I have lived in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley for almost 32 years. I think most of you would agree with me that it’s a great place to live, raise children, meet many diverse and wonderful people and learn about the long and complicated history right here in and close to Lewiston.
I have explored, read and researched lots of the things that made this region so great:
l Mining for gold and other minerals.
l The pioneer spirit in the back country of Hells Canyon and the Salmon River, the Frank, Gospel Hump and Selway-Bitterroot wilderness areas.
l Timber harvest days in places such as Headquarters, Dworshak and the North Fork of the Clearwater, south to Riggins.
l The people who lived in the backcountry between Riggins and Hells Canyon.
But there is also the not-so-great history of Christian groups that came here to tame the indigenous people who lived here. They were not savages. I also explored many old cemeteries of pioneers and Nez Perce tribal members were located all over this region.
Recently I heard more firsthand stories of people terrorized by the Christian missionaries who came here. These included family stories and personal stories of people being removed from their homes and families to be taken to Indian reeducation or boarding schools.
There, they were forced to stop speaking their native languages, cut their hair and dress a certain way. You would be beaten if you did not follow the Christian ways. Many were physically, mentally and sexually abused.
It’s hard to comprehend.
Twenty years ago while shooting a video in Spalding Park about the rights of passage with hunting from the Native American perspective, I learned some of the horrible things the esteemed Rev. Henry Spalding did to the Nez Perce people who would not stop drumming, singing their traditional songs in Nez Perce, sweating and wearing their traditional clothes, among a long list of other things Spalding did not like.
Walking through the forest from the river to where the Spalding cemetery is, my guide, Black Beaver, mentioned: “There is the whipping tree.”
I stopped walking and looked at the tree.
It was a ponderosa pine with the face of the bark scrapped off and a horse shoe pounded into the face of the tree.
I asked Black Beaver to stop.
“Wait a minute, a whipping tree? What do you mean?”
He proceeded to tell me this was where young Nez Perce men were brought to get whipped for not speaking English, not singing English in church or continuing to sing their traditional songs in Nez Perce.
My brain was confused. Everything I had read about Spalding and his wife, Elisa, was positive. They were missionaries who brought the word of God and the Presbyterian way of learning to the land of the Nez Perce, just as the Rev. Marcus Whitman had at Walla Walla for the Cayuse.
Recently, after many years of planning, fundraising and praying, the Nez Perce at Lapwai realized their vision of having a long house come true.
I was encouraged to go on Sunday and I am glad I did.
For years, I watched Nez Perce elder Horace Axtell ring the bell and sing songs of the 7 Drum Religion. The songs are not allowed to be recorded.
Missionaries recognized the 7 Drums practices in the early 1830s and put pressure on many Sahaptin tribes to convert to Catholicism and other Christian ways for praying and worshiping God. Many did not.
It’s also called Washat or “dance.” Some people refer to it as a religion. It’s more a way of life and subsistence that involves respecting mother nature, all living things, fish, berries, deer, roots and water. Government and federal agencies banned the practice. It was held in secret for many years. Why?
Because it ran contrary to federal assimilation policies and encouraged the retention of “savage” practices and customs. The Office of Indian Affairs tried to stop Washat services by using any means necessary on each reservation.
Imagine someone coming into your house of worship and telling you to cease and desist.
The new long house at Lapwai is on Thunder Hill Road, south of Nez Perce National Historic Park. It’s beautiful. Many Nez Perce craftsman did excellent woodwork in tying the huge overhead beams together with tongue and groove woods. Natural sun light shines in. The sound inside is crystal clear. The sound of the drums echoes off the structure. It is powerful.
The long house was built with a dirt floor surrounded by concrete. The dirt is a connection to the Earth.
A man there told me many wandering spirits will now come home to the building. That will make it a more powerful structure to the people who pray there and come to reconnect with a tradition in their lives that goes back 10,000 years — and was almost lost.
Sayre of Lewiston served as regional director to former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig. His email address is email@example.com.