Closer to healing

September 19, 2005 

— Nez Perce people say three things have to happen for them to become a 21st century success story. They need to keep their history and traditions alive, they need to heal and they need to forgive.

Indian culture holds that it takes seven generations for tragedies to pass away. The current generation of Nez Perce people is the seventh since the War of 1877.

"You have to respect and acknowledge history, but I think healing is possible," Rebecca Miles said. "I think we're getting closer."

Miles at 32 is one of the youngest to have held the title. She has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Washington State University and a master's in organizational leadership from Gonzaga University. She considers higher education key to overcoming her people's historical trauma.

Federal funding for education through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, however, is "falling short. ... We're only able to fund undergraduates. We encourage our students to go to school more and are getting more students. But we're not getting more money to fund their educations."

Some are succeeding anyway. Kim Cunningham-Hartwig was an honor student and standout on the Lapwai High School girls basketball team who went on to earn an academic scholarship to Loyola Marymount University. She now is one of only a few hundred Native American medical doctors in the nation, the first female Nez Perce physician and only the second medical doctor in the tribe's history. She's doing her last year of family practice residency in Spokane and hopes one day to return to Lapwai to practice medicine.

"I see myself as both a sign of improving fortunes and a role model for the Nez Perce," she said. "I feel that our generation is aware of the importance of education for the survival of our people ... Education can't be stressed enough to any young person, especially the Nez Perce. I didn't meet a native physician until after I was already accepted into medical school."

Judy Oatman and her daughter Mary Jane Oatman-Wakwak both attended Lewis-Clark State College, where Judy recently earned a degree in criminal justice. The tribe paid between $1,550 and $2,500 a semester to cover their education expenses. Judy Oatman made the dean's list at LCSC; Mary Jane made the president's list while carrying 21 credits and serving as student body vice president. Judy hopes to work in the tribal court system and write a book about her experiences growing up Nez Perce. Mary, who will graduate with a criminal justice degree in 2006, plans to attend law school.

"There's such a backlog in the tribal court system," Judy Oatman said. "I'd like to work to make it better so people have more faith in it, and Mary is passionate about becoming a lawyer. She wants to work as an advocate for tribal rights."

Distance learning centers at Lapwai and Kamiah are helping Nez Perce people receive educations they once would have thought impossible.

"I see sixth- to eighth-grade level educations as fairly typical for Nez Perce society," said distance learning center manager Kay Kidder. "Most people aren't ready for college level work when they get here. Parents have told me they feel bad because they can't help their kids with their homework. With what they learn here, they can. The light at the end of the tunnel is getting bigger."

The distance learning centers at Lapwai and Kamiah are off-campus sites of the Northwest Indian College in Bellingham, Wash., and work with LCSC as well. They offer courses leading to general equivalency diplomas as well as associates of arts and sciences degrees. Students pay $82 per credit. The centers' combined enrollment is about 45 students. Most of their graduates go on to four-year colleges.

"A lot of people don't have time or can't afford to travel from their homes in Kamiah to LCSC in Lewiston or even Lapwai to Lewiston to get an education," Kidder said. "Here, they've found a home. You can see their confidence build as they progress with their studies. When they leave here, they're ready for a four-year school."

A sign overlooking Idaho 95 in Lapwai tells visitors that the community takes pride in its "kids, teams, education and schools," then lists every year since 1955 that the high school's teams have gone to the state basketball tournament.

Basketball is still a hot ticket in Lapwai, but the tribe also is working to improve education and keep its young people in school.

Nez Perce people are teaching their kids about their language and culture in the hope of stimulating pride in their heritage and a desire to succeed. They're teaching them their history in ways that make lifelong impressions. Lapwai High School students who make the annual trip to the Big Hole and Bear Paw battlefields say they'll never forget their experience there.

Though still high, dropout rates show signs of improvement. The graduation rate improved from 55.8 percent in 2003 to 71 percent in 2004.

Future high school students will have an edge their predecessors didn't. Success for All, an intensive program with 90 minutes of daily, uninterrupted reading and tutors for students who need them, has improved elementary school reading scores two to three grade levels in six years. The first students to spend all six years in the program are now in their first year of high school. The Washington, D.C.-based Education Trust Corp. honored the district this year with one of five Dispelling the Myth awards presented nationally for improving education for minority children and those living in poverty.

Students for Success and Nez Perce Youth Leadership programs encourage students to avoid violence and substance abuse and to prepare for leadership roles.

"If it wasn't for Students for Success, I'd probably be smoking, doing drugs and getting involved with people who do," 16-year-old Clearwater Valley High School junior Charles Moose said.

Ashley Oatman, a 14-year-old freshman at Kamiah High School, added that "people start doing those things at my age. Some of my friends did, or at least they used to be my friends. I don't hang out with them any more. We're learning how to make good choices."

Moose, who is good with electronics, envisions a career in computers. Oatman hopes to teach third or fourth grade. Dakota Kidder, also 14 and a freshman at Kamiah, wants to be a doctor or veterinarian.

"I'd also like to be on the tribal council someday," she said. "They need more women there. ... And I worry about our water. I worry about people not on the reservation trying to claim it."

Dakota Kidder is a root digger. "I've gone out with my mother, aunts and cousins ever since I can remember," she said. "Usually we come back with a lot of roots, but sometimes farmers spray them. I don't know how we'll get them to stop, but I think it's important because that's part of our culture. It's part of the way we live and eat. I can't imagine a life without it."

Sheyenne Calkins, 17, is a walking testimonial to Students for Success. She's president of the student body at Lapwai High School, belongs to the youth leadership group and gives presentations to younger students on avoiding substance abuse. She plans to attend the University of Idaho on a track scholarship, earn a degree in anthropology with a minor in Native American Studies and return to Lapwai to run for a seat on the tribe's executive council.

"I enjoy being a leader," she said. "I like being in charge. The fact that I'm Nez Perce and want to be heard is what I'm about."

Annie Kane, who wants to be an athletic trainer, is well aware of influences that could keep her from reaching her goal.

"I try to stay away from things like drugs and alcohol," she said. "I surround myself with people who aren't into those things."

She is a thoroughly modern 14-year-old who worries about tradition.

"We need to preserve our language and culture. I worry that we're losing them. I used to dance. I got too busy, but I want to get back to it someday. I was in language class till third grade and will take it again in high school. It's important to keep those things alive."

The student council at Lapwai High School, Calkins said, "wants to make a difference. We're going to do awareness assemblies on the risks of smoking and drinking. We want to do community-strengthening workshops on ways the students can help the community and the community can help the students.

"Our community is pretty focused on basketball. We want it to take academics just as seriously."

The bad news on employment is that about one in seven Nez Perce people is unemployed at least part of the year. The good news is that it used to be much worse. The number of Indian people living in poverty on the reservation fell from 26 percent in 1999 to 17 percent in 2000, the last year for which figures are available. The unemployment rate has fallen from 31.5 percent in 2001 to 13.3 percent this year, due largely to jobs in gaming and other tribal departments.

The fisheries department began in 1977 with one employee, a biologist. Now it has 230.

The tribe's first casino opened in Kamiah in 1995 with 50 employees. Nez Perce gaming operations there and at the larger Clearwater River Casino outside Lewiston now employ some 260 people.

Melva Major has worked for six years as a cashier in the Clearwater River Casino. She previously lived in Kamiah, where she had financial, relationship and drinking problems. She credits the job with turning her life around.

"It's got me on my feet," she said. "I lived in tribal housing at Kamiah. I lived quite a ways out of town and didn't have any transportation. I was on welfare and had been through several bad relationships. I was drinking pretty bad and had my kids taken away from me."

The casino job got her off welfare and improved her self image. She started at $8.95 an hour at the casino and now makes more than $11 an hour, plus benefits. The job allowed her to buy a car and a home in Lewiston. She got her four children back after going through alcohol rehabilitation and being sober for six months.

"I've come a long way," she said. "I'm independent now. My self esteem has improved, and the job has been good for me socially. I meet interesting people from all over the country, and I have a lot of friends who work at the casino."

Her long-term goal is to attend the University of Idaho and become a certified public accountant.

"I never thought that would be possible. I never even thought I'd even be a homebuyer. Without the casino, I'd probably be working in a convenience store."

Amelia Spalding is a security guard at the casino. She's worked there since it opened in 1996. Before that, she did seasonal work as a flagger, janitor and member of a camp crew.

"This job has made me feel stronger as a person and as a working mother," she said. "Before I started here, there were a lot of things I couldn't do with my daughters. I was only making about $5,000 a year. We couldn't afford to travel or go on family vacations. We had to wait for food stamps before we could go to the grocery store.

"Now I'm working on getting my debt down, mostly medical bills. The casino has a payroll deduction plan for reducing debt. I've got it down from $5,000 to $1,000. And I enjoy the work. We all know first aid and CPR here. I helped a woman once who had a heart attack and a man who was having trouble breathing. Whenever he comes in now, he says, 'There's the lady who helped me.' That's a good feeling."

Some haven't been as fortunate in finding work. Leander Goodteacher, a water resources technician, has been trying to find a job since funding for his position with the tribe's water resources department ran out in June. The tribe helped pay for a 30-day training session at New Mexico State University to enhance his skills, but he still hasn't found a job.

"There just isn't a whole lot of demand here for what I do," he said. "I've lived here most of my life and it would be kind of hard to leave, but I might have to. I'm thinking about relocating to Boise."

Phyllis George is a 58-year-old Nez Perce who spent most of her life in California. She moved to Lapwai in March to be with relatives there.

"I'm getting older, and a year ago I lost my son in a drowning accident at Kamiah," she said. "After that, it was important to me to be close to family."

George worked 20 years as an accountant in California.

"I know accounting inside and out, but I apply for jobs here and don't get them. The best I could find was a receptionist's job with the tribe, but it was temporary.

"It was easy to find a job in California, but not here. Maybe it's because nobody knows me. If I don't get a job pretty darned quick, I'll have to go back to California."

A new program aims at creating jobs. Simone Wilson, formerly the tribe's social services manager, now is the employee development manager for tribal enterprises. She's working with LCSC and the Northwest Indian College to develop training programs for both current employees and those who will be needed in future tribal enterprises. A new, larger casino with a restaurant and motel are among the possibilities.

"This job is a godsend," she said. "Someone really had a vision for the present and future needs. Our final destination is self sufficiency — competent, confident, committed employees. ... I'll work my heart out in this job."

The newest building in the tribal government complex at Lapwai is the Nimiipuu Health Center. The tribe subsidizes health care at the gleaming new building, and there are signs that progress is being made on longstanding health problems.

"There is evidence that Native Americans' metabolism may be more efficient, that calories are stored rather than being burned off," Nimiipuu Health nurse Jeanne Law said. "But evolution hasn't kept up with the lifestyle, which in a short period of time went from active hunters and gatherers of healthful foods to low activity and fast food. That's led to a higher rate of diabetes, heart disease and other problems. But we are making progress."

The tribe spent $10,000 on state-of-the-art exercise equipment for the center's fitness room. A pre-diabetes registry identifies those at risk and encourages them to participate in prevention programs, including weight management. A newsletter is planned to update patients on health issues. Posters on center walls deliver no-nonsense health messages: "Juice is as bad as Pepsi!"

Lilly James, the center's fitness coordinator, reels off a litany of success stories:

"One man said the doctor told him to get his blood pressure down or he'd have a stroke. He came in for five days straight, and his blood pressure came down and he lost four pounds.

"We had a lady who went from a size 18 to a 12 in six weeks. Another woman used to get out of breath just walking to her locker. In a week, she was up to working out an hour a day. A man in his 60s came in because he had sore knees and couldn't keep up with his grandchildren. Now he's gardening and babysitting."

Lita Frederic spends half of her daily lunch hour at the fitness center.

"I'd gained 40 pounds, and my doctor told me to start working out," she said. "I've lost weight, I can move better, and I feel better."

Rachel Edwards, the tribe's executive secretary, has diabetes in her family. At risk herself, she exercises regularly at the new center.

"I lost 65 pounds at the old center but gained some of it back by the time the new one opened," she said. "Now I go to the new one to keep the weight off and stay in shape. We have some serious cases of diabetes in my family. That's why I work out. I don't want it."

Nakia Williamson's head is often in the clouds.

The 29-year-old artist describes his work as "a representation of what I feel toward our culture and spirituality. I talk to our elders a lot about the old ways. I'm always thinking about those things — the songs, the dances, the stories. It's hard to do that in today's world, to surround yourself with things that are important to our culture, but that's what I try to do."

Williamson, whose Nez Perce name is Pile of Clouds after an ancestor considered a prophet, hasn't come close to forgetting who he is. He is, among other things, a repository of Nez Perce culture. Museum curators would drool over the contents of his home. His treasures include historical photographs, his great-grandmother's corn husk purse, his great-aunt's ceremonial dress, beadwork, featherwork ...

"These things used to be commonplace," he said, opening a suitcase of artifacts smelling of campfire smoke. "They were things our people used every day. Now they're getting hard to find."

Williamson has learned many of the old crafts. He does featherwork, cornhusk art, even beadwork, which is unusual for a man. He does it for the challenge as an artist and because he wants to keep the old ways from belonging solely to the past.

"It's carrying on what the old people did. It's part of the living culture. If you put them in a museum, they're not living things anymore. They're meant to be used."

The times aren't on his side.

"Our culture has to compete with video games and TV," he said. "We don't have the old people anymore. It's going to take everybody to preserve what little we have left. It's a sad thing to come to terms with, but it's part of what's happened to us."

Williamson has a kindred spirit in Elmer Crow, whose devotion to practicing the old crafts recalls an era when time was measured differently. When Crow makes a traditional Nez Perce bow from the horn of a bighorn sheep, he starts by hunting the ram. Once he has the horn, he cuts a curved section and painstakingly straightens it. It takes up to a year to make a single bow.

"Our people used these bows for hunting buffalo on horseback," he said. "They're short with a quick pull, but just as strong as a longer bow."

Crow has made bows lined with salmon skin, syringa bows lined with rattlesnake skin, bows wrapped with elk sinew. He is a master Nez Perce bowmaker.

"It's a very endangered art," he said. "At this time, there may be three people who know how to do this."

Of all the old ways, the one that evokes the strongest sentiments and the most concern is the language.

"I can't imagine what it would be like not to speak Nez Perce," Horace Axtell said. "All the prayers and songs are in our language. All the songs are directed. There are prayers for sunrise, water, food. Some are so important we sing them only when a person is going to the happy land on their journey. You can't understand them if you don't know the language. And very few people can speak Nez Perce even after all the years it's been taught in the schools."

Beatrice Miles estimates that there are about 20 fluent Nez Perce speakers.

"They're almost all elders like me," she said. "It's important to keep it going, but it's hard. You have to grow up with it to really speak it well."

Only one person on the tribe's executive council speaks Nez Perce. Only five fluent speakers help teach the language. Angel Sobotta, the language coordinator, fears for its future:

"We don't have that many elders left, and only a few are helping. It's hard work. I think people my age will become the next fluent speakers, and that scares me. Some of the words are really hard to pronounce. I hear myself saying words and don't like what I hear, and that's what I'm passing on.

"We need to hear our elders more. We're taping as much as we can, but our equipment isn't the greatest. The tribe put up $58,000 in casino money for the language program. The Cherokees did $2 million. I'm the only full-time employee of the language program. ... Our language is in danger of not existing. We're submerged in English. We're drowning in English."

People as passionate as Williamson, Crow and Sobotta about preserving the old ways are exceptions.

Three people know how to make the old bows, one tribal employee is in charge of saving the language and the elders are getting up in years. Nez Perce culture is hanging by heartbeats.

Two hundred years after Lewis and Clark, the Nez Perce are still trying to recover and forgive.

It's a profound challenge. They lost three-fourths of their people in the space of a lifetime. They lost almost all of their homeland. The newcomers who killed their chiefs, warriors, women and children also outlawed their religion, gave them diseases and introduced them to addictions, and all but eradicated their language and way of life. In the country where they'd lived longer than anyone, they came to lack even the status of second-class citizens. They were made to believe that it was wrong to be what they were.

As many are quick to say, they've done well to have survived. They are a resilient people. From their historical nadir of virtual death camps on Midwest reservations, they have doubled their numbers and become Idaho's most influential tribe.

The independence and status the tribe enjoyed before Lewis and Clark, however, still belong to the past. Nez Perce people who work on conservation issues say that despite their successes, the state is yet to accept them as a partner. The tribe and the Idaho Legislature fought bitterly over casino gaming, with lawmakers successfully pushing a constitutional amendment to ban it in 1992, and the Legislature's relationship with the tribe still tends to be adversarial.

"Water rights, our wolf program, fishing rights, we still have to fight the state all the time," Axtell said. "It just goes on and on."

As does bigotry.

"When we're fishing, people have called us redskins and thrown rocks at us," Allen Slickpoo, Jr., said. "That's the way they treat the people who helped Lewis and Clark."

The Long House faith is no longer outlawed, and interest in it appears to be increasing.

"I go to Long House most of the time," 14-year-old Dakota Kidder said. "Long House seems to be making a comeback. I see people there my age, and every once in a while there are newcomers."

Still, instances of discrimination remain.

"I went to a funeral where they insisted on everything being strictly Christian," Judy Oatman said. "No dancing, no shawls. People weren't even allowed to wear their moccasins."

The old divisions still haven't passed away. Full-blood members of the tribe continue to be enrolled at other reservations because of the Treaty of 1863 and the war. Descendants of the Chief Joseph Band still live on the Colville Reservation in Washington. Remnants of the White Bird Band still live in Canada. They've been estranged for generations.

Reconciliation may happen in the current generation.

"I think we should just get on with it," said Kane, a member of the seventh generation since the war. "There's no point in continuing all these divisions. People my age are saying we're all related to the same people — let's get over it."

Some elders also speak of reconciling.

"The hurt is always there, even today," Frank Andrews of the Chief Joseph Band in Nespelem, Wash., told a group of Lapwai Nez Perce during the annual Nez Perce War memorial ceremony at White Bird. "The Chief Joseph band didn't come back here or to Wallowa. We felt like we were exiled. But we and you and those who went to Canada are still brothers."

Some Nez Perce leaders didn't want to participate in the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, arguing that it was hardly an occasion to celebrate. Next summer, however, the tribe will host the bicentennial's only national signature event to be held in Idaho.

"The bicentennial might be a chance for us to tell our side of the story and for white people to learn," Irvin Watters said.

Axtell the spiritual leader goes a step farther, forgiving the unforgivable by extending the hand of friendship to the descendants of those who almost made the Nez Perce extinct.

"They wanted us all to die here," he said on a slope of the White Bird battlefield. "But we're still here and always will be. There should be no hard feelings in either direction. Not anymore. It's time to put away the feeling of being enemies."

Miles, the first female chief of the Nez Perce, agrees:

"There's no future without forgiveness. If we can forgive, there's nothing this tribe can't do."

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