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Remembering Billy Curlew


One of my favorite family photographs shows Billy Curlew, then close to 63, holding the team. My uncle Clair is sitting on the rail, my aunt Eleanor standing right foreground, and my grandfather Sam Seaton standing behind. It was taken about 1925 (based on the apparent ages of Clair, born in September 1915, and Eleanor, about two years older).

Billy Curlew was born in 1862 while his band was on a root-digging trip to the present Ephrata - Soap Lake area, at a summer village site called En Tach Wa Num. Orphaned soon after birth in 1862,  he was raised in the household of Chief Moses of the Kawachkina or Columbias. Billy's Indian name was Cul Lul Kah Low (Like Turning). When he was a boy, he usually lived during the winter at the permanent village of Kum Muk A Quatch (Small Hill by the Water), thirty miles upstream from Vantage near the upper end of Crescent Bar. This was the home village of Moses during winter. Billy's grandfather and Moses' grandfather appear to have been brothers.

From 1884 on, he lived on the Colville Reservation. Billy was known as one of the most able, reliable horsemen among the Indians. In July 1919, at the Indian Celebration at Inchelium, on a hot race he wagered $500 that his buckskin horse would run the 20-mile rough road from Kettle Falls to Inchelium faster than two big Canadian Indians could paddle their light canoe down the foaming Columbia, through whirlpools and dangerous drift. Few people backed the horse, so Billy was able to obtain odds. Later he refused $2,000 for the horse.

The town of Curlew was named for him. He was elected chief of the Colville Indian tribe in 1936. He died May 25, 1961, two days after the funeral of Chief Jim James.

Words and picture by Sam Taschereau, Them Dam Writers online

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