Lower Snake River Dams

On Thursday, May 22, new Nez Perce Executive Committee Chair Shannon Wheeler addressed a lively Josephy Center audience on the current status of the Lower Snake River Dams. Kyle Smith of American Rivers, who has the newly created role of “Snake River Director” for American Rivers, gave an introductory slide tour of the current state of affairs, but Chairman Wheeler carried the load.

He started with salmon’s role in the Nez Perce creation story, moved on to Native loss of land and habitat, and quickly covered Idaho Representative Mike Simpson’s Columbia Basin Initiative. Shannon Wheeler is obviously a smart and aware negotiator, dealing easily with political and agency people from Idaho, Washington, and Oregon to the White House. But the thing in his presentation that stood out in my mind is that his people know what it is like to be on the losing end of water/land transactions, and want to make sure that players other than salmon and the Indian people are not similarly harmed in current negotiations.

Check out the entire presentation here–and let us know what you think;


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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More on the DOD–Doctrine of Discovery

Katy Nesbit, writer and now cleric at the local Episcopal church, dropped a book off recently, just a few days after the Vatican rescinded its Doctrine of Discovery. I had not thought much about next steps, about how we might unravel what centuries of this obscure but powerful doctrine has meant and still means to indigenous peoples across the world.Read Rich’s Post →

Catholics–and Providentialism

It would be easy now to pile on the Catholic Church—especially its hierarchy. The Vatican’s recent “repudiation” of the Doctrine of Discovery has been followed by the Maryland Attorney General’s announcement of “staggering sexual abuse” by church officials in his state. The Associated Press reported that “More than 150 Catholic priests and others associated with the Archdiocese of Baltimore sexually abused over 600 children and often escaped accountability.” The documented abuse occurred over a span of 80 years, and was accompanied by decades of coverups. More money was spent on treatment and rehabilitation of perpetrators than on that of victims. And the Attorney General said that similar studies were addressing abuse in other dioceses.Read Rich’s Post →

Vatican rescinds “Doctrine of Discovery”

I have written and spoken about the impact of the “Doctrine of Discovery” on Native American affairs for years. This “new” news from the Vatican is astounding. I think that, for the most part, the Vatican and the Catholics in general have tried to forget this piece of “ancient” history that basically says that Christian nations have the right to discover—and rule over—lands inhabited by non-Christians. In other words, all of the Americas were subject to the doctrine, and our USA, in Supreme Court opinions developed by Chief Justice John Marshall in the 1820s and 1830s, declared “that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.” Native peoples were left with a doctrine of “occupancy” and “limited sovereignty.”Read Rich’s Post →

Alvin Josephy, Custer, the Indian Story—and Vietnam

On Thursday night we watched a “rough cut” version of a documentary chronicling Alvin Josephy’s career as a historian of and advocate for Indians. Sean Cassidy, retired from Lewis-Clark State College, introduced the film, which he and fellow LC professor Patricia Keith put together in the early 2000s.Read Rich’s Post →

Indigenous Continent: The Big Picture and small mistakes

I just finished reading Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America, by Pekka Hämäläinen. I’d previously read Lakota America, and have his book on the Comanche Empire on my shelf. In Lakota America, he argues that in 1776 there were two emerging nations in North America: The Lakota were moving out of the Great Lakes region and advancing towards the Plains, where they would become dominant. The new American nation was scrambling to secure the eastern seaboard, fight off British, French, Spanish, and Native contenders, and move at its own pace across the continent.Read Rich’s Post →

Vanishing Indians and Wounded Knee

There’s a new history book that is rattling across the best seller lists. It’s a collection of essays called Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies about Our Past. There are 20 chapters on everything from “American Exceptionalism” to the “New Deal” and the “Southern Strategy.” The third chapter is “Vanishing Indians.”Read Rich’s Post →

Senator Abourezk, Arabs, and American Indians

We just lost a good man who is probably now unknown to most Americans—although the nation’s news frequently talks about the Indian Child Welfare Act, which he was instrumental in steering into law in 1978. The New York Times announced his passing:

“James Abourezk, who was elected by South Dakotans as the first Arab American senator, and who used his prominence to support the causes of Palestinians and Native Americans while also pushing for friendlier relations with Cuba and Iran, died on Friday, his 92nd birthday, at his home in Sioux Falls, S.D.”Read Rich’s Post →

Trains and Natives

There was a short interview on NPR this morning about a new book about Black women and trains. I didn’t catch much of it, but the book was written by a scholar, and she talked about the importance of trains as both a part of and a symbol of the country’s Westward movement. She had stories of African-Americans moving north and west with the Great Migration, and reminded that women were part of it all. They put up with racism, with various measures of sexism added on. Sometimes they masqueraded as men to get jobs on the railroads.Read Rich’s Post →

The Relentless Pursuit of Umatilla Lands

In 1855, at the treaty negotiations in Walla Walla, the Umatilla, Cayuse, and Walla Walla peoples were left a reservation of 245,699 acres, and the ability to hunt, fish, and gather in “usual and accustomed places” off the reservation lands. Over a century of relentless pressure by white settlers and the United States Government reduced the reservation to 85,322 acres. With some restorations, it is now 172,000 acres, but nearly half of the land is white-owned!Read Rich’s Post →

The Game

Last night I went to two ball games in La Grande. The Eastern Oregon women’s and men’s teams handily beat the teams from Corban University in Salem, Oregon.

I went because I love to watch games, not the professional contests of huge and brilliant athletes, but the games of high school and college students playing to win, playing to feel the flush of a 3-pointer going down, an intercepted pass, a single to right in the bottom of the ninth. And, maybe, with a small shred of a dream that it will continue, that I can take what I’m experiencing now to a next level—that I can do this forever.Read Rich’s Post →

Earthquakes and Refugees

One. Earthquakes:
Monday’s giant earthquake in Turkey has me thinking back to the time when I was in Turkey. And to a six-week stint building “houses”—4×5 meter A-frame buildings without electricity or plumbing, in villages without electricity or plumbing—in the wake of a 1966 earthquake well to the north and east of the current quakes. It was rougher, less populated, and distinctly rural country. I can still see the terror in the village women’s eyes as they ran from makeshift covered kitchens when a small after-tremor hit. I was a 23-year-old Peace Corps Volunteer on the greatest adventure of my life.Read Rich’s Post →

1871 in Northeast Oregon

That’s the year of the first white settlers—and the year that tiwi ‘ teqis (Chief Old Joseph) passed away. A few years before that, tiwi’teqis had seen the surveyors’ monuments on the Oregon-Washington line, and had put up his own monuments to show white settlers a demarcation line. “Joseph’s Deadline,” it was called. His son, Young Joseph, had warned A.C. Smith not to build his toll bridge across the Minam River—a bridge that would allow settlers an easier approach to the Wallowa Country as it crossed his father’s deadline.

Read Rich’s Post →

Martin Luther King Day and Indigenous America

Tomorrow, Monday, is Martin Luther King Day, and I’ve just begun reading Pekka Hamalainen’s new book, Indigenous Continent. It strikes me already that King’s dreams and the Indigenous philosophy as described by Hamalainen share underlying themes: unity, harmony, responsibility, and reciprocity.

The New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote yesterday, not of the famous 1963 “I have a dream” speech, but of “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” delivered on Christmas Eve, 1967, at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King served as co-pastor.

Read Rich’s Post →

Native Languages

President Biden continued his strong support for Native American causes and cultures this week when he signed two bills into law supporting language revitalization and education. The bills were authored by Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, who, as chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, listens closely to the Indigenous community in Hawaii. (We on the mainland sometimes forget that Native Hawaiians too were pushed aside by invading Euro-Americans, but a friend in Hawaii regularly sends me word of actions and programs by Natives there that mirror the concerns of our Plateau Tribal neighbors here.)Read Rich’s Post →

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.” Read Rich’s Post →

Women of Iran 2

I have great memories of stern-looking, uniformed women guiding traffic at the center of Tehran’s busiest intersections on my month-long visit in 1968—they were human traffic signals. And fond memories too of beautiful, scantily clad Iranian women with their handsome and strikingly dressed young paramours in the bowling alley next to Tehran’s Hilton Hotel.Read Rich’s Post →