Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Longhouse in the Wallowas

We’ve been talking about building a Longhouse on the grounds of the Nez Perce Homeland Project (Wallowa Band Nez Perce Trail Interpretive Center, Inc. is the official name of the organization) outside the town of Wallowa for many years. I can’t remember exactly how many.

For those of you who get these blog posts and do not know about this project, a very brief intro: In the spring of 1877, Young Chief Joseph led the Wallowa, or Wal-lam-wat-kain band of Nez Perce Indians out of their homeland, across the Snake River, intending to join other bands on a reduced reservation in Idaho. Conflict erupted, the Nez Perce War ensued, and after years of exile in Leavenworth and Indian Territory, the Indians returned to the Northwest, but not to the Wallowas.

About 1993, as the big celebration of the Oregon Trail’s 150th anniversary got underway, a group of local people and tribal members from Lapwai, Nespelem, and Umatilla got together and made an organization. We then bought 160 acres with money we got from the Oregon Trail license plates (and some help from the Lamb Foundation and Cycle Oregon and others). We soon built a celebration arbor and then Tamkaliks, a summer celebration that had been held at the Wallowa school and in other locations in July since the late 1980s, moved to the new grounds and arbor.

I’ll steer clear of mentioning names—there are too many—except to say that without Taz Conner and Terry Crenshaw, two elders, one Indian, one white, who have both passed, we would have no grounds and thus no Arbor and no Longhouse.

Years ago, after we had built the arbor and acquired another 160 acres, some of the tribal members who were here for an annual meeting strongly stated that a Longhouse should move to the top of the “to do” list. A donor stepped up with $75,000 to kick things off. So we started planning—and planning and planning. Talking with elders and especially Longhouse elders from the three places in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. And then, as Joe McCormack (I know I said I was not going to mention names, but Joe is the Nez Perce Tribal member who lives here in the Wallowas and so has had to shoulder a lot of the load over the years) likes to say, we talked with the women elders about it all and things started coming together.

Two years ago we built a Longhouse kitchen, and since then have been working seriously on Longhouse plans and raising money to build it. We raised money. We hired contractors. Joe and the contractors found good trees on nearby forest land. And this spring the building began.

And on Saturday we had an open house. The word spread quietly among local friends and to the reservations, and about 60 people showed up to see the guts of the building as it is under construction. The 56 foot very straight red fir ridge log is 28 inches in diameter with only slight taper. It is beautiful, hand pealed, rubbed and caressed and carved to sit atop two large pillars that are tied to foundation and ground with adjustable plates that can be taken up as logs shrink. The pillars or posts themselves are carved to slide over timbers that allow for movement—for this shrinkage.

The Longhouse has bathrooms and storage on the west end, and a gabled open porch to the east—to the rising sun. There will be a dirt floor in the ceremonial area, and foods will be moved easily from the adjoining kitchen to participants inside. It is expected that naming ceremonies, funerals, and other special events as well as regular Seven Drum ceremonies when elders are here will all be part of the Longhouse agenda. Even some other non-ceremonial uses will be possible. Like in a church. It is a church. A Plateau Indian church.

Traditionally, services were probably held in “long tents,” long buildings of hides, canvas, or tule reeds stretched over three or more sets of tipi poles. There have been Seven Drum ceremonies here during powwows and at other times in the summers—mostly out in the open—for many years that I know, and undoubtedly many more than that.

But there is something beautiful about this more permanent building, a recognition that the Nez Perce might have been put out of here over 100 years ago in the rush to settlement and settler agriculture, western movement and manifest destiny—but they have never really left.  And the water, salmon, deer, elk, roots and berries that provided for the Indians and Longhouse feasts before contact, before the European and the horse, the diseases and wars and industrialization of the land, the things that were here then are here still. And will grace the tables at the Longhouse in Wallowa for generations.

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