In July 2008, Phyllis Mott and family hosted an outing for Inland Northwest Land Conservancy members and guests to tour her property, recently protected with a conservation easement. Not only did we learn about the trees, birds, and plants, there was a surprise.
Each land trust acquisition is unique. Being invited to explore what private landowners preserve is such a privilege and an adventure. The recent visit to the Mott easement revealed what two visitors thought might be evidence of a cultural site of pit houses – subterranean depressions of Indian dwellings - in the soft duff of a beautiful cedar grove adjacent to Lake Cocolalla’s southern shore.
Looking at maps of tribal ceded lands it seemed obvious that the lake falls within the original territory of the Kalispel Indians, so a phone call to the tribe and an invitation to their archaeologist, led to another visit to the grove, with the Mott’s kind permission.
The archaeologist, Kevin Lyons, noted that the depressions were in a line…not the usual configuration of dwellings – that they were most likely what are called “tree throws,” a phenomenon occurring from a time before logging took the last stands of enormous white pine in the late 1800’s. When these trees fell, perhaps in a windstorm, their root balls brought soil wads with them. Over millennia the trees completely decomposed, leaving elongated depressions, and mounds of dirt where the roots released their soil wad.
Although Cocolalla Lake is in ceded Coeur d’Alene Indian land, and the name “Cocolalla” is an English derivation of a Coeur d’Alene Salish word meaning “deep water,” the Kalispels did have use of the lake. They would carry their boats overland from Sandpoint to it and fish its depths.
The archaeologist pointed out another human-made cultural feature on the Mott land just outside the cedar grove: a storage cache next to a glacial erratic in the meadow below Mrs. Mott’s hillside home. Nestled next to the rock was a pile of water-rounded cobbles, serving as capstones for whatever was stored beneath. He determined a general age of the site by examining the uniformity of the lichens growing on the erratic and the smaller stones.
Did we lead the archaeologist on a wild goose chase? No. So often, tribes do not get to revisit their original homelands. Most private owners prefer to keep archaeological features on their land secret so that if they choose to alter the landscape they will not be hindered by federal regulations protecting cultural sites.
The Mott family is a shining example of the thinking that values the story the land tells when one listens – and preserves and shares it.
This article first appeared in Inland Northwest Land Conservancy's Fall 2008 newsletter.