For the first time in maybe a century, ceremonial songs of the Coeur d’Alene tribe floated across Cottonwood Bay on Lake Coeur d’Alene last spring. The Coeur d’Alenes were reclaiming a portion of their ancestral lands, a place where they can connect with their past and create a future of education and counseling programs for their children and families.
The site, Camp Larson, was an educational venture started by a group of Washington State University instructors nearly 50 years ago, when Roger Larson and several colleagues found the picturesque property for sale at the south end of the Idaho lake. Through the University they created Camp Easter Seal, where children with disabilities could escape the confines of their homes and swim in a lake, sit by a campfire, and sleep in the woods. One yellowed newspaper story described it as a treat, rather than a treatment.
The camp, located more than an hour north of Pullman, had a second purpose as a field school for WSU education students. Larson threw himself into running the facility, moving his wife and daughters there every summer and organizing volunteers to build and maintain the cabins. In the 1980s the WSU Board of Regents renamed the camp for Larson, recognizing the man who gave so much of himself to the campers and the student counselors.
But time, age, and budgets have forced the University to rethink its use of the camp. Because the buildings were outdated and the facilities needed $2.5 million in repairs to be brought up to code, the school closed Camp Larson a couple of years ago. Absent the sights and sounds of children at play, what remains is a modest cluster of buildings, a beautiful lawn, and 700 feet of lakefront.
Now the tribe has purchased the 36-acre summer camp for $1.4 million, pledging another $1 million to support Native American education at WSU. “The spirit of this place reflects the good people that have served and been served here,” said WSU president V. Lane Rawlins at a ceremonial exchange of the property. “This is obviously a very special piece of the world.”
It is a spiritual place and will be a home for tribal meetings and youth and family programs, said Marjorie Zarate, the tribe’s director of education. The tribe plans to use the site only for its members.
For centuries before white settlers came to the area, the Coeur d’Alenes wintered along the lake’s southwest shore. “It’s not our fault we were chased away from these waters. Now, today we return,” said Felix Aripa, an elder who has worked with archaeologists to recover information about the tribe’s connection with the lake.
Larson’s family was sad to see the University sell the camp. You couldn’t have asked for a better childhood, living at the lake and working with children who just delighted in being there, says Margi Vogel, Larson’s youngest daughter. But the Larson sisters and their mother Lucille took some comfort in the property going to a historically underserved community, a community that will use the camp to improve the lives of its children and families. That is something her father would have liked, says Vogel.
After the ceremony, a few members of the tribe walked to the dock to look back at the camp from over the lake. Meanwhile a small group formed a drum circle on the lawn halfway between the dining hall and the shore, and several young men headed for the concrete basketball court on the south side of the property.
Virginia Matt, 76, and her older sister, Lavinia Alexander, stepped out of the dining hall into the sunlight, with ceremonial blankets around their shoulders.
“So this is ours?” said Matt, who has 10 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. She smiled. “I like it. We can bring our families here.”