Aaron Miles is the natural resource manager for the Nez Perce Tribe.
What is the historic Nez Perce relationship with the Palouse?
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?
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.
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?
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?
What does the Nez Perce bring to the table to benefit this area?
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 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?
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.