For more than 10,000 years, the Ktunaxa people, also known as the Kootenai or Kootenay, have occupied a traditional territory that spans what is now known as southeastern British Columbia, Southwestern Alberta, and parts of Washington, Idaho and Western Montana.
For hundreds of generations, the Ktunaxa used the Elk Valley and the Crowsnest Pass as a trade and travel route through the Rocky Mountains. Long before Provincial boundaries were laid out, twice-yearly Bison hunts were coordinated on the prairies east of the Rockies until the bison population was decimated in the mid-1800s.
The Elk Valley area was the primary home of the easternmost branch of the Ktunaxa people, who are closely connected to families living in the area now known as Tobacco Plains which straddles the US border to the southwest of Fernie. The Michel Prairie people, after whom the town of Michel was named, used the area near Sparwood to plant tobacco. Their Ktunaxa name is ‘k?aqawakanmituqnik’ and means “river running into and out again” (the Michel Creek into the Elk River).
The Ktunaxa, have lived in their territory since time immemorial and have a deep spiritual connection to the animal world and, in particular, to the grizzly bear. Qat’muk is a very special place where the Grizzly Bear Spirit was born, goes to heal itself, and returns to the spirit world. The Grizzly Bear Spirit is an important source of guidance, strength, protection and spirituality for the Ktunaxa. Qat’muk’s importance for the Grizzly Bear Spirit is inextricably interlinked with its importance for living grizzly bears now and in the future. The Ktunaxa have a stewardship obligation and duty to the Grizzly Bear Spirit and Qat’muk.
Despite being subjected to 120 years of living on Indian Reserves, and decades of forced attendance at a Residential School at the St. Eugene Mission near Cranbrook, the Ktunaxa Nation continues to be a strong and thriving community. Today, there are more than 1,500 members in the BC communities of ?akisq?nuk, ?aq?am,?akink?um?asnuq?i?it, and yaqan nu?kiy. There are two Bands in Idaho and Montana connected by language and culture but politically independent.
The Ktunaxa Nation vision statement; “Strong, healthy citizens and communities, speaking our languages and celebrating who we are and our history in our ancestral homelands, working together, managing our lands and resources, within a self-sufficient, self-governing Nation.“
Visitors to the region can learn more about the Ktunaxa by visiting the St. Eugene Mission Interpretive Centre and the Fernie Museum. A pull-out near Michel Creek at the former townsite of Michel offers visitors further information about the Michel Plains people.
The Ktunaxa Nation Council is located in Cranbrook. You can learn more about their living culture and traditions here: Ktunaxa Nation.