“We were living a good life,” said Albert Redstarr Andrews in a meditation concluding the second Plateau Conference, “and we were disturbed.” What might be taken as gracious understatement also resonated with profound loss.
In spite of a generally liberal sensibility and Native great-grandmother, I confess there have been times upon hearing Native Americans speak of the injustices of manifest destiny and conquest, I’ve wondered when they will finally accept, no matter the past injustice, that this is simply the way things are. Having attended the conference in October, however, I find I am still capable of learning.
The focus of this year’s conference was the Palúus people, who had inhabited the Palouse region, wintering along the Snake River. The Palúus never signed a treaty and were thus known as the “renegade tribe,” which is the title of the history of the Palúus people by former Washington State University historian Clifford Trafzer and Richard Scheuerman. Scheuerman earned his master’s degree in history from WSU and has written many books about regional history. Both men participated in the conference.
Soy Redthunder, from the Colville Reservation, Chief Joseph Clan, opened the conference by having the members of long houses present join him in a song. The song, like others throughout the conference, was in a minor key, prayerful, and mesmerizing. Ron Pond and Palouse Falls Drum followed with an honor song.
Because they never signed a treaty, the Palúus were never assigned reservation land and were largely dispersed. Many of the Colville Federated Tribes have Palúus ancestry, as do other Plateau peoples.
Carrie Schuster, a Palúus elder who now lives in Yakima, lived on her family allotment on the Snake until they were finally driven off in the 1950s. “We still talk about coming home,” she said.
In fact many of the Palúus were returned home recently, through a process euphemistically termed “repatriation.” Last spring, Palúus remains that had been stored in museums, including those at the University of Idaho and WSU, were reburied, on a bluff above the Snake. It was a momentous, if partial, step toward rectification.
“We need to get our people back in the ground where they belong,” said a participant in a conference workshop titled, “The Palúus Rest Again.”
“They shouldn’t be sitting on shelves,” she said.
Later, Barbara Aston, interim director of the Plateau Center and coordinator of the conference (and a member of the Wyandotte and Seneca tribes), told of reburying some of her relatives and how “time fell away.”
Not only did I get a basic lesson in Plateau culture, but also a good solid glimpse of an entirely different sense of time and place. Or rather, a different sort of memory. One that compresses time and melds it inextricably with place and kin. It is a memory that cannot forget, for it is cultural identity.
This sense of reclaiming time and history permeated the conference, with sessions on native language, Chief Kamiakin, and native people becoming scholars of their own history blending with drumming and singing in sorrow and determination.
Earlier, Soy Redthunder had noted that October 5 was the anniversary of Chief Joseph’s surrender in 1877.
“For our people,” he said, “it was just like it was yesterday.”