A group of seven Nez Perce artists and writers who call themselves luk’upsíimey—“North Star”– Collective has been together at the Nez Perce Wallowa Homeland for the past week, practicing their art, learning and relearning their language together. They are college professors and language teachers, visual artists and wordmakers, from California and Arizona, Philadelphia and Lapwai, who came together in this Wallowa place that echoes their ancient common nimiipuu –Nez Perce–language.
On Friday night they came to the Josephy Center to say their poems and stories in Nez Perce and English. Two of the seven, Phil Cash Cash and Kellen Trenal, have work in the current exhibit, “Nez Perce Treaties and Reservations: 1855-Present.” We heard from them about the art, and heard Phil play the Indian flute and watched Kellen dance.
I’ve been at this Josephy Center work for almost ten years. We’ve been successful as an organization, making our way through the pandemic with virtual and hybrid programs about Covid and Fire, Natural Resources and the local health care system, making and giving away over 1000 art bags with individual supplies and art projects to children and parents. But this exhibit and Friday night’s words and music have been a highlight for me, and the surest proof that our work is important.
People are reading the words of the exhibit, seeing how white men’s words helped dispossess Indians of their lands, how promises made were not kept, how hopes were dashed and treaty words and the Nez Perce War of 1877 divided an Indian nation. But learning too how the words of those same treaties still have legal currency, and the Nez Perce are fishing, hunting, and gathering today in “usual and accustomed places” as promised almost 150 years ago.
Historian Bill Lang and his wife, Maryanne, drove from Portland to be at Friday’s event. As they were leaving, I asked—knowing the answer by the looks on their faces—whether the drive had been worth it. Rich, Bill said, and I paraphrase: “I’ve been reading treaty language and Indian speeches from across the country, and especially the Northwest, for years. And those Indian words always end with ‘I have spoken my heart’; we heard seven nimiipuu artists speak their hearts tonight.”
At the end of the evening, we all learned to say qe’ci’yew’yew’, which is “Thank you.” I say it again, qe’ci’yew’yew’.
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