The Block

The Ktunaxa block, made by Alice Olsen Williams, is an embroidered and appliquéd rendering of a traditional breastplate. A renowned Anishinaabé quilt artist and member of the Curve Lake First Nation in Ontario, Alice reproduced this piece of ceremonial regalia from period photographs provided to her by Ktunaxa Nation representatives. A front-piece like this “bib” is large enough to completely cover the wearer’s chest, and it would traditionally have been made entirely with seed beads, making it very heavy.

Shuswap Lake
Creston, British Columbia
Kootenai River
The  Kootenai River

Cultural Profile

The traditional territory of the Ktunaxa (pronounced “tuna-ha”) Nation straddles the Canada-United States border, extending northward into British Columbia and southward into Montana and Idaho. There are different versions as to the origins of the Ktunaxa. Some say they have inhabited their ancestral lands since time began, and others believe the Blackfoot pushed the Ktunaxa west from the plains, where they settled along the banks of the Columbia and Kootenay Rivers. What confuses the issue further is that the Ktunaxa language, Kitunahan, appears to be completely unrelated to any other native tongue.

The origin of the name “Ktunaxa” is also not clear. It may be based on the Blackfoot pronunciation of “Ktunaxa”, or on the Siksika (Blackfoot) word meaning “slim people.” Ktunaxa relatives in Montana call themselves Ksanka, meaning “People of the Standing Arrow.” The name Ktunaxa, became Kootenay when pronounced by incoming white people (spelling variations include Kootenai, Kutenai, Cootanie), with various translations given as “water people” or “deer robes.”

Until somewhat recent times, the Ktunaxa were semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers, depending largely on fish stocks of the Columbian Basin system of lakes and rivers. Their main mode of transportation was the distinctive sturgeon-nosed canoe, which is also used for trapping fish. It had a reversed prow specifically designed for travel through bulrushes. Made from the bark of various types of trees, this canoe was lightweight, fast and manoeuvrable in turbulent waters.

Traditional daily wear, which was plain and typically made of buckskin or mountain goat skin, was sometimes embellished with a long fringe. Women wore simple dresses, while men were generally clothed in shirts, leggings, breechclouts and moccasins. For special ceremonies, clothing would be elaborately beaded. Traditional geometric beadwork patterns evolved into intricate floral designs under the influence of Catholic missionaries.

The Ktunaxa are a unique people inhabiting one of the most stunningly beautiful places in Canada. In keeping with their cultural beliefs, ecotourism has become a growing enterprise among today’s Ktunaxa people. It allows the community to benefit financially without sacrificing their cultural mandate to respect the environment. Today, five of seven bands of the Ktunaxa Nation, with a population of 1200, live in Canada. They share complex relationship ties with the Secwepemc (Shuswap) and other Salish nations. As a Nation, the Ktunaxa continue to be self-reliant and maintain their distinct language, traditions and customs.

Sponsor: Jeanette Abbey, in memoriam Dr. H. K. Abbey | Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Flickr