Ktunaxa (Kootenay) are divided into "Upper" and "Lower" divisions, respectively occupying eastern and western portions of their plateau habitat. The Kootenay River in southeastern BC served as the unifying centre of their Aboriginal territory and culture, provided many of their subsistence needs, and was also the location for their villages and a means of transportation. The term "Kootenay" is an anglicized form of either a Peigan or an old Ktunaxa word. Ktunaxa is a language isolate (see Aboriginal Languages of Canada).
The various bands of the Upper and Lower Ktunaxa were well adapted to their somewhat different natural environments. The Upper Ktunaxa exploited a greater abundance of big-game animals (deer, caribou, elk, mountain sheep and goat), while the Lower Ktunaxa relied more on fish and other aquatic resources. The Upper Ktunaxa undertook annual bison hunts over the Continental Divide, probably after acquiring the horse. This intensified their contact with Plains cultures, resulting in their adoption of a veneer of Plains culture traits apparent after 1800 (see Aboriginal People: Plains).
Early Economic and Social System
The lands along the Kootenay River were segmented into band or group territories. Shifting residence patterns allowed utilization of various economic resources according to the season. Men fished, hunted and, when necessary, cared for horses. In addition to child rearing, women were responsible for root gathering, preparation of food and hides, and making clothing. The Ktunaxa kinship system was bilateral but lacked lineages or clans (see Clan). Reciprocal exchange among relatives was the principal means of redistributing economic goods, acquiring protection and achieving social status. When the Ktunaxa bands were in their winter villages, each was under the relatively informal leadership of a man respected for his success in accumulating wealth and for his generosity. With adoption of the horse, certain bands came to rely more on the bison, and more powerful leaders emerged. A principal sodality, the "Crazy Dogs," was composed of warriors who functioned as a police unit within the band and during bison hunting and was probably borrowed from the Plains. Other sodalities included the "Crazy-Owl" society for women and shamanistic groups such as the Conjuring or Blanket societies (see Shaman).
As seen in their mythology, Ktunaxa regarded the Earth as an island surrounded by water, covered by the dome of the sky. The supernatural side of man was his soul, but humans also possessed numerous personal spirits who were often associated with the rivers and their cascades. The spirits offered their powers to the Ktunaxa, who sought them through "vision quests." The principal ceremonies today are the Conjuring or Blanket ceremony and the sweat lodge ceremony. Other rites include the Sun Dance, the Bluejay Dance and the Grizzly Bear, Game Calling and First Fruits ceremonies.
Although semisubterranean pit houses have been reported, the Lower Ktunaxa usually occupied long, mat-covered lodges similar to those of the neighbouring Interior Salish. During summer, temporary conical lodges covered by boughs of spruce or fir bark were used. After adopting the horse, the Upper Ktunaxa replaced brush shelters by the skin-covered tipi.
Most of the contemporary Ktunaxa of Canada are located on the five reserves of Columbia Lake, Lower Ktunaxa, St Mary's, Shuswap and Tobacco Plains. Although severely decimated by epidemics in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Ktunaxa population began to stabilize in the late 19th century. There were 1033 registered Ktunaxa in 1996. They earn their living from wage labour and a few band enterprises. Their band councils are working to improve health and education, and are participants in the movement to secure land claims settlements for their extensive Aboriginal territory.