Few Indians live in the Wallowa Country now, but Indians come here every year—maybe, even through war and exile, some few have always made their ways here to hunt and gather foods and be in this place. Now, they come to run Nez Perce Fisheries, to manage a small piece of Precious Land in the canyons, and in the summer for dances and parades. And there is a 320-acre place we call the Nez Perce Homeland Project near the town of Wallowa.
|Tamkaliks, Nez Perce Homeland, 2016|
Last Sunday, Nez Perce peoples from Colville, Umatilla, and Lapwai—Washington, Oregon, and Idaho—drummed, sang, and danced in the new Long House at that Nez Perce Homeland grounds. Most were descendants of the Joseph, or Wallowa, band of Nez Perce who made this country home for thousands of years before being forcibly removed in 1877.
The drumming and singing seemed louder and the dancing more spirited than I remember from past years, when services were held in the dance arbor; some of that heightening might have been my own emotions. There were smiles and tears among the bell ringers, drummer-singers, and dancers. Words too. Words of homecoming and thanks to the Creator and to all who have gone before and all who came together to build this Long House and make this homecoming possible.
I stood with Indian and non-Indian men on the north side of the Long House, facing the women on the south side with the sacred earthen floor, the wash, on which the dancers moved between us. Dancers were boys and girls, women and men, young and old; the drummers all men, included elders and sons of elders I have watched and listened to in the past.
Indians honor age and wisdom in ways that we in the majority culture seem less capable of. They mentor the young as well, passing on names and ceremony and regalia. Restrictions on these things, and on language and the length of hair, were pervasive a century ago; that these cultural artifacts and practices are alive today is a miracle.
No—it is fortitude and resilience, belief in land and place and people. When Europeans came to this continent, Indians died by the millions. They died in wars, but more of them of diseases that crept eerily among them before most Indians ever saw white men and women. In the northeast, diseases came ashore with fishermen who supplemented their fish-takes with furs and sometimes slaves for the old world. This before the Puritans landed in the early 17th century. On the north Pacific coast they came ashore with English and Russian and Spanish ships seeking otter and looking for rivers from the interior in the late 18th century. Inland, they preceded and followed free fur traders and Hudson’s Bay Company men as they made their ways from the East.
Lewis and Clark estimated 5,000 Nez Perce; an Indian friend thinks there might have been 20,000 before smallpox and measles and other European diseases.
Pieces of the Nez Perce story are carried from generation to generation in Indian country, and are told in books and carried too among whites. Last week a Marine pilot—announced by his cap—of Vietnam era told me that Marines still study the Nez Perce fighting retreat of 1877.
The story is carried in the hearts of tribal families whose ancestors endured exile and injustice. In 1877 these prayer songs sustained families struggling through the 1,400 mile-long retreat that we call the Nez Perce War, then bolstered them on the trains headed to Oklahoma after the surrender at Bears Paw and through years of exile, and carried them on the return train trip to the Northwest in 1884.
In order to bring us to Sunday, here is the briefest recap: Nez Perce (Niimíipu) and related Plateau people of what is now the Northwestern United States lived here for millennia. In the 1730s they got horses from the Southwest, probably through the Shoshone. In 1805 they befriended Lewis and Clark; in the 1830s allowed missionaries Henry and Eliza Spalding to put up a church in what is now Spalding, Idaho. In 1855 most bands of Nez Perce signed a treaty in Walla Walla negotiated by Isaac Stevens, allowing them to retain a huge chunk of territory stretching from present-day Wallowa County, Oregon to northern Idaho and northeast Washington.
In 1861 gold was discovered along the Clearwater, and in 1862, 18,000 illegal white miners flooded the reserved lands. In 1863 some bands signed a new treaty, which reduced the reservation by over 80 percent. This divided the Nez Perce into treaty and non-treaty bands. Joseph didn’t sign, but went home to the Wallowas, where no gold had been found. In 1877, crunched and dislocated by post-Civil War settlers, harassed by government troops smarting from Little Big Horn, Joseph and his people crossed the Snake River and headed for the reduced reservation in Idaho.
There were killings, and there was a war. Almost 1400 miles and six months later, Joseph surrendered, just 40 miles short of Canada at the Bears Paw, Montana. They were promised a return to the Northwest, but spent seven years in exile in Kansas and Indian Territory. The Nez Perce called it “the hot place.”
The Nez Perce did return to the Northwest, but were scattered on three reservations: those close to Joseph were sent to the Colville Reservation in Washington; some of the old and young were allowed to go to Lapwai, Idaho. Some who had escaped to Canada or elsewhere returned to the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon. Joseph himself was rebuffed when he tried to buy land in the Wallowas in 1900. He died in Colville in 1904.
On Sunday the Nez Perce returned to the Wallowas with singing and dancing and Nez Perce prayers. They shouted and banged, and after all of this they thanked the white people of this place who are trying to take care of the land now. And the Indian elders invited ministers of other faiths to use the new Indian church for their own prayers.
And then we all ate salmon and buffalo and elk. And we non-Indians watched the Indian dancers, and, invited, danced ourselves. They were proud in regalia passed down, maybe since the time of War, maybe hidden for decades, and maybe augmented by aunties last week. Proud in the language long suppressed in boarding schools. And all of us—maybe 600 Indians, whites and blacks—listened and looked out the east ends of the Long House and the dance arbor and knew this was a homecoming of special people to a special land.
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