December 2022

How could my 80th year have been so good when the world went reeling with craziness and self-destruction? Do I need to list the events? The famines, droughts, floods, fires– volcanoes! And then, in the words of that old Kingston Trio song from the 50s, the human-caused tragedies.

“They’re rioting in Africa, there’s strife in Iran/ What nature doesn’t do to us/ Will be done by our fellow man.” 

Let me tell you about the good events at the end of my 80th year. The actual day, October 14, was not memorable. But Saturday, October 15, spent with Nez Perce elders, was one of the finest..

On that day some 16-18 Nez Perce, from young to elders, of the walwa ma band of the Nez Perce, still in exile from this ancient homeland on the Colville Reservation in Washington, joined a few Josephy Center workers and science folks on a trip to an old village site on the Minam River. None of the Nez Perce had been to this place; a few had never been back to the Wallowas at all! Local historian David Weaver had watched his father and uncle dig up artifacts from pit-houses at the site decades ago, and described the State dozing and flattening it for a State Park a few years later. 

The elders got out a bell and sang old songs from these lands, And then we looked and imagined. Looked at the railroad tracks across the river and imagined banks sloughing in; saw the marked site where A.C. Smith built a toll bridge to get settlers in in the early 1870s; saw dogbane, or Indian Hemp, across the river, which would have been the makings of cordage for fishnets. Saw natural fishing sites. And we imagined a seasonal village and Natives fishing, root-gathering, climbing to vision quest sites, living and breathing here all those years ago–some of those long-ago Nez Perce the direct ancestors of the Native people with us on that Saturday.

We stopped at another village and fishing site, near the original burial place of Chief Old Joseph. And then we all went to M.Crow in Lostine for pizza.  We filled the back room with Indians and my family, who had come to celebrate my birthday–son Matt and daughter-in-law Dawn, brother Phil, granddaughter Oriana and her friend, Michael, and ex-wife and still friend Judy all together. 

We ate pizza, and Soy Redthunder proposed another song–and led all in “Happy Birthday”; Doug Marconi apologized for not knowing it was my birthday, but conjured up a small packet with sage and herbal medicines. And I introduced them to my family, and teared up thanking them for the opportunity of being part of the Nez Perce return to this Homeland,

The longhouse service on Sunday morning filled the valley with drum sounds and voices. That afternoon there was a party at the Lostine Tavern celebrating 80 for friend Russell Ford and me.  Dozens of old friends and new came together for good food and cheer. The deer jumping on my hood on the way home even proved providential. Insurance totaled my CR-V, and we used the money to repair the Honda Element in Oriana’s back yard. The Element is now my favorite car ever.

For me, it’s been that kind of year, beginning with the Polar Plunge on January 1. In spring, we did an exhibit on Native Sport–it will go to Quinn Coliseum at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande in January. I spent two summer weeks in Turkey at Bilkent University talking with “American Studies” students about American Indians. And visiting one of my oldest and dearest friends, Adnan, and his wife, Ann. Later in summer and, as described above on October 15, we visited local landforms with geologists, botanists, and Nez Perce elders. We are calling this “Head and Heart,” and we look forward to many more such visits. Snake River in spring!

Yes, the world is going off the rails–again, or still–in many places, but Joe Biden, Deb Haaland at Interior, Chuck Sams at National Parks, Jaime PInkham in Defense, and Marilynn Malerba, Chief of the Mohegan Tribe and now US Treasurer, are heading a Native Revival– which cannot right old wrongs, but can acknowledge them and bring Native knowledge to current problems of air, water, and fire. And the Nez Perce returning to the Wallowa are part of this revival.

May all the good fortune of my 80th year and a spirit of renewal and revival continue-and spread to all of you!


  1. Happy Belated Birthday Rich! This all Does sound wonderful. I still have a scrap of memo paper with Joe Redthunder’s phone number on it, from long long long ago. Not sure why I’ve kept it… Seeing the name reminded me. All the webs of connection. I miss home very much.

  2. A classmate sent me your essay. It sounds like a wonderful day, even with so much peril in the world. I wish you many many more birthdays. Toby Decker.

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