The recent Nez Perce reacquisition of 148 acres near the town of Joseph was a big event. Scores of walkers and riders with their horses gathered at the school on the hill on one side of Joseph, and made the journey through town and onto the airport road to the place just west of the city they now call Am’sáaxpa, or “place of boulders.” Drummers and singers in a “long tent”—a longhouse—prayed, sang, and spoke to scores of tribal people and local supporters, and reporters.Read Rich’s Post →
In my understanding of how things work in Indian country, names of elders who have recently passed are often not said aloud for some time–or only carefully. But I think in this case it is important to use a name, because Mary Schlick was known to many in Northwest Indian country for decades, but she has been largely silent for some time, and her recent death, at 94, at the end of a long and important life, should be noted. Her name will bring a smile to many Indian face, and to soyapu faces as well.
On Saturday, June 22, 2019, we dedicated a new sculpture at the Josephy Center on Main Street in Joseph, Oregon. Two years of preparation and the artisanship of Doug Hyde gave us a work he calls ‘etweyé·wise—which is an old word meaning “I return from a hard journey” in the Nez Perce language.
|Sculptor Doug Hyde and the Returning Nez Perce Woman|
The walwa’ma band of the Nez Perce was forced out of this country in 1877, leading to a war in which the Indians fended off government armies for almost 1400 miles through some of the most rugged country in the West. They were within 40 miles of Canada when the armies caught the cold and hungry people. A promised return to the West became eight years in exile in Kansas and Indian Territory—what the Nez Perce still call the “hot country.”
The Nez Perce War survivors were allowed to return to the West in 1885, but not to the Wallowa Valley. Some went to Lapwai in Idaho, others, including Joseph and his close followers, went to the Colville Reservation in Washington, where descendants remain in exile today. Other descendants are scattered on the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon, at Lapwai in Idaho, in Canada, and on reservations and towns and cities across the country.
Artist Doug Hyde is of Nez Perce, Assiniboine, and Chippewa descent. He grew up in Oregon and in Idaho and studied and eventually taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, and now lives in Arizona. His “Chief Joseph” is at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. and the Clearwater Casino in Idaho. Doug has worked and is working with many tribes to tell tribal stories in art.
On the dedication day we had big drums and tribal members from Lapwai and Umatilla, and others from the Colville Reservation in Washington. They–the walwa’ma band descendants, sang and prayed to open the dedication ceremony, the big drums played, there were speeches and tears–a local women, a Chief Joseph Days rodeo queen from 1952, came with a small object wrapped in cloth which she wanted to return to tribal members. It was a mortar found somewhere along the Snake River years ago. She thought it rightfully belonged to the Nez Perce people. And then, as is customary in Indian country, we shared a meal, including salmon of course.
As we ate salmon and watermelon and enjoyed each other’s company, people–native and non-native–went to stand by the bronze Nez Perce woman and have their pictures taken, or stood back from the granite slab where her cutout welcomes her home to get their own image of ‘etweyé·wise, this return from a hard journey.
Please, if you are in the territory this summer, come by to see us–and to look at the Nez Perce woman as she steps back into her ancestral home.
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I turn over this blogpost to Nez Perce elder and friend Albert Andrews Redstar. Albert is a descendent of the walwama band of Nez Perce who were not allowed to return to their Wallowa Homeland, and have been in exile on the Colville Reservation since their 1885 return from the “hot country” –Oklahoma Indian Territory. We now know that Joseph was not a war chief, but a brilliant and eloquent leader of his people. Here we learn how he turned the Fourth of July celebration in 1903 to Nez Perce purposes.
|Nez. Perce Memorial procession, 1903, Nespelem, WA, Photo Edward Latham, courtesy, Museum of the Rockies|
It is Fourth of July. This picture was taken near the town of Nespelem, on the Colville Indian Reservation in North Central Washington State. You are looking at a Nez Perce encampment just outside the city limits of Nespelem. In this picture you can make out a procession of riders making their way around the inside of the ring of teepees. The mounted riders, all in their finest, are making a solemn procession relieving, and releasing, themselves of the pain of losses they’ve all suffered over the years since the Nez Perce War began in 1877.
The procession also signals an end to a long, long journey and the loss of home and lives of loved ones somewhere out there on a trail begun when they were forced from their homeland in the Wallowa Valley.
For they are the people of the Joseph Band of Nez Perce. Their Homeland in the “Land of the Winding Waters” of Northeast Oregon, a land to which they shall never return, is now in a growing distant past only existing in memory and dreams. Many, still, are longing for a return “home”… Many are feeling this is but a temporary stop before being allowed to return to Wallowa once again. That is a move that will never come.
Amidst the group of riders, towards the front, are speakers calling out the why of this gathering and calling out some of the many names of those now gone or deceased, never to be seen or visited with again. The cantering pace allows the speakers’ voices to carry well and the camper’s responses can be heard as the keening begins while the procession passes by them. Grieving has begun.
In “normal times” this procession could occur anytime. But large gatherings of Native peoples still trigger suspicion and fear by white people and “peaceful Indians” of another uprising, during this time. Chief Joseph had brought his headmen together to take care of themselves, to help the people of the Band come to terms with what they had just experienced. With the Nation’s celebration of its birth coming, it would be a time to carry this out. In this way, it would lessen the chance that the military would be called in bearing the arms and weaponry of war. The Soyapos may think the Band is joining in on this “birthday” celebration.
Chief Joseph made it clear that this was a time for a collective mourning. They needed to grieve their losses of friends, of relatives, of family…of all lost since 1877. They must carry out this mourning service to grieve and “let go” of all those now gone from their midst. They must let go and move on together, having survived the conflict inflicted under Manifest Destiny.
The mourning begun, the second round proceeded at a faster pace. As the third round began, the horses were prompted into a faster-paced gallop. On this round, rejoicing began.
Pasapalloynin!!! “to make them rejoice, to make them happy! “Look around you!” they shouted. “See and remember all whom you see here today and rejoice that we are all together, and that we are here! Today, we live to carry on, for all that are here with us, for all our children! Today we rejoice! Today!”
Many my age have witnessed such a procession as this. It had always preceded other activities at the start of the Fourth of July Celebration, here in Nespelem. Its significance seems to fade with each generation, but some of us still remember. We remember how names were called out of those lost in the past year, just as they had done in that first gathering for those lost in the 1877 War. We’d felt that grieving loss, just as our ancestry herein depicted by this picture had, during that first procession. Some of us still know why it was done before it became the “Horse Parade” it is called today. We are descendants of the Joseph Band of Nez Perce! We still carry on the traditions and customs in the old ways. We are still able to speak in that uncolonized language of our Longhouses. Yes! We are still here!
Albert Andrews Redstar
It was the week after Albert and Veronica Redstar, brother and sister elders of the Joseph or Wallowa Band of the Nez Perce from the Colville Reservation in Washington, talked about 140 years of exile. The audience was 45 workers and board members from Wallowa County’s government agencies and non-profits. The exile dated to the Nez Perce War of 1877, which took the Wallowa Band across the Snake River in spring flood on an unwanted journey to a reduced reservation in Idaho. An uprising of young Indians against cruel white settlers set off a war, a fighting retreat that ended five months and almost 1400 miles east and north, 40 miles from the Canadian border at Bear’s Paw, Montana. From a famous surrender there the Indians were herded to Bismarck, North Dakota, and then to Kansas and Oklahoma Indian Territory.
Eventually, through the extraordinary diplomatic efforts of their leader, Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, known to us as Chief Joseph, they were allowed to return to the West, and about half of the returnees went to the Idaho reservation. Joseph was not allowed that small reward, and he and 149 followers ended up on the Colville Reservation in north central Washington with the Moses Band. Albert and Veronica are descendants of that group of Nez Perces—still in exile from their ancestral Wallowas.
Their words about loss, and the rifts and reconciliations among the people were vivid and striking. Their remaining attachment to this Wallowa Country is palpable.
They’d meant to talk some about the continuing oppressions by government agencies and officials in the 132 years they have lived on the Colville Reservation, about the government regulations regarding language, songs, music and regalia; the Allotment Act that would turn them all into yeoman farmers; about Termination and Relocation. And about Indian boarding schools. No one was sorry that they ran out of time talking about their own people, the loss on leaving and the years of displacement. I thought I could take a few minutes to address the topic at the next class.
So on the final week of our class, when Wenix Red Elk was to talk about natural resources and about the unique program on the Umatilla Reservation that ties the First Foods served in the long house to land and natural resource management, I asked that we take a few minutes at the beginning of the class to show a short video, a trailer for a longer movie, on the boarding school experience.
I found the story of Walter Littlemoon a few years ago. Walter was born the same year I was, 1942, and grew up in South Dakota, about 300 miles from my own Minnesota birthplace. I lived with parents and, during the war, with my mother and her parents. When Walter was five years old, he was taken from his parents and put in boarding school. Years and years later, Walter is the subject of a documentary called “The Thick Dark Fog,” which described the way he had long felt and became the title of his life story as he retraced it with a filmmaker.
We watched the three minutes, and Wenix, with tears in her eyes, rose to speak. She had not seen this particular video, but the experience of the boarding schools was in her bones—“We forgot how to parent,” she said, “and lost our traditional ways of bringing up children.” And not just for one generation. That loss, Wenix said, is with her people still, with her still. I don’t know but don’t think she went to a boarding school, and if she did so, it was long after severe abuses were discovered and mitigated if not corrected. But that loss is still visibly with her.
I used this video in a class I taught last year at Eastern Oregon, and students were outraged—“We did that?” they said. And I was satisfied that I had awakened something, some new kind of empathy, in them. But I missed then what Wenix felt last week. I missed the generational loss of culture, the longing that some young Indians feel today for the lessons stolen from their grandparents and great grandparents, and therefor so difficult to pass on today.
The sins of “our” fathers visited on Indian people.
|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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