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Indian tribe's business venture lifts hopes in a corner of Idaho

A tiny band of Native Americans that declared war on the United States in 1974 and subsequently won control over its northern Idaho tribal lands is taking a second step toward self-sufficiency. The Kootenai Indian tribe's local members, some 70 in number, have built, with federally backed loans, a $2.5 million, 48-room motel on the banks of the Kootenai River here. They hope the project will solve their unemployment problems and that profits from it will finance scholarships and other educational programs for generations to come.

When the Kootenai River Inn opened Dec. 1, tribe members became major players in the local economy. Like other resource-based economies in the US, the Bonners Ferry area - primarily sustained by timber and farming - has been hard hit in recent years.

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Although business leaders here admit that the new Best Western motel will take some business from smaller local inns clientele, they say the overall boost to the area economy will benefit everyone. They are pleased over the 50 new jobs the Kootenai River Inn has created and feel that the motel's presence may draw more tourists to Idaho's northern tip.

Less than an hour from the Canadian border, the inn will cater to Canadian tourists, said Raymond Abraham, the tribe's chief and economic development director. The motel-restaurant is more than just a place to work for the Indians, Mr. Abraham says. It has raised the hopes of tribe members. ``Years ago, there was no employment here for our people,'' he says. ``Opening this project is opening the door.''

The Kootenai chief says that he has seen a marked drop in alcoholism among tribe members, although he has no specific statistics. ``They have something now that they can look forward to,'' Abraham explained.

The tribe's goal is eventually to have the motel managed and staffed entirely by Kootenai. There were just eight on staff when the inn opened. As part of the management contract with an Idaho-based firm, the tribe's members are to be trained in hotel management.

Until 1974 the Kootenai were landless as a tribe. When the US government signed the 1855 Hellgate Treaty with the tribes in western Montana and Idaho, the tiny Kootenai band was overlooked.

Tribe members had individual landholdings, but as the result of legal action stemming from the attention-getting declaration of war, the Kootenai obtained 18 contiguous acres along the Kootenai River.

Forward-looking members of the tribal council took the lead in writing a comprehensive plan for the future. Tribe members were polled to determine what business ventures should be pursued.

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A hide-tanning factory and a grocery store lost out. The hospitality industry appealed to these people, whom Abraham says are accustomed to sharing homes, vehicles, and food.

But there was much to be done before the tribe was ready to take on the complexities of a major business venture.

As a first step, the tribal council worked to put the Indians in charge of their community near the historic St. Michaels mission north of Bonners Ferry. Slowly, non-Indians hired by the US Bureau of Indian Affairs to run the community's affairs have been replaced by Kootenai trained to perform bookkeeping, social service, and cultural-preservation functions.

``I think it's been a lesson to this tribe. Where you've had to struggle from day one to get to where you are today, it puts a good feeling because you know you can accomplish something,'' Abraham said.

He said the hiring of a management company to open the inn and run it until the tribe can will help ensure the success of the project. ``The failure of a lot of Indian businesses is because the tribe wants to manage them on their own.''

The new motel will have tax-free status, since it has been made a part of the Indian reservation. However, guests will pay a room tax that will go to local government in lieu of property taxes.

Local leaders are enthusiastic about the tribe's new role as an employer for townsfolk. ``I think that this project has done wonders for their image here and for their own self-image. I think it's wonderful,'' says Bonners Ferry Chamber of Commerce president Mark Graham.

Tribal leader Abraham says he is aware that he is leading the Kootenai into a role far removed from tribal tradition. But the old ways will not be forgotten. While the Kootenai River Inn is a standard Best Western-style motel complete with an indoor pool, Indian artifacts and other reminders of the native-American culture will be on display amid the thoroughly modern finishings.

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