Yesterday, a few lines from Robert F. Kennedy’s March 1968 speech at the University of Kansas were broadcast on NPR. I immediately looked it up and read the entire speech. It’s a campaign speech, laced with some of RFK’s soft humor—”I was sick last year and I received a message from the Senate of the United States which said: ‘We hope you recover,’ and the vote was forty-two to forty.”Read Rich’s Post →
I’m old enough to start measuring time in decades—Tamkaliks, the annual powwow and celebration on the Nez Perce Homeland grounds out of the town of Wallowa, just completed its third.
It was, in a word, stunning. There were over 150 dancers, and their regalia seemed bolder and sometimes more extravagant this year. There were 15 drums! My recollections are 10 drums, maybe 12. Even the number of drummers on a given drum seemed larger—six and seven drummers young and old reaching to get their sticks on the drum. The dance floor at the arbor was thick with old and young; it took long songs to get everyone onto and off the floor.Read Rich’s Post →
Few Indians live in the Wallowa Country now, but Indians come here every year—maybe, even through war and exile, some few have always made their ways here to hunt and gather foods and be in this place. Now, they come to run Nez Perce Fisheries, to manage a small piece of Precious Land in the canyons, and in the summer for dances and parades. And there is a 320-acre place we call the Nez Perce Homeland Project near the town of Wallowa.
|Tamkaliks, Nez Perce Homeland, 2016
Last Sunday, Nez Perce peoples from Colville, Umatilla, and Lapwai—Washington, Oregon, and Idaho—drummed, sang, and danced in the new Long House at that Nez Perce Homeland grounds. Most were descendants of the Joseph, or Wallowa, band of Nez Perce who made this country home for thousands of years before being forcibly removed in 1877.
The drumming and singing seemed louder and the dancing more spirited than I remember from past years, when services were held in the dance arbor; some of that heightening might have been my own emotions. There were smiles and tears among the bell ringers, drummer-singers, and dancers. Words too. Words of homecoming and thanks to the Creator and to all who have gone before and all who came together to build this Long House and make this homecoming possible.
I stood with Indian and non-Indian men on the north side of the Long House, facing the women on the south side with the sacred earthen floor, the wash, on which the dancers moved between us. Dancers were boys and girls, women and men, young and old; the drummers all men, included elders and sons of elders I have watched and listened to in the past.
Indians honor age and wisdom in ways that we in the majority culture seem less capable of. They mentor the young as well, passing on names and ceremony and regalia. Restrictions on these things, and on language and the length of hair, were pervasive a century ago; that these cultural artifacts and practices are alive today is a miracle.
No—it is fortitude and resilience, belief in land and place and people. When Europeans came to this continent, Indians died by the millions. They died in wars, but more of them of diseases that crept eerily among them before most Indians ever saw white men and women. In the northeast, diseases came ashore with fishermen who supplemented their fish-takes with furs and sometimes slaves for the old world. This before the Puritans landed in the early 17th century. On the north Pacific coast they came ashore with English and Russian and Spanish ships seeking otter and looking for rivers from the interior in the late 18th century. Inland, they preceded and followed free fur traders and Hudson’s Bay Company men as they made their ways from the East.
Lewis and Clark estimated 5,000 Nez Perce; an Indian friend thinks there might have been 20,000 before smallpox and measles and other European diseases.
Pieces of the Nez Perce story are carried from generation to generation in Indian country, and are told in books and carried too among whites. Last week a Marine pilot—announced by his cap—of Vietnam era told me that Marines still study the Nez Perce fighting retreat of 1877.
The story is carried in the hearts of tribal families whose ancestors endured exile and injustice. In 1877 these prayer songs sustained families struggling through the 1,400 mile-long retreat that we call the Nez Perce War, then bolstered them on the trains headed to Oklahoma after the surrender at Bears Paw and through years of exile, and carried them on the return train trip to the Northwest in 1884.
In order to bring us to Sunday, here is the briefest recap: Nez Perce (Niimíipu) and related Plateau people of what is now the Northwestern United States lived here for millennia. In the 1730s they got horses from the Southwest, probably through the Shoshone. In 1805 they befriended Lewis and Clark; in the 1830s allowed missionaries Henry and Eliza Spalding to put up a church in what is now Spalding, Idaho. In 1855 most bands of Nez Perce signed a treaty in Walla Walla negotiated by Isaac Stevens, allowing them to retain a huge chunk of territory stretching from present-day Wallowa County, Oregon to northern Idaho and northeast Washington.
In 1861 gold was discovered along the Clearwater, and in 1862, 18,000 illegal white miners flooded the reserved lands. In 1863 some bands signed a new treaty, which reduced the reservation by over 80 percent. This divided the Nez Perce into treaty and non-treaty bands. Joseph didn’t sign, but went home to the Wallowas, where no gold had been found. In 1877, crunched and dislocated by post-Civil War settlers, harassed by government troops smarting from Little Big Horn, Joseph and his people crossed the Snake River and headed for the reduced reservation in Idaho.
There were killings, and there was a war. Almost 1400 miles and six months later, Joseph surrendered, just 40 miles short of Canada at the Bears Paw, Montana. They were promised a return to the Northwest, but spent seven years in exile in Kansas and Indian Territory. The Nez Perce called it “the hot place.”
The Nez Perce did return to the Northwest, but were scattered on three reservations: those close to Joseph were sent to the Colville Reservation in Washington; some of the old and young were allowed to go to Lapwai, Idaho. Some who had escaped to Canada or elsewhere returned to the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon. Joseph himself was rebuffed when he tried to buy land in the Wallowas in 1900. He died in Colville in 1904.
On Sunday the Nez Perce returned to the Wallowas with singing and dancing and Nez Perce prayers. They shouted and banged, and after all of this they thanked the white people of this place who are trying to take care of the land now. And the Indian elders invited ministers of other faiths to use the new Indian church for their own prayers.
And then we all ate salmon and buffalo and elk. And we non-Indians watched the Indian dancers, and, invited, danced ourselves. They were proud in regalia passed down, maybe since the time of War, maybe hidden for decades, and maybe augmented by aunties last week. Proud in the language long suppressed in boarding schools. And all of us—maybe 600 Indians, whites and blacks—listened and looked out the east ends of the Long House and the dance arbor and knew this was a homecoming of special people to a special land.
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Mike Page and his wife have been coming from their Whidbey Island home to Tamkaliks, the annual powwow at the Nez Perce Homeland project in Wallowa, for the past three years. This year someone told Mike to look me up and ask about the Josephy Library. We spent a pleasant hour looking at books and journal articles, he told me about tracing back his Indian heritage, I made him copies of a couple of things, and we exchanged contact information and went our ways. I saw Mike and his wife across the grounds while serving at the Friendship Feast again on Sunday, and then we had a chance to talk on Monday night in La Grande at my Josephy and the Indians library talk.
Mike is 75. His grandfather didn’t talk about Indian things, though there was always family knowledge of a Walla Walla –Nez Perce woman and a mountain man named Joseph Gale. His father, in later years, reversed grandfather policy and urged Mike to look to the past—and for the past 20 years or so he has been doing just that. He even got involved with a big Indian fish-in in Idaho in the early 80s. This whole story—Indian fishing, the Walla Walla woman, Joseph Gale, the grandfather who wouldn’t talk and the father who felt safe enough to ask for more—reminded me that history is a complex network of people and events. And that most of us are not historians and poets, but curious people who want to know more about our own stories, about how we came to be in the times and places we find ourselves. We chase down pictures and genealogies, jot down family stories, find old movies and tape recordings and newspaper articles that have pieces that reach back to explain, but rarely do we put the material together into a book or movie or poem of our own.
And I know that he loved the small stories and books of local history as much as the big ones. That he found them and sometimes wove them into his published work. And what he didn’t use directly became part of the big iceberg below the surface that supported his vast understanding of the West.
Or maybe you are the quilter.
Last winter I sat in Doug Erickson’s lair at Lewis and Clark College in Portland talking library work. Doug is special collections librarian there, and his office is also the home of the William Stafford Collection. In a corner sits an odd Plexiglas contraption that looks like a space module from a Buck Rogers film. In fact it is some kind of medical unit Doug picked up on EBay and refitted as a small sound studio. He uses it for the Oregon Poetic Voices project, but also puts non-poets he wants to capture into the machine.
I thought a lot about that this winter. My reading of Josephy material over the last couple of years fits Erickson’s thesis well. Alvin was a meticulous researcher who wanted stories from the past that help show us truly how we got where we are and where we might be going. He loved amateur historians—the archivists who don’t know they are but keep diaries and notebooks. And he worked hard at advocacy, crafting arguments for current policy based on the sins, omissions, and good work of those in the past.
U Idaho Librarians Garth Reese and Devin Becker made an afternoon presentation in Wallowa, an evening presentation in Joseph, and met with a few of us to look at Grace Bartlett’s papers on Friday morning. The public presentations showed in outline form the hows and whys of organizing collections of personal, public, corporate, and business records so that they can be accessed and used by students and researchers. The session with four file drawers of historian Grace Bartlett papers was exciting. There’s a foot of folders on the Appaloosa horse controversy, letter exchanges with historians and Indian elders, and papers and pamphlets that Grace wrestled out of national archives—all with her own extensive notes.
And principal actors in the text are still, despite broken treaties, war, and attempts at assimilation, the Nez Perce. Almost miraculously, the Indians have been here all along, leaving with the Nez Perce War but not leaving, coming back to fish and gather, to work white farmers’ fields, to build the walls around the Joseph Cemetery at Wallowa Lake, to celebrate at Chief Joseph days and dance at Tamkaliks, and to shepherd the salmon and steelhead home.
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