Two Wallowa Band Nez Perce elders shared some very nontraditional stories with students in classrooms across Wallowa County on May 6-8. Coyote (Itsey’eeye) did not appear in a single one. Instead, Albert Redstar and Veronica Redstar, brother and sister, told the heart-felt saga of the post-1877 lives of the Walwáama, or Joseph band of the Nez Perce.
Fishtrap Story Lab and the Alvin Josephy Library at the Josephy Center co-sponsored visit. “It’s been a very long and difficult journey for Joseph’s people,” said Josephy Library Director Rich Wandschneider. “Even in Wallowa County, it’s not widely understood that Joseph’s band was largely exiled to the Colville Reservation in northern Washington, instead of being close by at Lapwai. It’s great for the schools here to help tell that story.”
Fishtrap Story Lab’s Cameron Scott has worked with Wallowa fifth grade teacher Jennifer Gibb’s class to produce a short film about the 1877 War and also the Joseph’s Band’s long trek back to the Northwest. “The schools and the kids are really enthusiastic about learning this history,” he said.
In Enterprise, the Redstars told their stories to the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th grades. Students eagerly answered their questions, shared their knowledge of Nez Perce history, and mobbed the two Nez Perce elders with additional questions after the official story-telling was done. “This is really important for the kids. It’s really meaningful for them to meet some of Chief Joseph’s descendants,” said sixth grade teacher Colby Knifong.
Albert Redstar and Veronica Redstar, brother and sister, direct descendants of Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt (Chief Joseph), grew up on the Colville Reservation in north-central Washington. That’s where most of Chief Joseph’s Walwáama (Wallowa) Band was exiled, after a long and torturous journey from their 1877 capture at Bear Paw Meadows in Montana, to stockades in North Dakota and Minnesota to imprisonment and disease in Oklahoma Indian Territory. Only after Chief Joseph repeatedly journeyed to Washington D.C. to lobby for their return to their homeland did the Walwáama return to the Northwest, in 1885. Those who converted to Christianity were permitted to return to the Lapwai Reservation in nearby Idaho. The rest were partly marched and partly transported in railroad cattle cars and boxcars to the Colville Reservation, 300 miles from their Wallowa County homeland. Today, families and members of the band that once lived in the Wallowa Valley are split between the Colville Reservation and Lapwai Reservation, with others who escaped capture at Bear Paw Meadows living in Canada or on the Umatilla or Yakama Reservations. They are a people who only now, four generations after their exile, are coming to grips with its trauma.
“A lot of people think that our history ended in 1877,” Albert said. “But we are alive and adapting to the 21st century today and into the future.”
Yet the trauma of a needless war, loss of families and culture, and brutal incarceration still linger. “Our grandparents experienced the war of 1877 as small children and survived the subsequent march and removal to the Colville Reservation. They never talked about the war. It was too painful. It was a response to trauma inflicted by the brutality of war and relocation. Our culture was stripped from us.”
The Colville Nez Perce have never abandoned their native religion which relies on discovering an emerging we’eyekin spirit in oneself, and a connection with the Creator. Much of their persecution, including their exile to Colville, hinged on their beliefs. “Our religion has made us outcasts,” said Albert. “But we chose it. Our grandmother took us to the three churches and we chose to go back to the Longhouse.”
The schism between the Nez Perce on the Lapwai and Colville Reservations began before the war of 1877, and continues to this day. It is partly based upon religion, and partly based on history, Albert noted. But it runs deep. “When Chief Joseph visited the Lapwai Reservation in 1900, he was shunned,” Albert said. “He was considered a member of an old religion, who did not speak for those Nez Perce on the Lapwai Reservation.”
Today, the Wallowa Band Nez Perce Homeland Project in Wallowa provides a place for the Nez Perce people exiled to Colville to return. Some of the old enmity between tribal members on the Colville and those at Lapwai is fading. “I think it will heal with time,” Albert Redstar said. “But it will be slow. There’s a lot to overcome.”