Guest Opinions

We could learn from Nez Perce, Idaho’s original community builders

Rod Gramer
Rod Gramer

Following the ugly division that became the 2016 presidential campaign, we might look toward the Nez Perce for guidance on how to have a more respectful discourse regarding the issues that face our state and country.

The week before the election, leaders of Idaho Business for Education met with the executive committee of the Nez Perce in Lapwai. We wanted to discuss what IBE was doing to help students succeed academically.

We covered that ground, but traveled down a trail I didn’t see coming.

The tribal leaders listened with respect. Then shared what they were doing: Making education their highest priority. Funding early education and kindergarten for all children. Focusing on data to measure whether students are succeeding. Funding scholarships for all students who go on to postsecondary education.

With a portrait of Chief Joseph peering down, the tribal leaders also made it clear that they are not just concerned about the educational welfare of the Nez Perce students. They have invested money in non-native students as well.

The meeting quickly turned from us talking to us listening and asking questions of them.

Often when IBE meets with people we get an hour or less of their time. Our meeting with the Nez Perce went for more than an hour and a half, and we even had to politely cut it off so we could get to our next meeting.

What amazed us was how these leaders not only respected us, but each other. Daniel Kane, who led the meeting, asked each committee member to talk. As he did this, he held out both hands toward the member as though offering a gift. No one talked over another. Every exchange was respectful.

Leaving, we commented on the respect that filled the room. It was clear that community — the general welfare of all people — was the paramount concern of these tribal leaders.

That caused me to reflect on how most of the rhetoric in the last campaign was aimed at tearing people down instead of lifting them up. How little of the debate focused on how we can build community and collaboration instead of strife and division.

A myth permeates our political discourse that our nation — and the West in particular — was won by rugged individualists who stood on no one’s shoulders and pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Rugged individualists swept through the West depleting the beaver population and the gold, moving on to the next pelt-rich watershed or gold strike.

The people who settled the West were the native people like the Nez Perce, who lived here hundreds of years before the pioneers who traveled together by wagons across the country.

These were not rugged individualists. They stood on each other’s shoulders as they raised barns, plowed fields, dug canals, built churches, erected schools and opened businesses. In short, they built the communities that still grace our great state.

It’s ironic that our political discourse often relies on the model of the rugged individualist to guide our policy decisions. But in our families, churches, schools, businesses and athletics, we stress the importance of community.

We could all learn a lot by spending an hour or so with the leaders of Idaho’s original community builders: the Nez Perce.

Rod Gramer is president of Idaho Business for Education

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