Soul wounds

September 20, 2005 

— Some Indians refer to what happened to their people — genocide, degradation, loss of a cherished way of life — as "soul wounds." The wounds and their complications take generations to pass away.

Generations of racial discrimination began when the War of 1877 ended.

"Kids at boarding schools were taught to act like whites and to be dependent on white people," said Allen Slickpoo Jr., a recent vice chairman of the tribe's executive council. "A lot of our people got away by joining the military, but when they got back they couldn't even ride a bus. The drivers said Indians and dogs had to sit in the back. There were 'No Indians Allowed' signs in downtown Lewiston."

Slickpoo attended boarding school in Oklahoma.

"I became an alcoholic there," he said.

Nez Perce elder Irvin Watters spoke only Nez Perce as a child. When he asked his older brother on his first day of school what the teacher was saying, the teacher hit him with a wooden rod.

"I got beatings four or five times for speaking Nez Perce," he said.

Striking portraits of Chief Joseph and Chief Ollokot, Watters' great-grandfather, dominate the walls of his Lapwai home. Easily overlooked is a snapshot of a different sort of "chief." Watters' father-in-law was the leader of a jazz band, "Chief White and his Five Redskins." The demeaning name was thought at the time to be catchy.

The transition from proud followers of Joseph and Ollokot to second-class citizens with ruinous health and social problems took about two generations.

Today, the Nez Perce have recovered to the point of being Idaho's most influential tribe, sophisticated players in politics and conservation issues. They've made progress on health and social problems, education, employment. They've come a long way from the century that nearly wiped them out and the bigotry that fostered Chief White and his Five Redskins.

They're also a long way from enjoying the status they had before two Army captains came to visit and turned the world inside out.

Watkuweis descendant Ralph Johnson: "If Watkuweis could have seen what Lewis and Clark were really up to, she might have made a different decision."

Today, the Nez Perce are fighting to recover from their soul wounds without forgetting who they are. Pete Wilson is succeeding.

Wilson has been sober for 16 years after drinking every chance he got for 17.

"It started with peer pressure," he said. "I started as a teenager, and it got to be a big problem. It controlled my life. I couldn't have one or two drinks. It took me over. I'd drink all night. I couldn't stop drinking."

His uncles, Larry Green and Jesse Red Heart, picked him up every day for years. They'd drive to a store, purchase their beverages of choice and drink themselves numb. One evening — a few months after Wilson's father died from drinking — the routine changed.

"Uncle Idaho (Green) picked me up and said, 'Tonight we're drinking for your dad.' He bought Old Crow, Black Velvet, Jack Daniels, three kinds of beer and two gallons of Thunderbird. That was my dad's drink. We just mixed it all together. I got so drunk and sick I don't even remember how I got home.

"The next day when my uncles came to get me, I told them I was just going to drink pop. Uncle Idaho knew I'd get sick, which was why he did it. He said it was too late to save himself, but he could still save me. I came home that night and took a long look at myself. Alcohol put my dad and his brothers into their graves, and I decided to break the cycle. It was Feb. 5, 1989. I was 34. I'm 50 now and haven't had a drink since."

Uncle Idaho's prediction was correct. He died from drinking in 1996, but the young man he "saved" went on to become coordinator of tribal programs for juveniles. Wilson tries to help young people avoid substance abuse by, among other things, teaching them where they came from and who they are.

Known as "Pistol Pete," he keeps the old ways alive by practicing them in his own life and teaching them to the young. He digs roots and gathers medicinal plants. He teaches young people to make tipis and drumsticks and leads a traditional drumming group composed of kids as young as 5. He built a Nez Perce sweat lodge on Lapwai Creek, sweats almost every day and happily shares the lodge and its benefits with anyone who is interested.

"That's important to me," he said as he stoked a fire of burning pallets to heat the rocks for a sweat. "So much of our knowledge and experience has been lost."

It took him two weeks to build the sweat lodge, an igloo-shaped framework of branches covered with blankets to hold the heat. Other Nez Perce men join him there each evening. When the men are finished, the women sweat.

The sweat house is his church.

"This is where I go to sing my songs and say my prayers. The heat and the minerals in the water cleanse your mind and body. When you say the prayers and use the medicines, you can feel things happening with the Creator."

Among those he prays for are the young people he counsels.

"Substance abuse is a problem, but I wouldn't say it's worse for kids here than anyplace else. The kids are very open with me and interested in what I teach them.

"... Just yesterday a group that has been meeting to make changes on alcoholism went to the tribal executive committee with a resolution that will change things here on the reservation very much about alcohol use and places where alcohol can be used where young people don't have access to it or the ability to be around to see what the adults are doing when they use it. " ... I think it will help. I think what we're doing is making a difference."

Wilson is among the many Nez Perce people working to keep the old ways alive. They believe that without them, new generations won't know what makes them different from other Americans, and that knowing their heritage is a key to recovery.

Simone Wilson, Pete's sister and until recently the tribe's social services manager, says some Nez Perce young people are "missing out on their identity. They need to know their culture. When a boy came to me with a problem recently, I told him to go talk to his grandfather.

"His grandfather had been a fisherman and was a wonderful storyteller. He spent a lot of time just spinning yarns with the boy, and it made all the difference. The communication opened up. The boy learned who he was."

Simone Wilson wrote a children's book about Nez Perce culture. As social services manager, she began a Daughters of Tradition program, teaching girls to make dresses and do beadwork.

"Some of the girls came back again and again. We ended up learning about their family dynamics. I counseled them, and they counseled each other."

Angel Sobotta is working to preserve the Nez Perce language. Similar to the Sahaptin language spoken by a number of Northwest tribes, Nez Perce is exceedingly difficult to learn and even harder to pronounce. Sobotta, coordinator of the tribe's language program, recently finished her third year of Nez Perce language classes at Lewis-Clark State College. She works with her instructor there and with fluent elders to try to teach proper pronunciation. A great-great-great-grandchild of Red Bear, she also does public speaking on her family history, dances in stunning regalia at pow wows and educational programs, and is passing her knowledge on to her three children.

"I learned animals, colors and numbers in our language when I was a kid," she said. "It stayed with me, and I wanted more. What's positive now is the kids are getting a lot more than that. They're learning greetings, songs, verbs, names ... Hopefully, they'll be as impressed and thrilled with it as I was and stay with it."

About 40 pre-school and elementary school children are enrolled in the language program. Sixty were enrolled in two sections of Nez Perce language classes last year at Lapwai High School.

"That's great that there are that many," Sobotta said. "When I was their age, they didn't even have it in high school."

The catch: a shortage of fluent speakers.

"To me, it feels like there are only a handful. The age of our elders is a problem. We can't keep our elders alive. We need something right now. The clock is ticking."

Sobotta's mother, Rosa Yearout, is nurturing the Nez Perce heritage of expertise in breeding and riding appaloosa horses, for which the tribe has long been known. She and her husband own one of the largest Nez Perce-registered herds in the world. Every year, she rides a section of the Nez Perce Trail.

"It took 100 years for our people to go back to Big Hole and Bear Paw," she said. "My grandfather (Many Wounds) went back with the author, McWhorter, in a Model A Ford and marked the spots where things happened in the battles. Now I'm so grateful that they did that. ... Every year, a group rides the trail 20 miles a day for five days. It takes 13 years to do the trail from Joseph to Bear Paw. This year I'll get my 13-year pin."

Other women continue the centuries-old practice of root digging, gathering the foods that helped sustain generations of Nez Perce. They follow the trails of their ancestors from April to August, gathering in places so secret that non-diggers aren't allowed to accompany them. The foods are used for traditional meals and ceremonies.

"Gathering guides your whole life," root digger Lee Bourgeau said. "It's a lifelong commitment. It doesn't matter whether there's a family gathering or what else is going on in your life. You have to be there. I get excited every year when it's time to go. I'll be a gatherer till I die."

Salmon have been a staple of the tribe's diet since time immemorial. As the first animals believed to have sacrificed themselves for human beings, salmon are considered sacred in Nez Perce spirituality.

So important are they in the tribe's heritage that when the state tried to stop them from fishing during a low salmon run in 1980, 32 latter-day Nez Perce warriors vowed to fight armed law enforcement officers to the death to protect their treaty rights to fish. A judge agreed with them, and the "second Nez Perce War" was averted.

The Treaty of 1855 still guarantees tribal members the right to fish in their accustomed places, or at least those where dams haven't eliminated fishing. They can fish legally in places where other anglers are prohibited, using techniques only they're allowed to use. Nez Perce Elder Elmer Crow, a Twisted Hair descendant and one of the 32 who defied the state's fishing ban in 1980, is an expert on making and using deer-antler fishing hooks and hemp dip nets — skills he's passing on to his three grown sons.

"It's part of our heritage, part of our spiritual being," he said.

Salmon are part of some Nez Perce people's income as well. Wes Oatman, 21, began fishing with his parents when he was a young boy. The Oatmans travel to Rapid River from their home in Clarkston, Wash., repeatedly during the salmon runs. Wes and his father are highly skilled at scampering over slippery rocks, dipping their nets at just the right times in just the right places to pull wriggling salmon from the rushing water.

"It's our weekend job," he said. "It's a mix of fun and work, but it's also our culture. Our people have always been barterers of salmon."

Oatman and his parents, Bo and Judy, sell salmon for $20 apiece or $2 a pound for larger fish at their campsite on Idaho 95 a few miles south of Riggins. They make about $10,000 in a good year.

"Fishing helps me take care of my family," Wes said, shouting above the roar the river. "We eat salmon every day during the season and freeze them for winter. My regular job is in construction, and there are times when there are droughts, especially in the winter. It's tough to get by, so it's nice to have the income from fishing."

Whiston Glasby doesn't look it with his sandy hair and blue eyes, but he's a Nez Perce enrolled at the reservation at Lapwai. Each summer, he drives to Rapid River and spends weekends camped beside the highway in his Volkswagen bus. It looks like fun, a recreational outing. Like many Nez Perce, however, he has fundamental reasons for being there.

"The sport fishermen you see downstream aren't even hungry," he said. "I'm fishing for my grandmother and my aunts. They need the food."

Spirituality in one or more forms permeates virtually every Nez Perce family's home.

Children dressed in beaded, feathered regalia break from native dancing to have dinner preceded by Catholic grace.

In a Lapwai living room, bells with portraits of Jesus occupy a place of honor beside a portrait of Nez Perce spiritual leader Horace Axtell. Axtell is a devout proponent of the tribe's traditional Long House faith, who was raised a Christian.

"I followed my grandmother's Christianity," he said. "We sang songs in the Nez Perce language, but they were ordinary Christian hymns. ... My grandmother was a Christian, but that didn't mean she didn't know the old ways. She gathered the foods. She never gave that up just because she was a Christian.

"I practice the old ways now. It makes me happy. It gives us a feeling that we're part of something. It was what our ancestors believed, and it's ours and it connects us to them and to a whole way of life that's connected to nature."

Rosa Yearout matter-of-factly says that her late mother was raised a Methodist, became a Catholic, and attended Long House. She doesn't see a contradiction:

"You have your relationship with the Creator and the animals and the old ways. Then you have the Old Testament and the New Testament, and it doesn't conflict. It adds. The old ways are good. But if you add Christianity to them, that's good, too."

The majority of Nez Perce on the reservation at Lapwai are Christians. They worship at local churches representing eight Christian denominations. There is even a church for Nez Perce of the Bahi faith.

There is no Long House per se. Services are held in homes, as they were in secret ceremonies after the traditional faith was outlawed and went underground following the War of 1877.

"My grandfather, Tex Williams, had to go into hiding to practice the old ways," Lee Borgeau said. "They were teaching people that they were heathens. They made them destroy their regalia. He loaded his onto a buckboard and buried it in the mountains."

Long House members today comprise a small fraction of the tribe.

"Many believe in the fundamental teachings, but don't participate," Long House member Nakia Williamson said. "A typical turnout is five to 20 people.

"... It's an interesting duality. Everything goes back to the original teachings, but a lot of people frame it in the Judeo-Christian mindset. Fundamentally, some of the things are the same, like respecting each other. Our faith goes a step farther by teaching us to respect the Earth. You take care of what takes care of you. A lot of the environmental problems we have today are because that isn't being done.

"... I think the old ways and Christianity can co-exist as as long as there's an understanding that we don't have to change who we are. There isn't just one way to God. I don't live in Israel. I live here, in Nez Perce country. That's what it is to be Nez Perce, to live here in our land according to our beliefs."

Spirituality is a big part of why the Nez Perce Idaho's highest profile tribe.

The underlying reason for the tribe's highly publicized conservation work is a basic tenet of traditional Nez Perce spirituality: all things are interconnected.

"The animals were here first," Crow said. "When humans came, the animals sacrificed themselves to feed us, clothe us and keep us warm. Salmon sacrificed their bodies to make us strong and intelligent. ... We're all connected. If the salmon became extinct, the connection would be broken. That's why we're working so hard to restore them."

Fisheries is the second largest department in a tribe with enough departments to rival state government. The Nez Perce tribal organization includes a tribal chairman and executive council, administrative department, education department, office of legal counsel, judicial services, social services, gaming commission, natural resources, water resources, wildlife, it can seem endless.

The tribe employs 807 people, 434 of whom are members of the tribe. Seasonal help in summer increases the total by about 100. Those helping the Nez Perce Tribe conduct its numerous and diverse affairs include lawyers, administrators, executive assistants, scientists, health experts, law enforcement officers, historians, artists and more.

A 1995-2000 University of Idaho economic report ranked the tribe behind only the Potlatch Corp., in its regional economic impact. With earnings in the year 2000 of $54.5 million, it finished ahead of Lewis and Clark State College, the Lewiston and Clarkston school districts and the City of Lewiston.

Gaming hasn't made the tribe wealthy, but it employs 260 people and allows the tribe to do things that otherwise wouldn't be possible. Net gaming revenues in its 2004 fiscal year were $5.7 million, money used in part to support the tribe's high-profile work on water, fisheries, wildlife and other issues. Its experts on a variety of fronts are well-versed in their specialties and not afraid to play hardball, challenging the state in court when they think it necessary to protect their rights.

The tribe has been a leading force in endangered species restoration. It assumed management of wolves in Idaho when the state declined in 1995. Audubon Magazine recognized its wolf recovery program as one of the top 10 environmental accomplishments of the 20th Century. The tribe's management and advocacy for salmon have helped restore runs in the Clearwater and Salmon rivers and led to a landmark water agreement with the state to provide water and habitat protection.

Fisheries, with a staff of 230, employs more people than any other departments except gaming. Crow, who works in the trout ponds division, helps manage four lakes but is especially proud of a pond in Orofino.

"Tunnel Pond is the only one on the reservation that's open to the public," he said. "When we started working on it 11 or 12 years ago, we had to remove 16,000 yards of junk. Now it's like a park. We put fish in the pond, and tribal members fish for salmon there. There are two nesting pairs of Lewis woodpeckers, wood ducks ... We even found a rare, ringneck snake there. We let people from a retirement home come there to fish. The youngest was 81. They had a ball."

The tribe, he continued, "believes in ridgetop-to-ridgetop salmon recovery. How can we restore the salmon if we don't take care of the land? We have 150-foot riparian zones on any stream we log. Our lakes all have riparian zones around them. We're working with the Forest Service to obliterate roads and put in fish-friendly culverts. Two years ago, we obliterated 180 miles of roads, mostly in the Clearwater National Forest."

The tribe's approach to managing hatcheries emulates nature. S-shaped raceways are inlaid with rocks and logs, and flows are fluctuated to exercise the fish. Raceways aren't screened, so fish learn to dive when they see shadows as they would in a natural stream.

"In other hatcheries, people walk right up to them and feed them," Crow said. "At ours, the theory is the less human contact, the better."

It appears to work. The tribe has restored both chinook and coho salmon runs, with far less expense than it took the state to restore Sockeye salmon in Redfish Lake.

Limited human contact allows rare species to survive on the reservation.

"The reservation is a gap because it's private land, and we don't let just anybody come here," tribal wildlife biologist Marcie Carter said. "We're sort of a little island of paradise. We have rare animals like great gray owls, pygmy owls, pygmy nuthatches, willow flycatchers and ringneck snakes. We have rare plants, too.

"... I spent five years working on wolf recovery. The tribe stepped up when the state didn't want wolves, and we brought the wolves back. There was no economic benefit to the tribe in that; we never hunted wolves. It was more of a cultural thing. Historically, the tribe is connected to all the critters."

The Nez Perce today remain a tribe divided.

They are Christians and non-Christians.

They are treaty and non-treaty. Nearly a century and a half after the Treaty of 1863, some non-treaty Nez Perce on Washington's Colville Reservation still consider treaty Nez Perce at Lapwai to be sellouts. Full-blood Nez Perce are enrolled in other tribes solely because of the treaty.

They are traditionalists and progressives. Elections for seats on the tribe's executive council are lively, well-attended affairs. Opposing factions animatedly support candidates for change or for staying the course.

They're even divided by water. Some members of the tribe saw the recently completed Snake River Basin Adjudication as a workable compromise. Others considered it yet another assault on their treaty rights.

"It's greed," Sobotta said. "People always want more. First it was gold, then it was land, now it's water. A lot of people are uncomfortable with the SRBA. They feel like our treaty rights were negotiated away again."

The Nez Perce also continue to experience adverse effects from a way of life their ancestors found alien but had no choice to accept. The tribe's diabetes rate is 10 percent, about twice the national average. Of those on the tribe's diabetes registry, 60 percent are overweight or obese.

"Our health was good until the 1930s, when the diet changed from dried and smoked meats to pan-fried, greasy food, white bread, Twinkies — our systems just got a shock," Nez Perce Patient Advocate Seth Leroy said. "A lot of our people don't hunt, dig roots, fish or pick berries anymore. That means less exercise, and that combined with a less healthful diet means diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, hypertension, cardiopulmonary problems ... Our health just isn't as good now."

Alcohol continues to be a problem. Statistics on alcohol-related arrests are inconclusive, showing declines in some years and increases in others. Simone Wilson, who dealt with alcohol abuse as the tribe's social services manager and as a recovered alcoholic herself, says "there aren't many social drinkers here. The incidence of alcohol use probably isn't greater than anywhere else, but people drink harder. Europeans can drink socially. They had generations to build up a tolerance. Indians didn't."

To that, Rebecca Miles adds that alcoholism "is not just an Indian problem. The devastation of alcohol to my people in the past century is tied more to historical trauma than immoral abuse. Until we can understand the devastation of taking away our homeland, our language, our culture and expecting us to be 'free' in this free country, then we will continue to ask ignorant questions of alcohol abuse and Indian people."

Lapwai High School's 2003 dropout rate, the latest year for which statistics are available, was 44 percent — more than twice the statewide average of 19 percent. Part of the reason for that is that families tend to move a lot from one reservation to another, taking students out of school when they go. Still, Lapwai High School is better known for producing basketball teams than scholars. Basketball season lasts 12 months in Lapwai; pickup games are continual even during football and baseball season.

Outside Lapwai, the playing surface isn't always even.

"Players on one of the teams at the state tournament last year kept saying racist things to our players," Borgeau said. l"'You don't belong here; you're just a bunch of Indians. Why don't you go back to the reservation?' They did it the whole game and even after the game."

Borgeau and other gatherers have wept to find their roots and berries plowed under or destroyed by pesticides.

"These are places our people have used for centuries," she said. "To us, they're sacred. People should show respect, but they don't."

Some say the state doesn't show respect, either.

"We're the ones who brought the wolves back, but the state has never recognized us as managers," Carter said. "We had to rewrite the bighorn sheep agreement because the state didn't want us listed as co-managers. We do the work, but we aren't considered equals."

The reservation's unemployment rate is about about 13 percent, down from 38 percent in the early '90s but still more than three times that of the state as a whole. Three-fourths of the Lapwai School District's students qualify on the basis of income for free or reduced-price school lunches. The statewide average is 43.3 percent.

Two centuries after the fact, the Nez Perce are still trying to bounce back from Lewis and Clark.

"It still brings tears to my eyes to think about what our ancestors went through," Miles said. "... People look at where we are, not just our successes in the newspaper but our social problems on the reservation, without thinking about how we got where we are. I get a little frustrated when people forget how we got here, how we evolved in seven generations to me and where we are now."

The evolution continues.

"I always wondered why my mother didn't teach me my language," Simone Wilson said. "Later, I found out that they had it whipped out of them. ... I have friends who are always apologizing for what their people did to our people. I tell them there's nothing they can do. All we can do is move on."

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