Excerpt from “Selling Your Father’s Bones” by Brian Schofield ~~Colville Reservation~~

picture-SellingYourFathersBones-BrianSchofieldChief Joseph’s grave, fittingly, stands proud in a scene of despair. A small white obelisk sits in the far corner of the Nespelem cemetery on the Colville Reservation, surrounded by small bundles of gifts from Nez Perce visitors, and by less tasteful donations from foreign tourists who should never have passed through the graveyard’s gates. Because, as you look out from behind the chicken-wire fence, over the dry, rutted earth surrounding the chief’s memorial, its shallow undulations begin to make sense – this is a mass grave. Scores of unmarked burials recount the poverty and illness that ensnared the exiled Nez Perce during their early years in this dusty corner of Washington. Many, far too many, of the graves clearly hold infants. It’s a sickening sight and it’s impossible for an outsider to guess how it affects those who know that their ancestors dug these trenches.
Soy Redthunder knows. His lineage, on his father’s side, ‘runs right down through Joseph’, and his family had stayed in Colville ever since the Wallowa band had been dropped here in 1885. With his grey ponytail pulled back tight from his aviator shades, this barrel-chested and booming civic leader cut a combative figure as he crouched over a picnic table below the towering Grand Coulee Dam – and like most of the Colville Nez Perce his thoughts were never far from the conflict that brought his ancestors here. ‘Chief Joseph was sold out. That history is still drilled into us – he stayed in the Wallowa, and the bands from Lapwai, they signed the 1863 treaty, they received money, they received land, they received treaty rights, and they sold Joseph out.’
The divisions that the Reverend Henry Spaulding had brought to the Nez Perce, that the treaty negotiators had exploited, and that the events of 1877 had sanctified with blood, were far from healed: ‘Even today, when people talk about Nez Perce, they talk about treaty and non-treaty, Christian and non-Christian. Those are still the divides. And you can talk about reconciliation all you want – but that doesn’t change the fact that the non-treaty tribes are still getting the shaft. We’re an exiled people.’
In the early twentieth century these exiled Nez Perce, along with the other eleven Colombian tribes who’d been corralled onto the Colville Reservation, had suffered the same painful diminution as their relations back in Idaho. If anything, the band’s slow acceptance of the realities of farming worsened their poverty – but at least, as Yellow Wolf had recalled, they had their salmon, a bountiful supply from the main stem of the Columbia River as it wrapped around the south and east of their lands. All of the tribes on the Colville, some of which had been occupying this land for thousands of years, were salmon people, and the rituals, status and sustenance the annual migrations brought them defined their struggle for survival.
Work on the Grand Coulee Dam started in 1933. It was, and still is, the largest concrete structure in America. Its construction required a new city of almost four thousand people, the gleaming boomtown of Grand Coulee; a 21,000-acre lake of water was backed up behind the dam, irrigating an agricultural explosion; and if any dam won the Second World War it was Grand Coulee – it powered the construction of half of America’s warplanes.
It also didn’t have a fish ladder in it. A 1400-mile salmon run was entirely cut off, the largest of all the ruined migrations – and, just to make certain, a second, equally impassable, dam was put in downstream in 1953: the Chief Joseph Dam.
The Colville Reservation, completely ignored during the dam building, was shattered, its great wellspring of wealth and Indianness sunk without a trace. The psychological price was paid in alcoholism, suicide and family breakdown.

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1 Comment

Filed under Literature, Non-Fiction

One response to “Excerpt from “Selling Your Father’s Bones” by Brian Schofield ~~Colville Reservation~~

  1. Brian Schofield travels through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana sharing the story of the local indigenous people – the Nez Perce – and how they endured the impact of white settlement. The tale covers their epic exodus as they seek to escape the pursuit of the United States Army, and exposes what has happened to their treasured land over the last hundred years of ecological mayhem.

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