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Nez Perce elder talks of modern importance of traditional culture


Havre Daily News/Ryan Berry

Silas Whitman, a Nez Perce elder, speaks to a small group of people Sunday at the Blaine County Museum in Chinook. Whitman talked about Nez Perce culture, tradition, use of plants and about the Battle of the Bear Paw Mountains that took place in 1877 south of Chinook.

Several generations after The Battle of the Bear Paws, the cultural practices of the Nez Perce Tribe are still being used and passed down, and they have virtue in modern society, a tribal elder speaking in Chinook said last weekend.

  "We know different things and how to work with things and we'd observe, we were taught all those skills, be patient," Silas Whitman said.

Whitman spoke Saturday and Sunday at the Blaine County Museum, relaying his own life experiences from growing up as a Nez Perce, living on a reservation and the lessons he has learned. These lessons, he said, were passed down from his ancestors, including his great-grandmother who was a Bear Paw Battlefield survivor. Practices have been significant to the Nez Perce people, including traditional medicines, using plants for food and spiritual practices.

  The Battle of the Bear Paws marked the end of the Nez Perce War of 1877 and was where Chief Joseph made his famous speech before surrendering, concluding with, "From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more."

The Nez Perce War started in Idaho, where 800 tribal members fled from the U.S. Army troops for more than 1,200-miles, through Oregon, Washington and Montana, in an attempt to flee into Canada. But the U.S. Cavalry cornered the Nez Perce in the Bear Paw Mountains, south of where Chinook now is, at The Bear Paw Battlefield, where the Nez Perce made their final stand.

Whitman said he was born in Lewiston, Idaho, in Nez Perce County and grew up in eastern Oregon, on the Nez Perce Reservation, he said he learned some of the most important life lessons from his grandmother slong with the traditional tribal ways of his people. 

"I learned all these things just watching," he said.

He added that he learned a number of things from being close with his grandmother. He remembers having her sit him down when he was a child and telling him that people, no matter who they are, can be mean and cruel, telling him stories of the Nez Perce War. She added that it is important for him to learn to talk to people.

"I didn't really understand what that meant, but in later years learned the importance in the ability of seeking common ground," he said.

She also taught him the "Golden Rule," he said, which was whoever has all the gold makes all the rules.

He added that common ground is different from middle ground, middle ground referencing a compromise, while common ground references co-existence.

Co-existence doesn't only refer to relationships with people but the world, he said. In his early years, when he was a child in school, he was taught to look at nature in an observational way, specifically studying replication of wildlife.

Replication of wildlife is studying certain resources, looking over decades and decades to see commonalities, he said, also referencing to this as the "wheel of life." Looking at streams or waterbeds, he could see different fish at different times, sometimes more or fewer or in a different location. He later reasoned that the Creator had a methodology, a pattern for this behavior, and it was that the Creator didn't want to overextend the habitats.

"It's OK for them to wander," he said.

He said that some modern scientists would argue this, wanting to contain the animals in specific areas. But everything has a purpose and letting nature run its course enriches habitats and ecosystems, falling under that wheel of life, which will always continue to move forward.

"Our job was to observe," he said.

The practice is common within some tribal cultures, with some tribes recording these changes within the environment using rocks, such as recording the number of trees, much like some modern scientists do currently, he said.

"All that was society unto itself, just demonstrated by different types of management applications," he said.

As a young child, he said, all of his time and effort was spent trying to make a place for himself with other peers and with elders in his tribe, but he also learned the importance of reading and found a wonderment in books.

"That was shared with grandmother, who could neither read nor write or speak English," he said. "But she saw the words, these books that were encased in leather, 'Oh, they are pretties. Oh, they look good, there must be something valuable, you tell me what's in there.'"

He said he remembers his grandfather, who was a man of the land - a farmer and cowboy like many others in the area where he grew up - and subscribed to Life Magazine. He added that his grandmother would often come inside from working and lay the magazine down before him, pointing to each one of the pages and asking him to explain them for her.

In one instance, he and his grandmother were looking over an article about the Notre Dame football team, he said, which had pictures of men with missing teeth and bruises.

"She could not figure out why people would beat themselves up so much," he said.

As time has moved forward, modern people don't eat like they used to be taught, many of the traditions fading, he said, but that is also influenced by society.

"You have to live within your means," he said.

The land use to have an abundance of wild carrots, onions and other vegetables for people to eat, but now they are rare to find, he said. There also used to be spring water that people could drink, but that, too, has slowly faded away. But one thing that still remains is what the older generation passes down, such as cooking. 

He said he used to love to cook with his grandmother, learning all the different methods his tribe has used to eat such as smoking elk or salmon or sun drying meats.

"Where we lived at was literally a land of plenty, never a want for anything," he said.

Times change, but traditions need to be passed down because they have lessons to learn from and cherish, he said. 

"I loved being around my grandmother," he said. "She taught me a lot."


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