging, agriculture, unworkable state boundaries, the dam-building era, and more. From the perspective of history, what do you see as those things that have contributed most to threats now facing Coeur d’Alene Lake?

Chairman Allan  Lake Coeur d’Alene is beautiful and I think a lot of times people forget how unhealthy it is because they can only see what’s on the surface.

To me it was obvious. The threats to all of us are wealth and money. You can go back in our history to when railroads were built and extended into the West. Then people found minerals here, including silver, and that lead to more decisions that damaged our environment, all driven by money and the pursuit of wealth. You can point to a lot of things in our history as a country and you’ll see the search for wealth as a driving force.

We as a people need to slow down. Obviously we do need money for basics such as clothes and to put our kids through school, but we also need to take a step back and ask, “Is it worth it at the end of the day?” I think that’s what our ancestors realized. They realized that when these strangers came into our homeland – strangers who “discovered” all these things. And in their search for riches and wealth, all those pollutants went to the bottom of our Lake. It’s harmful.

People say, “Well, you look at Lake Coeur d’Alene and it’s so beautiful and you can’t tell.” But the lake is sick. The National Academies of Sciences evaluation was the big scientific review that everyone was waiting for. Government was insisting the lake wasn’t sick. Then the NAS report came out and the next step was to discredit or ignore the report’s findings instead of accepting the fact that our Lake and our waters are in bad shape.

The biggest threat to our lake – and the biggest threat to mankind — is money. Everyone seems to lose their head. They seem to forget what’s important. It’s all money, money, money. We need to slow down and consider what the long term implications of our actions will be, before we act. We’ve spent decades trying to clean up and reverse the damage down to our waters and we still have so much work to do. We’ve tried to remediate damages and we’ve been working hard to restore habitat and natural resources that were damaged. But we may never be able to totally repair the damage that was done.

(JO) Henry SiJohn spoke about the Coeur d’Alene River, once pristine, flowed a dirty-milk color from the mining and smelting pollution. Things began to die from the pollution. In the late 1920s the Coeur d’Alene Press published it’s “Valley of Death” series to call attention to catastrophe from the pollution. Over the generations the Coeur d’Alene Tribe would have borne witness to these profound changes.

Chairman Allan  It was the mining and it was also the logging. All that stuff going into the river was due to people and their relentless drive for wealth. Recently there was a newspaper story interviewing a staff member for Hagadone Corporation. He talked about how when they first looked at the golf course all he saw was a polluting sawmill. Hagadone saw dollar signs. Now we have a beautiful floating golf green up there.   Before, it was the home for the logging industry. Sometimes it makes you wonder.

(JO) We developed a poster for the National Academies of Science, later published by Eastern Washington University. The poster displays the interplay of mining waste and logging damage: toxic floods. Each year the rivers flood, massive amounts of lead and other mine wastes move into Lake Coeur d’Alene – and exit into the Spokane River. The sheer enormity of this pollution challenge really underscores the heroic role of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s commitment to cleaning up the Basin.

Chairman Allan  You have to go back to the first question you asked: who are the Coeur d’Alene people? The Coeur d’Alene people are so much bigger than their leaders. The Tribe is bigger than Chief Allan, so much bigger than Henry SiJohn, so much bigger than Felix Aripa. Protecting our Lake is in our DNA – when we are born we are taught to take care of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe will take care of you.

Great leaders like Henry, Felix, and Lawrence — the people that I admire — they had that same drive and same job that I do now. What we do and the decisions that we make today will be important for tomorrow — for our kids, future generations, and the survival of the Coeur d’Alene people.

Ernie Stensgar was the longtime Chairman who preceded me and currently serves as our Chairman. The Tribal Council led by Ernie Stensgar was remarkable. Especially at a time when they didn’t have a lot of resources, they had to make decisions that they knew were for the long haul. They made great investments of time and resources and they drew a line in the sand that says, “No more. If we don’t do anything, if we just sit silently, then the lake and the rivers are going to die.” They had that vision and that insight. I’m proud of them for standing up for what is right.

(JO) What the Coeur d’Alene Tribe did, and continues to do, is really one of the remarkable stories in American history.

Chairman Allan  Yes, talk about an underdog. I’ve always liked the underdog. I’ve always looked out for the underdog. And in a lot of ways tribes across the entire country are underdogs because of the history of what happened to our people. One thing about the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and Coeur d’Alene people: we just don’t sit around and bow our heads. I hate that iconic image of the Indian with his head bowed with his horse at the end of the trail: the sad Indian. Well that’s not who Indian people are. We are survivors. We are fighters. And we are going to continue that fight.

(JO) At the Veterans Hospital where I work as a physician, a good number of our Veteran patients are Native American.

Chairman Allan  That makes sense, doesn’t it? For our size and our population, Indian people sign up in large numbers for military service. We are warriors. We believe in serving for all mankind.

(JO) What do you see as the key elements you want the broader public to understand about the Tribe’s ongoing work and leadership to protect and restore Coeur d’Alene Lake and the waters of the Coeur d’Alene Basin?

Chairman Allan  The public needs to know that we’re not the enemy. Sometimes people criticize the Tribe for stopping some action that might impact jobs. We face all the same arguments that our brothers and sisters in North Dakota are facing: protecting water will cost thousands of jobs in oil. But it’s bigger than that. The public needs to know that if we sit still and let things happen, we’re in for a world of hurt. We will all be in trouble, and then what? At some point there are alternatives that we all can work on to get things done.

I come back again to who the Coeur d’Alene people are, and what our namesake is: we’re savvy businesspeople. We also rely on the lake for tourism dollars, among other things. So do many other businesses in the area. We want to see the lake healthy for all of us, all Idahoans and everyone who comes to visit and see this beautiful place. We don’t want to put a big wall around the lake. We’re not about walls. We want the public to know we are here to work with them. We want them to come along side of us and to come up with solutions that are good for everybody.

(JO) Given the huge challenges facing the lake, we’re all in this together.

Chairman Allan  Yes. Yes, we’re all in this together.

(JO) The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Coeur d’Alene Tribe actually owns part of Coeur d’Alene Lake, isn’t that true?

Chairman Allan  Yes, we own the lower third of Coeur d’Alene Lake. We haven’t given up on the whole lake — we’ll leave that for another time. We believe strongly that we have never given up on ownership of the entire Coeur d’Alene Lake.

(JO) I want to turn now to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That federal agency has been imperfect yet pivotal in efforts to clean up mining and smelting pollution in the Coeur d’Alene Basin.   In the decades ahead there remains a tremendous amount of work to protect Coeur d’Alene Lake and more broadly the waters of this Basin. However, EPA is under attack during these early days of the Trump Administration and ongoing attack by certain elements of the Congress.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe is uniquely positioned to give advice because of the Tribe’s multi-decade effort to protect waters of the Basin and particularly the lake. For people who love and care about Coeur d’Alene Lake, what advice would the Coeur d’Alene Tribe give during a time when EPA’s basic mission – to protect human health and the environment – is now under attack.

Chairman Allan  The advice I would offer is: politicians come and go. Presidents come and go. All you have to do is look at history with all the termination era here and all these things that different Presidents and different governments wanted to do to the tribes to wipe us out. But here we are. It’s 2017 — we’re still here fighting the good fight. That’s what I want the public to know. Don’t lose sight of what the current Administration is going to do or not going to do. We need to keep fighting and keep pushing for our leaders to do what is right.

What all of us need to do is continue to roll up our sleeves, put on our boots, and go to work and protect what’s right for mankind.

I hear about fear all the time: it sucks. But we have to get up every day and go to work and protect the lake. So we can’t let the public go to sleep for four years. The public needs to be wide awake for four years. The public needs to continue to stand beside us in this work to protect the lake. It’s not only for my kids — it’s for everyone’s kids.

People need to be able to look back and say, “When I grew up, Coeur d’Alene Lake was sick but we still enjoyed it and worked to protect it.” I don’t want us to have a little footnote: “But in 2017 a new administration and a new President wiped all that out.” I want a little footnote that says, “There was this President for four years but we continued to fight and continued to move on.” That’s what I want.

(JO) That’s an answer with much wisdom. As we conclude, is there anything else that you would like to say?

Chairman Allan  The Coeur d’Alene Tribe – we do things because it’s the right thing to do, and not to be recognized. The Tribe does like to say thank you – and we want to thank the Sierra Club and all these organizations that help us in our efforts.

We do have an outstanding natural resources department. We have great staff – Phil Cernera comes to mind. Phil has a passion and a heart for the lake, standing right alongside Henry SiJohn in the fight for the lake during all those years and with our attorneys at that time.   Phil has a great staff within our Lake Management Department, many of whom have dedicated their careers to this work, working with the Tribe to protect the Lake and to reverse the damages and try to get it back to healthier state. We are thankful for all of them.

It’s nice to be recognized. We don’t do this work to be recognized. We work to protect Coeur d’Alene Lake and the waters of the Basin because it’s the right thing to do.