Traveling with the Elders

Two weeks ago, my library partner, Kolle Kahle Riggs, and I went on a trip up the Snake River with science folks, a Yakima videographer, two young Nez Perce photographers, and Nez Perce elders from the three reservations in the Northwest, where most people of Nez Perce ancestry are enrolled. Two young daughters and an interested boat captain rounded out our crew.

Our goal was to see the Snake River canyon from the eyes of geologists—and through the lens of Nez Perce story and history. It was a noisy jet boat upriver rather than a quiet drift down river, but far gentler on the joints and limbs for Native elders and this non-Native old guy.

We will be digesting notes, video footage and still photos for a long time, but for now I wanted to tell people what a privilege it is to be with people who have lived this country for millennia. I say “lived this country” rather than lived in this country for a reason. As one of the elders pondered the question of the Nez Perce word for “land,” he said that there was no connotation of “ownership.” “We lived with the land and the water, not separate from them”; and “they are not things to own.” The Aoki Nez Perce dictionary gives “property” as “packed for travel,” gives synonyms of “goods” or “wealth.” The ideas of land and ownership are not tied together in the language, the elders agreed.

That’s a sobering notion, and as we went up and down the river, found pit-house depressions and speculated about river crossings, the land and water were indeed so much bigger than us that it seemed impossible that a human could consider them owned property. Indeed, cattle ranchers in the canyon operate on government land and don’t have much use for fence in canyon country—they move across and use its grasses with natural boundaries. The buildings along the river corridor—fancy houses and small weather-beaten shacks—seem insignificant against the landscape.

When the ideas of land and ownership are divorced, it is easier to connect to other humans and to the past. We listened as elders figured the ways that their ancestors had crossed the Snake and Salmon rivers, as old friend and Nez Perce elder Allen Pinkham Sr. described a route traveled by ancestors all the way to Cincinnati, as Native speakers tested their language for similarities and differences in dialects and accents. As they remembered stories from “historical” and “legend” times. The land and water worked their nature to connect us—to each other, and to the past.

Bu there was more. After the river days, we went to Tolo Lake and Cooper’s Ferry.

At Tolo Lake we read the interpretive signs about findings of saber-tooth tigers and mammoths, and listened carefully as the migration route of the walwa ma band was traced from wala wa country across the Snake and Salmon rivers and to a plentiful camas grounds surrounding Tolo Lake. I’d read in the history books that the fleeing walwa ma band of the Nez Perce had camped there and that it was the place from which the young men rode and attacked anti-Indian settlers. How this was in a sense the origin point of the War of 1877.

But we learned that it was a regular camping place, that four or five bands would camp here on their way to the Weippe Prairie. I could imagine four or five circles of tipis—like photos I have of gatherings at Nespelem and Lapwai more than a century ago—around that lake. Could imagine first food feasts and horse races.

I’ll leave Cooper’s Ferry and the ancient Nez Perce village of nipéhe for another time. Now I will rest in the memories of old knowledge and elder talk. And say qe’ci’yew’yew’ to them for sharing your days with us.

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