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Saving Lewis and Clark 

by Ann M. Colford


While the Nez Perce recognize the 125th anniversary of the tragic War of 1877 this year, the tribe also plays a prominent role in another major anniversary -- the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark's journey across North America. Many historians believe that the mission may have faltered had the Corps of Discovery not stumbled into Nez Perce territory and received help there.


The Nez Perce story of light-skinned, blue-eyed people arriving on the camas prairie in 1805 does not differ much in factual content from the version found in William Clark's journal and other "official" accounts. What's different, however, is the perspective.


The Corps of Discovery knew they were on a journey that likely would change not only their own lives but the future course of their country. The Nez Perce had no desire to change anything about their settled existence in the lands that had been their home since time immemorial. But change would come following the strangers, along with diseases, missionaries, an increasing flow of migrants from the east and limitations on travel, fishing and the land itself. Ultimately, the goodwill extended by the Nez Perce to Lewis and Clark has been repaid with many losses for the tribe: loss of life, loss of land and loss of traditional cultural ways.


Long before Meriwether Lewis and William Clark began their journey, prophecies among the Nez Perce -- or Nimiipuu -- foretold the coming of the soyaapo, or white people. Ever since the Nimiipuu had acquired horses in the 1730s, tribal members traveled far to the east and south to hunt buffalo and trade with other tribes, so they were not living in idyllic isolation. When the Corps of Discovery straggled out of the Bitterroot Mountains and across the Weippe Prairie during the season of camas-digging, their arrival sparked much discussion among the Nimiipuu camped there. Thanks to the visitors' "upside-down heads" (bald on top with hairy chins) and blue "fish-like" eyes, many wondered if these beings were truly human, despite the prophesies. Some of the young men in the camp thought it might be best to kill them.


According to the oral accounts handed down, it was the word of an old woman, Wetxuuwiis, that saved the Corps of Discovery from a sudden end to a shortened journey. When Wetxuuwiis was a young girl, she had been captured in a raid by another tribe and taken east, where she first encountered the soyaapo. After escaping her captors, she made her way back home, aided along the way by light-skinned people who treated her well. When the Nimiipuu were debating what to do about the soyaapo in their midst, Wetxuuwiis urged them not to harm the party. Because they respected her as an elder, the Nimiipuu extended a hand of friendship to the group, feeding them cakes and soup made from camas and showing the travelers how to hollow out large pines to make canoes for the rest of their journey. The tribe held and cared for the Corps' horses until their return the following spring. Local headman Twisted Hair even traveled with the Corps down the Columbia River as far as the trading center at Celilo Falls.


While most contemporary Nez Perce acknowledge that contact with the soyaapo was inevitable and brought benefits to the tribe along with the many losses suffered, there are a few who hold the opinion that the tribe probably would have been better off had they eliminated the Corps of Discovery at first sight. Still, much of the tribe's identity has grown out of their record of kindness and the difficulties that were to follow.


The tribal Web site (www.nezperce.org) has a section dedicated to telling the stories of Lewis and Clark, the treaties of 1855 and 1863, and the conflict of 1877 from the tribal perspective. The tribe also has created a Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Committee to define and plan an appropriate local commemoration of the event that changed the ways of the Nimiipuu forever.

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