by Kevin Taylor & r & Descendants of the area's indigenous peoples came to Drumheller Springs Park on Spokane's near northwest side last week in beefy crew-cab pickup trucks loaded with brush cutters and chainsaws, clippers, shovels and rakes.

Work crews from the Spokane, Coeur d'Alene, Kalispel and Colville Confederated tribes -- four-fifths of the Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT) -- showed up to clear brush and snags and overgrowth at a park UCUT had adopted through a newish city program.

They were about to get in touch with their roots in more ways than one. Drumheller Springs was a well-used camping site by early Indian travelers.

It was a strange scene. Clear sunny day. Bunch of outdoorsy folks in T-shirts and jeans and sturdy boots -- people who work in the woods, in other words -- leaning up against their rigs with arms crossed listening to a nicely dressed lady from Spokane City Parks give a safety and policy talk.

When she got to the part about how the city's urban forestry program requires a permit before lopping off any branches bigger than three inches in diameter, there was a long moment of silence.

Finally, one of the burliest of the workers clears his throat.

"Sooooo ... when are you leaving?"

The question from BJ Kieffer, leader of the Spokane Tribe's work crew, broke everybody up, even the city parks lady.

And as they laughed, everybody knew there was another reason making this a strange scene. The springs -- and the attendant grass, berries and edible roots -- had attracted folks to this bit of ground long before there were any whites here.

"We have camped here for thousands of years," says Glen Douglas, 78, an elder with the Lakes-Okanogan band of the Colville Confederated Tribes.

In a weird way, it's almost harder to get to Drumheller Springs Park by car today than by foot or horseback. The entrance to the parking area is a tight-right turn at the bottom of a downhill S-curve on busy Ash Street.

"I almost got rear-ended," Douglas said of an early attempt to reach the park. Spokane City Councilwoman Mary Verner -- who pitched UCUT to join the city adopt-a-park program -- said she, too, nearly wrecked her car the first time she tried to stop: "I had to go around."

Verner says she was at first attracted by a sign denoting Drumheller Springs as site of a school for Indian kids run by Spokane Garry. It has been a largely forgotten park, a simple natural area with no toys or picnic tables, and by August appears to be a baked-brown patch of knapweed and rocks.

Kieffer said he was not enthused when he first heard about the proposal that UCUT would adopt a Spokane park. "I was picturing a park with a playground," he said. "Early June was the first time I seen it. It was a day just like this. I was impressed. You've got this natural area right in the middle of a housing community."

Kieffer first saw the park with his counterpart Ray Entz, wildlife manager of the Kalispel Tribe's natural resources department, Verner and Bryan Flett of UCUT.

Walking the ground was like walking back in time.

"There were remnants of what native plant species would have been growing here back then," Kieffer says. "I was impressed with that. There was bitterroot growing in the rocks over here. There was camas.''

Some of the plants, most likely the camas, bitterroot and service berry, are survivors that can trace their roots, so to speak, for thousands of years near the springs.

Students from Rogers High School, in a combined biology-and-English class taught by Mary Porter and Cyndi Logan, planted other native species in 1993-94.

According to a parks department brochure, the students sought information from Spokane Tribe elders, historians, landowners, environmentalists and biologists before choosing plants typical of the area's shrub-steppe habitat.

Last week, the work crews tackled the lower end of the park, pruning and thinning long-ignored trees and shrubs. Before lunch, an area that had started as a tangle was transformed into what gardening books call open shade.

Flett stood under the canopy of tall trees and smiled as he looked around like a proud new homeowner.

As a staffer with UCUT, Flett hopes the project will raise the profile of the area tribes who once congregated at Spokane Falls but who are now relegated to the city's fringes.

Last week's brush clearing will be followed by efforts to spray knapweed, build trails and create interpretive signs about the native plants and the springs.

For Flett, a Spokane tribal member, part of the joy was cleaning up land where there is a direct thread to his past. "This was a campsite. Here in the middle of all these city blocks. I like to see things, not as they are today, but as it may have been 200 or 300 years ago. That's what I like to see, what I like to feel."

For Flett and for the workers from the assembled tribes, the feeling of standing on a piece of their own ground was still there beneath the overlay of the city.

ADOPT-A-PARK: Marion Severud of the Spokane Parks and Recreation Department says the city's adopt-a-park program has attracted 40 parties since it began in February. The "adoptions" range from one-time cleanup of Riverfront Park by 120 church kids to a lone man who goes to his favorite small park every Wednesday to clean or fix things, as needed. Write to or call 625-6297.

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About The Author

Kevin Taylor

Kevin Taylor is a staff writer for The Inlander. He has covered politics, the environment, police and the tribes, among many other things.