|Veronica “Ronnie” and Albert Redstar (w me)|
Sometime this summer, Kathleen Ackley, director of the Wallowa Land Trust, asked me to put together a class about Nez Perce history for local agency and non-profit workers who work with tribes. She wanted me to recruit speakers from the Tribes to be part of the presentations. Her thought was that a better understanding of Tribal history and culture would lead to better working relationships.
So in good white-man fashion, I put together a series of five Thursday programs that would trace, roughly, the history and activities of the Nez Perce Indians in the Wallowas from ancient times to the present. It’s been good, and as always in these things, when you are asked to teach—or to organize teaching—you end up learning. In this case learning to rethink my own linear notions of time and space.
Last week was week four, and I had asked Albert Andrews Redstar and his sister, Veronica “Ronnie” Redstar, to talk about the period of exile for the Wallowa or Joseph band of the Nez Perce after the War of 1877. Their journey, which started in the Wallowas, went from War—the five month, 1400 mile fighting retreat that is chronicled in dozens of books—to exile in Indian Territory to exile on the Colville Reservation in north central Washington. I thought maybe they could talk about how they, the Wallowa or Joseph Band, had become divided from other Nez Perces, how living among the mostly Salish speakers of the other Indians on the Colville had been and is, and about continuing efforts of the American government and most of its population towards assimilation of Indian peoples.
From Albert’s opening words to their closing song—a song that traveled from the Wallowas to Bear’s Paw to Indian Territory to Colville, and now home—the notion that history is some kind of linear journey that we find ourselves on, propelled by the past on an arrow toward the future, I was reminded of how white and Judeo-Christian that notion of history is. The past, Albert and Ronnie told us, is not over and the future is not an arrow. Naming ancestors on paternal and maternal sides—and maternal and paternal sides of grandparents!—linked them and their children to names and places across miles and decades—even across what we would call tribal lines.
The exile has been profound—being cast out of the Wallowas, suffering in the “hot country,” and returned to live among Indians of other languages, cultures, and religions was and is often agonizing. But they showed us, in words and gesture and song, that this Wallowa Land is a lodestone, a true magnetic center that will not fade, and despite everything that has gone before, this land, which brings tears to them still as they come into it from afar, is still a joy to them.
Land and culture, fish, sky, words, and song, are not points or lines on a map—or in a book, but life that is held onto through family and ceremony.
There were stories of relations with people on the Umatilla Reservation and on the Nez Perce Reservation at Lapwai, stories of Nez Perce who did make it to Canada, fleeing cold and hunger at Bear’s Paw in Montana. There was a grandmother who took them to Catholic, Methodist, and Baptist churches—and to the Long House where Seven Drums is practiced. There was the pain of being called “heathen,” and the barriers that religion has fostered. And the pride and joy of leading a service, ringing a bell.
There is something about living orally, face to face, words to words, hand gesture and facial turns, that is both primal and excitingly “new” to an audience of white men and women steeped in books, screens, and electronic devices.
So thank you Albert and Ronnie—I wish I could write and say your Indian names, and maybe someday I will. Until then, many happy returns to your land. We’ll do our best to care for it while you are away.
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