For the last two nights in Moscow and the next five in Elgin we are camped in what was at one time the tribal homelands of the Nez Perce. On Tuesday we took a road trip to Lewiston and explored the visitor center and museum at the Nez Perce National Historical Park, on what is now the Nez Perce Reservation, a tract of land one-tenth the size of the original homeland.
We have always been here. The land unites us with our ancestors across time, keeping our culture alive . . . We live in the place our ancestors called home before the great pyramids of Egypt were built.
—Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee
The Nez Perce have hunted, fished and foraged the streams and woodlands, prairies and plateaus of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana for thousands of years. They traded with other tribes as far away as the Crow and Cheyenne on the Great Plains. As with all the native peoples of this country they are connected to the land in ways that we who have come lately will never understand.
The way we were taught is that we are part of Mother Earth. We’re brothers and sisters to the animals, we’re living in harmony with them. From the birds to the fish to the smallest insect.
Allow me to wax political. I find myself sounding pretty liberal here, which is not my usual point of view, and I know how easy it is to look back on our history and find fault with our actions and methods. But if we can’t take a lesson from our past, we will continue to blunder through our future. There may be a better way to do things, and by seeking that way, we may find some common ground. And here’s a message for liberals and conservatives alike. . .we all need to find better ways to deal with people who are not like us.
In 1805 Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery came through the Nez Perce homeland and things changed forever. By the middle of the century the explorers had been followed by trappers, miners, missionaries and settlers. The Nez Perce were anxious to avoid conflict and so entered into treaty negotiations. They were allowed to stay on their land until the discovery of gold in 1863, and then all bets were off. A new treaty was forced on the Nez Perce people and many of them were removed from their land and relocated to reservations in other parts of the country. The ones who were allowed to stay were given 160 acres per individual in hopes that the ownership of land would more easily assimilate these nomadic people into American life. Unallotted or unclaimed land was sold at auction, and soon over 90% of the original reservation was in white ownership.
I never said the land was mine to do with as I choose. The one who has the right to dispose of it is the one who has created it.
It is a natural thing for humans to challenge other people for territory and riches. All races and cultures have been doing it since the beginning of our time. Maybe the end result would have been the same if our advanced forces had just come in and taken over. But here’s where I think it should be different. Jesus told us to go into every corner of the world and preach the gospel. Nowhere in the scriptures are we told to obliterate languages and cultures, to rip children away from their families and to twist people into our image. Our arrogance and our belief in our own superiority has blinded us to the possibility that there are things of beauty in all cultures, that we can all learn from each other, that we all have valuable information to contribute, and that we are all leaving a legacy by our actions. A quote often attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel daily, and when necessary, use words.” Our actions have consequences, both positive and negative.
The Nez Perce are still scattered, but their culture has survived, they are teaching their language to their children and they are active stewards of the land.