Stone Age Kettle Falls

David H. Chance, author of People of the Falls, the book containing the material on which this article was built, was principal investigator with his wife, of the archeology at Kettle Falls, before the building of Grand Coulee Dam. 

1930 aerial photo of Kettle Falls

The Columbia, in its natural state had the richest migratory fish resource in the world. It was becoming so, more than 9,000 years ago, and it remained so until the nineteenth century.

The falls as they appeared to American explorers in 1853.
Engraving based on art by John Mix Stanley.  Copied from
Isaac Stevens’ report of exploration for the northern railroad
route to the Pacific.

Kettle Falls was innundated in 1940, by the waters of Grand Coulee Dam.  On June 14, members of tribes from the Colville Reservation, Tulalips from Western Washington, Blackfoot from Montana, and Nez Perce, Yakimas, Flatheads, & Coeur d’Alenes gathered for a three day Ceremony of Tears, to mark the end of a way of life that had developed over thousands of years.

Map of Shonitkwu – the Kettle Falls of the Columbia.
Courtesy of David H. Chance

Kettle Falls is the location of one of the most productive stone tool “early man” sites in the Western Hemisphere. Deposited 9,000 years ago, and discovered during the archaeological investigations at Kettle Falls, were over 2,500 stone artifacts, buried beneath the deep sands of two of the narrow benches on the east side of Hayes Island. “No single early cultural layer in the Americas has exhibited a density of tools quite like that found in the Shonitkwu site on the southearstern side of Hayes Island,” David Chance informs us.

Kettle Falls

In the language of stone—its geology and the places where stone is found—Kettle Falls is said to be one of the famous great places.

Slanted across the Columbia River in many layers are gleaming slabs of cryptocrystalline quartzite. Across the layers lay flat-toped ledges, pockmarked with large cup-like holes, made by boulders crashing onto the surface during the time of the melting Ice Age glaciers.

At Shonitkwu, the Salish name for what became Kettle Falls, the great bazaar on the upper Columbia attracted the attention of French explorers. The pock-marked features on the flat tops of the Falls reminded them of Les Chaudieres — copper kettles.  So they called this place Kettle Falls.

That is how the name of Kettle Falls was born.

The Golden Age

For 1,000 years, from 600 BC to 300 AD, Salish speaking people were found at the Takumask Fishery at Kettle Falls on an annual basis.

Over time, a great fishery developed at Kettle Falls drawing gatherings of Salish families and clans for fishing, trade & socializing from throughout the Interior Northwest Plateau. This pattern of stoneage trekking lasted for thousands of years.

By 850 AD, A Golden Age at Kettle Falls had developed that lasted another 1,000 years. David Chance named this period Sinaikst, after the Arrow Lakes tribe that lived along the upper Columbia, and were the principle partnership tribe that ran the fishery alongside the Kettle Falls Indians.

Wall Street of the Upper Columbia

In the summer of 1811 the explorer, David Thompson, found a village of well-constructed houses at Kettle Falls. Thompson said that of all the Indian settlements he saw during a career in the fur trade that spanned two-thirds of the continent, this village impressed him the most for its size, its construction, and for the people who lived in it.  The village was, in Thompson’s words, “a kind of general rendevous for news, trade and settling disputes, in which these villagers acted as arbitrators as they never join any war party.”  It was, in short, the center of civilization of this part of the river, Chance concludes.

Part of the village at Takumaskt (the Fishery). An oil painting made by Paul Kane after his visit in 1847. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.

During the summer fishing season, most of the Colviles converged on Kettle Falls to form a large village at Takumakst, the Fishery, consisting of 50 or more summer houses. Chance describes these “interesting” houses as having raised floors – off the ground on cross poles, possibly to get away from fleas, or most probably, to set up racks for wind drying salmon – the longest lasting salmon product.


The lower falls as painted by Paul Kane in oils after his visit of 1847. Three J-shape basket traps are visible. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum.


David Chance tells us that an astonishingly vivid description of the basket traps was authored by Jesuit Misssionary, Pierre Jean DeSmet:

The basket is made of willow, from fifteen to twenty feet long, five or six wide, and about four feet deep, with a high back upon one side, which is designed to rise above the surface of the water. A stick of timber is firmly anchored in the rocks below the falls, extending out over the stream twenty or thirty feet. To this the basket is suspended, and so far submerged as to leave the back  just above the water upstream, while the opposite side is several inches below the surface of the water, and downstream. The ascending salmon rise up the side of the basket and spring into it, where they are held, their passage up being arrested by the high back; and as they never turn their heads down the current they are retained securely. After the basket in this manner is well filled, a man descends into it and hands out the fish. Two hundred salmon, weighing from six to forty pounds each, have been caught in this way in a few hours. They are also speared in great numbers. It was a common occurrence…to take three thousand salmon in a day, since there was no limit to their numbers, and a whole band of Indians were engaged in the work. The fish were divided equally among the women each day, the number of females in each family forming the basis of distribution.

Kinkinahwa, Salmon Chief

Trust and group identity are very important for groups of humans. The chief at Kettle Falls was chosen for his impartial and wise judgement – his ability to settle disputes,  and was known far and wide for the wise counsel of his people.

The Sinaikst

Extensive wetlands covered their territory. The Sinaikst invented a unique
canoe, the Sturgeon-nosed Bark Canoe, that could paddle through the tules.
Courtesy of Eastern Washington State Historical Society, Spokane WA.

Anthropologists are in agreement that the Sinaikst exhibited a high degree of cultural complexity. Their territory extended to the headwaters of the Columbia River & Arrow Lakes.  They hunted caribou, moose, elk and mule deer to supplement their diet during the long cold winters.

 The Colvilles

Originally, from deep in antiquity, Chance tells us, their name for themselves was Shwayip. They were also known as the Kettle Falls Indians, and finally, after European arrival, the Colvilles.

Twenty or more wintering bands of Colvilles would have stretched from the Little Dalles, 30 miles above Kettle Falls, on down the Columbia to Rogers Bar, with a few each for the Kettle and Colville Valleys.

The Golden Age presided over by the Shwayip and Sinaikst came to a mysterious end about 1400 AD.  Massive fires burned at the Takumakst Fishery at the most commanding of the overlooks. The origin of the fires was not necessarily violent, David Chance states. But the fires correlated with the population reduction which took place even before European diseases decimated the population.  Some mysterious malady had overtaken the People, even before their splendid culture at Kettle Falls was ended by the building of Grand Coulee Dam.


The stone at Kettle Falls is a gleaming white crystalline quartzite, laid down as sand 200 million years ago. It was tough and vitrified enough to be an important source of stone for making cutting tools; in fact, David Chance says, the falls were the greatest stone tool quarry known in the Pacific Northwest. Well over half a million tools of this material still lie strewn about the outcrops.


Sinaikst dart point                                “Takumaskt chopper” of Kettle Falls quartzite

Camas Hazelnuts & Hucklberries

While whole families were camped at the Fisheries, some women and children would leave camp to harvest roots and herbs nearby. Over 450 plants were known and used by the Colvilles, David Chance tells us. Arrowleaf balsam root grows all around Kettle Falls, and hazelnuts are found on the sides of the valley. Camas root was dug 50 miles to the east of Kettle Falls over the Kalispell Trail. Chokecherry, service berry, wild onions, potatoes, and celery were found nearby. Well over 100 plants were used for building materials and clothing such as rain capes made of cedar bark, which were worn by both men and women. 130 species were collected for medicinal use within a range of 100 miles.


Timeline of Human Presence
at Kettle Falls

Years Ago

Era Name 


9,000 ya Shonitkwu  2 cold but warming
8,000 to 5,000 ya Slawntehus 8 hot, dry
4,800 ya Ksunku 10 similar to today
4,100 ya Skitak 12 severe heat, flooding
3,300 ya Skitak ends flooding ceases
2,600 ya Tukumakst 14 similar to today
1,700 ya Sinaikst 16 like today
1,150 to 150 ya Golden Age 17 like today
600 ya to Present Shwayip 18 like today

2—Shonitkwu (Salish for Kettle falls). Shonitkwu is the name archeologists gave to this “early human” site at Kettle Falls. Over 2,500 stone tools were uncovered from beneath tons of flood deposits.

8—Slawntehus. For about one thousand years small family sized groups camped along the high benches above the Columbia River, extending into the upper Columbia region. Their tools were very simple: broken cobbles. Then followed 2,000 years or so of almost no human activities at Kettle Falls.

10—Ksunku is the Salish word for Hayes Island. Ksunku people were energetic makers of stone tools, and users of local resources, including salmon and roots.

12—Skitak. Series of severe flooding events, repeating for nearly 1,000 years, erased most evidence of human occupation along Columbia and Snake Rivers. This period of flooding ends about 3,300 ya (1,300 BC), a time which has been marked as a major climatic boundary by WSU pollen research extracted from bogs near Kettle Falls.

14—Tukumakst (Kettle Falls Peninsula). The first evidence of fishing the Kettle Falls peninsula occurs, alongside new use of Hayes Island for underground food caches. Large cooking ovens suggest greater harvest by greater numbers of people. Yearly harvest cycle is evident from occupation of campsites on a regularly recurring basis.  Cultural evidence suggest that northern Salish speaking peoples are coming to Kettle Falls each summer in greater abundance.

16—Sinaikst (Lakes Tribe). During the next 500 years or so, evidence from camp sites at Kettle Falls shows that different tribes were coming to the same site each year to participate in the growing gathering of tribes for the summer fishery. By AD 850, Kettle Falls had become a great trading and fishing site, and remained so for 1,000 years.

17—Golden Age. Diverse groups from throughout the Plateau camped at the Kettle Falls fishery.

18—Shwayip (Colville). For one thousand years, Kettle Falls was the most important regional fishing, gathering, and trading site on the upper Columbia River. Evidence from archeological digs demonstrates the deep continuity of human presence and activity at the site, illustrated by the descriptions of explorers, David Thompson and the paintings of the artist, Paul Kane, among others. Colville Tribal artists have created vivid scenes of life at Kettle Falls in the Colville Tribal Museum at Coulee Dam, WA.

Two winter-villages were established on Hayes Island. Remains of food supplies show that fish and plant foods furnished the diet of the peoples. Significant cultural deposits occurred at many places along the upper Columbia. Pit house villages are most common during this era throughout the Columbia Basin. The Indian population all along the River was at its maximum; life was economically stable.

© 2018 Jeré Gillespie

Statement of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation:

Dr. David Chance completed archaeological work in the Kettle Falls area by the mid-1970s. The tribal community recognizes and appreciates Dr. Chance’s contributions to the archaeology and ethnography of the area. Dr. Chance trained academically as a historian, influenced by the theories and hypotheses of his discipline at that time. It was a time when historians viewed earlier people through a lens of migrations, population displacement, and diffusion of ideas from distant places. Sometimes, different assemblages of artifact types were recognized as the presence of different people, more than as a reflection of different tasks or different seasonal activities. Thus, a residential winter village and an autumn fishing camp might represent different populations, rather than just different functions performed by the same people. Other researchers, tribal and non-tribal, amassed volumes of data since Dr. Chance’s work at Kettle Falls. Anthropological theories are now applied to the data and new methods of research are now available. Based on interpretations of the all the data, and utilizing the result of radiometric dating and DNA analysis, current trends support the local development through time by the ancestors of the current Native American population. No longer are migrations and population movement used to interpret the culture and history of the people inhabiting the Kettle Falls area for the last 10,000 years.

Palmer Lake—Stone Tools

9,600 years ago, a small group trekked across the North Cascades, then turned north.

The Ice Age had ended. Towering mountains of ice had melted forming vast lakes which sent their waters 300 miles into the Pacific Ocean.

The People needed to avoid the rushing meltwaters, and so they headed north, away from their destructive power.

Some miles up the Cascades, they found Palmer Lake. The lake lay up against Chopaka Mountain.  Streams trickled off the mountain watering a rich wetlands below. The people had found a place to survive!

Food and Medicine plants revealed themselves.

Birds and their eggs, mollusks, antlered animals  – fed them.

They would survive and endure.


Beyond Palmer Lake, around the bend in the upper Similkameen River country,  a special type of stone was buried in deep beds.

You may know the mineral obsidian.  Often black or red, it is extremely sharp, sharp enough to be used for surgery.

The science of it is wiki awesome. Obsidian is a cryptocrystalline silicate, wickedly sharp because of its concoidal structure, a structure which is an essential characteristic of the stone used in Stone Age tool making.

Flint Knapping – using cryptocrystalline rock, is the basis of making stone tools.  Flakes are chipped by a precise technolgy. Imagine the handsome and lethal technolgy of mammoth killing Clovis points.

The first settlements of stone age people were at sites where they found tool making stone.

Palmer Lake people would have discovered the quarry at Stirling Creek, a tributary to the upper Similkameen River.

The crystalline stone found there was the earliest known source of stone age rock in the Interior Plateau of the Pacific Northwest.

From Palmer Lake to Flathead Lake, indigenous peoples, with their tools of stone,  survived and prospered.

© 2018—Jeré Gillespie

1. “A Plateau Microblade Tradition Site: Upper Similkameen Valley, BC.” By Stanley A. Copp. Langara College. April 17, 1997. Northwest Anthropology Conference. Ellensburg, WA. [Revised 17 May 1998].
2. “America Before the European Invasions.” By Alice Beck Kehoe. 2002. Pearson Education Limited. Harlow [Great Britain]. 
3. “Complex Hunter-Gatherers: Evolution and Organization of Prehistoric Communities on the Plateau of Northwestern North America.” Edited by Wm C. Pretiss and Ian Kuijt. 2004. University of Utah. Salt Lake City, UT.
4. “Similkameen River Multipurpose Project Feasibility Study, Cultural Resource Reconnaissance.” Corps of Engineers, Seattle District. 1987. Defense Technical Information Center []. Salo, Lawr. V. 
5. “Of Time and Wildness in the North Cascades.” By Tim Steury, Washington State Magazine, Spring 2010. Washington State University.


Why I’m Writing This Blog

My name is Jeré Gillespie and this is my blog.

For about a decade, I have wanted to write about the Stone Age.  For some of those years, I was an instructor at Nespelem, Washington, on the Colville Reservation. One of my jobs was to assemble curriculum for the classes I taught. There I came upon the importance of the Stone Age, and especially its happenings right here in the Pacific Northwest.

The migrations of the people who were the ancestors of my employers, The Colville Tribe, had trekked across Europe, the Baltics, Siberia, eventually arriving at the Bearing Strait, during the end of the Ice Age. They walked, and they built boats that took them along the coastlines of the Asian and North American coastlines.

Stories of those epic, heroic migrations are the legends and lore, the sacred memories of the indigenous people who live here now.

Stone Age peoples survived for several million years. They traveled together in small families and clans.  They cooperated with one another – which became the key to their, and our survival.

The Stone Age ended after people learned to grow food, about 10,000 years ago.  Food storage, and its control introduced hoarding, vast accumulations of wealth, corporate and military control. The economic & military realities we live with today are the legacies of the establishment of agriculture at the end of the Stone Age!

Stone Age cultures can teach us what we need to know for the sake of the survival of our Earth and Ourselves.

Stone Age people had to get along together for mutual survival. They piled up several million years, trekking for survival.  They have much to teach us.

They knew how to survive, and I’ll bet they still do.  Stone Age Trek explores the stories.

©2018—Jeré Gillespie