Aaron Miles

Aaron Miles is the natural resource manager for the Nez Perce Tribe.

Aaron MilesWhat is the historic Nez Perce relationship with the Palouse?
Before there was any real settlement here on the Palouse, the Nez Perce used this for a major gathering site for camus. It’s similar to the Camus prairie but it’s also different. It’s not as high in elevation as the Camus prairie either, so you had probably longer growing seasons than the Camus prairie.

Also, the Nez Perce utilized north of Moscow quite a bit, and out towards Laird park. And everybody knows this as a major gathering site. It’s everybody’s gathering site for huckleberries, and the Nez Perce knew this.

And the sad thing is really that this land has become private land. It also had the big ponderosa pines, that kind of pine savannah habitat type that supported our culture; and so, when those trees were cut down and converted to agricultural lands, you lose a big connection to a geographic area, and we don’t have the ability to hunt on private land.

So the tribe today, we exercise rights on the surrounding federal lands and that’s more to the east of us, and we try to remain with some sort of connection here. There was a project to dig out camus bulbs along highway 95. They’re in the process of widening it right now and putting those camus bulbs on tribal trust lands. So that was a cooperative effort to put it on tribal lands. They didn’t want to lose any more camus.

What are the Nez Perce names for things here?
Moscow's original name is "tukkinma." Palouse is a Nez Perce name, as well; and "palouts poo" refers to the people of the Palouse. "Palouts pa" is the place, and so English speaking people end up just cutting some of those things off and making them more beneficial so they can say them easier. So Palouse is a derivative of those Nez Perce names and connotations.

Our connection is somewhat superficial, but we want to rebuild it to much more like our ancestors had. Quite a bit of deer up here that the tribe used to harvest. A lot of deer, and moose was also a major source of food for us. In the cultural landscape, Moscow Mountain, one of the highest peaks in the area, probably was considered a place for vision quests.

appaloosa horse in field

So, as I stated, this place was much more significant than some of my peers who are younger than me will even know; and we want them to understand that this is their land, even though it may be in private land. I would have a dream for this Palouse to go back to its original state. There is a lot of conflict between the Indian way of life versus ranching and farming. Ranching and farming is not paying the dividends, and most of the farming way of life is disappearing; but in those places where it cannot happen, it would seem to me that those long time ranchers and farmers would eventually convert their land back to its original state, and that would make our grandmothers smile.

This landscape really gets under your skin, doesn't it?
Yeah, it does. It’s really sad with like the Paradise creek here. It’s one of the most polluted creeks in the state of Idaho. It exceeds all the EPA standards for contamination. It’s really sad, because I know it was a place we drank water from. And it pours into the Snake River; and that’s where salmon migrating up are impacted from streams like this. I would hope that these farmers around here would get alternative measures. I know right now for many of them it’s not economically feasible to go to organic farming and look at other means of protecting the environment.

Also, the gradual loss of Palouse soil is happening as we speak. The wind blows and the Palouse is known for the winds coming out of the west and southwest, and every year that loess soil, that most productive soil in the world, is blown from this place. It has taken thousands of years to build a resource for agriculture. In China they have loess soil twenty, thirty, forty feet deep, and we don’t have that luxury like in China.

To have our horses taken from us... It’s wrong for that to be taken and stripped from you. And we’re still dealing with the emotional effects of the war that the Nez Perce never wanted.

Agricultural practices, I think, must change. When you come up from Lewiston to Moscow, you will see instances where you will see clay soil underneath; and the loess soil has completely blown off, and now it is exposed. So it is alarming. It is a concern. And how are the farmers going to protect those resources? Not for just the Nez Perce people but for their own families. The grandson who is going to take over the farm. What are they doing for that individual?

You have a forestry background. From that perspective, what has changed?
I think the loss of the ponderosa pine savannah habitat was huge. I think farmers can take advantage of the CRP program to restore their lands, and there also are some deciduous trees that were also native to this area that could be replanted. I think our biggest challenge today is noxious weeds. Whether you are Indian or non-Indian, noxious and invasive weeds are a threat to Idahoans; and it’s important that people become more educated and aware of how to take noxious weeds out, and that’s what the tribe is heavily involved with. Trying to reach out to land owners and say, this is the way we attack star thistle or some of the other noxious and invasive weeds.

What does the Nez Perce bring to the table to benefit this area?
The tribe brings what I call a "returning to innocence." One of our projects was carbon sequestration, so every time you plant trees, you leave them in kind of like an easement, in benefit of fixing carbons out of the atmosphere. So putting in more trees and returning these landscapes into their original habitats not only has huge benefits for the Nez Perce culture, but it also can equate into money for people who want to engage in that activity. We would love to see more cooperation with farmers. Maybe there’s something in the camus, and those medicinal plants that we’ve yet to unfold; and if the farmers are willing to work with us to return that type of habitat, that would be really awesome to the tribe.

There are a lot of younger people who don’t know our way of life, but there is so much for me to learn as a young man. The sad part I think in our culture is that you must spend a lot of time. It’s a very practical way of life, and you must spend a lot of time to become an expert or a professional. That kind of lifestyle doesn’t pay, and that’s the sad part of our every day life. But how do we get back to that life style? It starts with habitat. Without the habitat, how do you begin to take on those types of roles within the tribe and have a beneficial standing in the tribe? We want all of our kids to be somebody who is going to practice and form their own niche within the tribe so they can contribute to the society as a whole.

How are you introducing young people to tribal ways?
It’s really tough. I think the tribe has much to overcome after the boarding school era that our elders had gone through. A lot of those connections were really broken, and I think my generation, we’re trying to figure out how do we get the horse culture back. The tribe has its own horse program, and we’re trying to get young kids to be involved and really it’s almost like trying to find the answers even from our neighbors who are non-Indian and they have a ranching way of life.

It doesn’t do us any good to judge or to try to get them out of their way of life, knowing that part of our lifestyle may hinge on the knowledge they have. The training aspects, like shoeing horses, all that whole bit that was taken from us after the war of 1877. My kids, it’s exciting because they’ve learned from a great-aunt. She has Appaloosa horses, and every summer they have riding lessons, and that’s a huge step for somebody who has lost out because of the Nez Perce war.

That’s the sad part. To have our horses taken from us, all of our weaponry, all the utensils and things you would need to survive. How could it be? It’s wrong. It’s wrong for that to be taken and stripped from you. And we’re still dealing with the emotional effects of the war that the Nez Perce never wanted.

Ten years from now, what would you like to see here on the palouse?
I would like to see the farmers try to go towards more conservation practices, and I realize there are things that are not feasible, but we’re in this landscape together. The water quality is so important to the tribe in maintaining. It’s not just on fish-bearing streams. We have to shore up the practices.

The erosive rates that are taking place right now, it’s too fast. Think about this from a geological perspective – that it has taken tens of thousands of years, maybe hundreds of thousands of years for this Palouse prairie to form, and in over 100 years we’ve managed to let some of that disappear, and the wind has blown some of the loess soil off these ridge tops. That’s very fast when you think about it from a geologic perspective.

And there’s a lot of room for building bridges among the Nez Perce tribe and area farmers, and I just hope that people are willing to reach out. Like young Chief Joseph said. He mentioned that he was going to talk to those white men who will listen. And I think really that’s kind of our plight. The philosophy of the tribe today is, we have to find those white people who will listen. It’s not us who control the private land. We’re not the federal government. We’re just trying to keep our way of life and I hope people would respect that.

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