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The True People

Nez Perce 1Lewiston (Idaho). Clarkston (Washington). Get it? Lewiston and Clarkston, two towns named for the legendary American explorers and located on opposite sides of the murky Snake River.

I rode in the backseat of the airplane/station wagon to Lewiston last week and landed in the tiniest airport ever. When you deplane and enter the terminal you can give high-fives to the folks going through security. You think I’m kidding. The rental car company picked me up at the airport’s front door and took me to the agency where I met Emily, a young, friendly, professional, and happy manager who told me what she had learned about the area in the five days since she arrived. My economy rental became a Suburban, and I wondered if this was actually Mayberry.

I drove the Suburban (the approximate size of the airplane) to my Airbnb rental where the warm welcome continued. Jack and Regina have a lovely home on the Clarkston side of the Snake with a sweeping view of the river valley and surrounding mountains. Regina left a scrumptious loaf of pumpkin bread in a room that was also stocked with fruit, yogurt, chocolate, and cheese along with juice, water, beer, and wine. On my last evening Jack invited me upstairs for a relaxing conversation on their spacious deck where I was welcomed as if I was family. I sent my wife a text to say that it was a good thing that I loved her so much because otherwise I might never come home.

Twice, I enjoyed a lazy run along the river. It is about a five-mile loop across two bridges and two state borders to run both the Clarkston river trail and the Lewiston levee. The dogwoods in full bloom. The pungent smell of the meandering river with driftwood hitching slow rides. The wildlife — squirrels, birds, ducks, and even a lone gopher. The troubled skies. An occasional walker and even more rare fellow jogger.

I dined in restaurants with names like Rooster’s, Jawbone Flats Cafe, Waffles ‘n More, and Tomato Brothers. But the history of the area — and what drew me there — was the sad story of the Nez Perce tribe.

The Nez Perce lived there first. They call themselves Nimipu — “the true people” — but French explorers saw a couple Nimipu with pierced noses and assigned that name — “the pierced noses” — to the entire people. The Americans signed a treaty of coexistence with them in 1855 but a later controversial treaty in 1863 reduced the tribal lands by 90% and led to a conflict resulting in the famed Flight of 1877, a military pursuit of the tribe including young and old that ended with Chief Joseph’s legendary statement, “I will fight no more forever.” Those who survived were exiled to faraway Kansas.

I drove out of town to the Nez Perce National Historic Park Visitor Center in sovereign lands to get a sense of the sad story. I walked the trail to the Spalding Presbyterian Church (pictured above) and contemplated the complicated relationship between natives of First Nations and Christian missionaries. And I learned that the Americans had long ago forced the Nimipu into boarding schools where the teachers attempted to erase their very language — an effort that nearly succeeded. Today, great efforts are underway to revive and recover the language before the few who still speak it pass away. It is all a sad story without a happy ending. As one Nimipu said in the visitor center film, “We still are in exile.”

I enjoyed my visit to the area named for Lewis and Clark very much and encountered nothing but lovely people and natural beauty. But like me, and like those early explorers, it sure was white. I can’t help but wonder what it might be like today if my American ancestors had let the Nimipu be. I’m sure the Nimipu wonder as well.