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Growing up Nez Perce: when they are not shooting hoops or dancing to hip-hop, these Nez Perce teens ride horses beneath the open sky.

Along the rocky hills behind Jon and Rosa Yearout's ranch, Nez Perce (nehz PURS) teens gallop on lean, spotted horses called Appaloosas. The sun has begun to sink below the horizon, turning patches of blue sky a raw purple and the clouds ash gray.

This is the heart of Nez Perce country; where ancient traditions and modern conveniences, including cell phones, video games, and laptops, collide like atoms.

Kellen Lewis, 16, spends his summers here. While his mother and stepfather, Kathy and Joe Lewis, remain back home in Spokane, Washington, Kellen takes part in special Nez Perce ceremonies with his grandma Rosa. He also helps his "Papa Jon" train horses.

"Everyone says that when my grandma and grandpa got married, their horses got married also," Kellen remarks.

The Yearouts own the largest herd of any family on the reservation. Their horses are similar to the type ridden by the Nez Perce centuries ago.

The tribe's reputation for excellent horsemanship goes back to the early 1800s. U.S. explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were the first white visitors to record their admiration for the Indians' sleek herd.

"Their horses," wrote Lewis, "appear to be of an excellent race: they are lofty, [elegantly] formed, active and durable: in short many of them look like the fine English [horses]."

In September 1805, members of the Nez Perce tribe, including Kellen's ancestors, met Lewis and Clark for the first time. Some wanted to kill the explorers, who had just completed a difficult trek across the Bitterroot Mountains. But the Indians decided to help the half-starved white men. They fed them salmon and camas (from the lily family) roots, showed them how to burn out logs to make canoes, and guided them toward the Columbia River.

It was, Lewis wrote in his journal, "a much greater act of hospitality than we have witnessed from any nation or tribe since we have passed the Rocky [M]ountains. In short be it spoken to their immortal honor.

But the U.S. government did not return the tribe's kindness. Beginning in 1855, a series of treaties stripped the Nez Perce of much of their lands--and, in the process, their traditional way of life.

"[Before,] we had salmon, we had deer, elk, [and] buffalo," says Allen Pinkham, a tribal elder. "All these things were available to us. Good water was available to us, [and] the four seasons."

When white settlers began to spread across Indian lands, the Nez Perce were told that their culture "meant nothing," says Pinkham--that it was "savage" and "uncivilized."

A Rich Heritage

Today, the reservation is more than 3,000 strong, with many people working for the tribe's government and in the local fisheries and paper mills. Despite such problems as poverty, diabetes, and alcoholism, the Nez Perce are "doing well in many ways," says historian Steve Evans, who lives on the reservation with his Nez Perce wife, Connie. "They had wise leadership in the past, and that leadership is paying dividends. They're placing a great emphasis on education."

Says Anna Calkins, director of the Boys & Girls Clubs in Lapwai: "The community raises you--your aunties and uncles, everyone."

Many teens go salmon fishing with their elders and learn to hunt deer, moose, and elk. While visiting the reservation, Kellen loves to "swim the horses" and camp on lands sacred to the Nez Perce. Each summer, he and members of his family ride a section of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, a mountainous stretch of 1,170 miles. The trail commemorates the 1877 flight of Chief Joseph and his band of about 700 from the advancing U.S. Army (see GeoSkills, p. 17).

"The story of the Nez Perce is woven into that trail," says Kellen's grandmother, Rosa. "Many people know who their ancestors were on that trail. We always talk about the Founding Fathers of [the U.S.]; I think that way about the people of that war. We're all related." Kellen and Rosa axe descended from Chief Joseph's sister, Sarah.

"I Know Who I Am"

When he is back home in Spokane, Kellen turns his attention to choreography and dance.

"I want to be a backup dancer for a celebrity," he says. "I like hip-hop and pop, stuff that you can dance to. But I listen to anything-even country and oldies."

Kellen is grateful for the rich heritage his Nez Perce family has passed down to him. And while he is able to move comfortably between two worlds--urban and rural, traditional and modern--he still feels that a part of him is incomplete.

"I can tell you a whole bunch about my mother's side of the family," says Kellen. "But I don't really know about my biological father. He's African-American and lives in California. So I really have nothing on that side of the family."

Kellen would like to meet his father some day. "I want him to know that I know who I am," he says, "that I didn't just give up."

Red Grizzly Bear

Like Kellen, Sky Watters, 14, is a member of the Nez Perce Appaloosa Horse Club.

"We just go around the hills," says Sky, a freshman at Lapwai High School. "It's fun. I started because I wanted to learn how to ride horses."

Sky, who also enjoys playing basketball and golf, is a descendant of Chief Joseph's younger brother, Ollokot. This summer, his extended family had a powwow (social gathering) in Wallowa, Oregon, near Chief Joseph's gravesite.

Before the powwow, Sky took part in an ancient rite of passage: He received his ceremonial Nez Perce name. "My name, Red Grizzly Bear, was given to me by my grandpa Irvin," says Sky. "In Nez Perce it's Hahkauts Ilpilp [HUH-HUH ILP-ILP]."

Sky also received a traditional Nez Perce vest. But for him, the event had a distinctly modern flavor. Instead of camping out in a tepee, Sky and his family spent two nights at a hotel. And instead of feasting on salmon and camas, as their ancestors might have done, they had dinner at a Chinese restaurant.

Sky lives with his grandparents, Dwight and Jenny Williams, and his younger sister, Lydia. Like many of his friends, he plans to study the Nez Perce language in high school.

"People are starting to understand the importance of the language," says Steve Evans. "If you know the language, you know the country--the land and the rivers and the seasons."

So far, Kellen, Sky, and other Nez Perce teens seem to be absorbing their cultural heritage while keeping pace with the modern world.

"People here always talk about how once a culture dies, it'll never come back," says Kellen. "So that's one of the things I've helped to keep going."

Your Turn


What are some Nez Perce traditions that Kellen and Sky might be learning?


Students should understand

* Many Nez Perce Indians living in Idaho maintain strong connections to their ancestral roots and culture.


Ask students to name a word or phrase they think of when they hear the word "Indian." Write these associations on the board.


The Nez Perce Indians refer to themselves by the name Nimi'ipuu (NEE-me-flow), which means "The People." The name Nez Perce is from the French for "pierced nose." No one is sure where the name came from. Some say that a French interpreter gave the tribe that name in 1805 after seeing some members wearing decorative shells on their noses.


COMPREHENSION: How did the Nez Perce lose their lands beginning in 1855? (The Nez Perce signed a series of treaties in which they sold parts of their land to the U.S. government. The U.S. government did not honor those treaties and demanded more land as white settlers began to spread farther west into Nez Perce territory.)

NOTING DETAILS: How do some Nez Perce teens remain connected to their cultural heritage? (Today, many Nez Perce teens fish and hunt with older relatives, visit the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, and ride horses. Others attend powwows, learn to speak the Nez Perce language, and participate in ceremonies that honor Nez Perce ancestors.)


NATIVE AMERICANS & WESTWARD EXPANSION: Instruct students to review the Nez Perce-U.S. government treaty of 1855. Students should explain, in a written report, how the U.S. government failed to honor the agreement. Students should then discuss the implications of that failure for Nez Perce Indians living in the West.



* People, places, and environment: How the Nez Perce Indians today in Idaho maintain their cultural and ancestral connections.

* Power, authority, and governance: How the U.S. government failed to honor several treaties with the Nez Perce and ultimately stripped the group of its land holdings.



* Stout, Mary, Nez Perce (Gareth Stevens, 2003). Grades 5-8.

* Yates, Diana, Chief Joseph (Ward Hill Press, 1993). Grades 5:8:


* Nez Perce Tribe

* American Indians cmnh/exhibits/north-south-east-west/index.html
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Article Details
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Author:McCabe, Suzanne
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 10, 2003
Previous Article:Lewis & Clark: journey into the unknown: a group of daring explorers headed west from Missouri nearly 200 years ago. Their journey would change the...
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