To get here, most elders at Washington State University’s conference honoring the Plateau Tribes had to pass by places defined now only by what they used to be.

From Oregon and Washington, they drove along the Columbia, past dams where once abundant fish runs sustained them as “salmon people.”

From Idaho and Montana, they passed land that belonged to no one, by root-digging prairies and camas fields now gated and signed, “no trespassing.”

“As I traveled up here, I pointed out things along the river to my son,” said Wilfred Jim, a 67-year-old enrolled Yakama who lives in Warm Springs, Oregon . . . this band was here, this band was here . . . but all those places? They aren’t there. There aren’t any people there anymore, either. We’re all scattered.”

Some 250 people attended the autumn event in Pullman.

“We were clobbered by colonization, disease, war and hostile federal legislation, but we survived and that’s what’s most important,” said Antone Minthorn, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation board of trustees, in opening ceremony remarks. “. . . we are tough, and we will persevere and fight our way to justice and a better future.”

The plateau tribes are those in the region drained by the Columbia and Snake Rivers, bordered by the Great Basin to the southwest, the Subarctic to the north, the Northwest coast to the west, and the plains to the east. Pullman’s central location within that territory was not lost on WSU’s leaders.

“We recognize that we sit in the middle of the historic homeland of many of those with us today,” said WSU president V. Lane Rawlins. “. . . and that makes this plateau conference increasingly significant.”

Assistant to the provost and tribal liaison Barbara Aston, herself a member of the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma, is spearheading efforts to expand trust and involvement between the University and the Northwest Native American population.

“A conference like this helps share with the tribe what our institutions are and allows us to invite their input,” says Aston. “But also it gives WSU faculty and staff an opportunity to learn more about the tribes and build on establishing that relationship.”

The conference also marks the initial step toward creating a Plateau Center for American Indian studies at WSU, an academic hub for exploring the Plateau heritage, highlighting programs to preserve language and culture, and addressing contemporary challenges. The idea is being received enthusiastically by tribal officials.

“It’s about time,” says Joe Pakootas, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation business council. “Our young people come down here for education, and the Plateau Center would give them a place where Native American students can come together.”

Native Americans are some of the most researched people in the world, he added, and much of that research-photos, oral recordings, treaties, artifacts, and other documentation-is located “right here at these universities. This could help us finally have more access to that information.”

It would also provide a transition place for young people like Ciciley Moses of Grand Coulee Dam, who struggle to strike a balance between the old ways of tribal ancestors and the new ways around them.

“It’s hard,” says Moses, 24, who works in Nespelem for the Colville Tribe’s Archeology Department. “I want to stay, yet I want to leave. I want to advance and excel in life, but I am content where I’m at. We do walk in two worlds, the modern and the traditional, and I think a center could help bridge that.”

But for all the talk of common ground, a bitterly painful past still triggers anger and grief among Plateau tribal members. While elders who took part in the conference generously imparted wisdom about the Longhouse religion, native food gathering techniques, and cultural preservation efforts, they also shared their disdain for Lewis and Clark, their concern about the racism that preceded genocide and persists today, and apprehension over the fact that “our people’s bones are in this college,” as one elder admonished. Yet despite their sadness, most participants said sharing what remains is more important than being angry about what’s been lost.

“You slaughtered my people and now, 200 years, 500 years later you are interested in this new religion, about who I am, what I am,” said Ella Jim, a 62-year-old Yakama elder from Goldendale. “But it’s important to have people understand . . . if we share, and let the circle go around, we will be richer persons.”

“Our way of life is not gone, it’s still here,” said Wendell Jim of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. “My little nephews, they are singing, they are dancing.”

Keynote speaker Michael Holloman, director of the Center for Plateau Cultural Studies at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane, also urged faculty to get to the know tribes on their own terms. To build genuine trust, professors and students should seek out the whole complex story, rather than simply doing research from the ivory towers on campus.

“Come up to Colville, come to Wellpinit, come to all the reservations,” urged Holloman, himself a former University of Washington professor. “If you are committed to our children and our students, come know them from where they are. Then next year, when there’s a second Plateau conference, all of these people will come back and we can celebrate again together.”