The Colville Tribes' forebears subsisted along the eastern half of the Columbia River's tributaries. They communicated with similar Salishan languages and were nomadic until the mid-19th century, when fundamental changes to their way of life took hold.
Before the advent of Europeans in the early 19th century, the Colville tribes differentiated among themselves according to traditional river valleys, language, and villages. During the cold months, families stayed warm in communal mat lodges and sturdy pit dwellings. During warmer months they camped in mat or hide tents. Through the seasons, families trekked to promising locales to harvest salmon, their dietary mainstay; gather berries and roots, and hunt game. They believed foods possessed spiritual power; thanksgiving feasts were held in their honor. Wintertime dances and song served to acknowledge the spirits that sustained the land and water that yielded such generous gifts. To promote social cohesion, each band had a headman who consulted with a group of advisors about everyday concerns.
The first change to have an impact on the traditional lifeways of the aborigines was the advent of the horse in the middle of the 18th century, traceable to 15th century European explorers on the other side of the continent. The animal increased their mobility and range. The next big change became permanent in the first quarter of the 19th century with the beginning of trade with Europeans. British and American fur traders erected several posts in the region. They bartered with the Indians for coveted pelts in exchange for new technology and other attractive goods. For numerous natives, exchanging furs and other Indian items for the white man's goods and services became a permanent alternative to traditional ways of subsistence.
The middle of the 1800s ushered in a great and relentless wave of westward pioneers of various sorts, along such famous routes as the Oregon Trail. Their land-hungry encroachment would wreak a decisive change in native lifeways. The outsiders also obliviously introduced diseases against which the natives had no natural immunity. The river drainages became scenes of a drastic withering of indigenous populations.
In 1855, agents of the American government induced numerous Washington tribes to sign land-ceding treaties in exchange for smaller parcels reserved for them, but the forebears of the modern Colville tribes did not become signatories and move onto a reservation. Nevertheless, in 1872 President Ulysses S. Grant established the Colville Indian Reservation by Executive Order. The tribes were compelled to subsist on a parcel in the Washington Territory. The famed Chief Joseph and the remnant of his Wallowa Nez Percé band joined the original tribes on the Colville Reservation in 1885.*
In 1887, the Congress passed the General Allotment Act that granted small parcels of acreage to Indian individuals, including some of the Colville. Allotments were created with tribal lands, including the Colville Reservation.
Over the next several decades, various societal and governmental pressures would chip away at the size of the Colville Reservation. In the late 19th century, encroachment by gold miners and other prospectors began to swallow up Colville lands. In 1892, a huge segment of northern acreage was removed. In the 1930s, dams along the Columbia and increased American settlement further compromised Colville jurisdiction.
In 1934, Congress commenced to close down the government's allotment policy that began 1887. A year later, the Secretary of the Interior signed an directive to terminate the withdrawal status of Colville reservation lands.
On February 26, 1938, the American government endorsed the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation’s new constitution and bylaws. From this document, a governing unit and four voting districts were established.
In 1995, each member of Washington’s Colville Confederated Tribes received a federal check in the amount of $5,989 to compensate for acreage confiscated to construct the Grand Coulee Dam in 1933.