Alan Pinkham is a Nez Perce tribal leader living on the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho. This interview was conducted in 2003.
Were the Nez Perce surprised to see white men in September of 1805?
We knew they existed way to the east before Lewis and Clark even came here. So we understood a lot of things about this whole continent we called an island, because it was surrounded by water.
And we knew of these strange people. We didnít even know if they were human beings because they didnít look like us, but we knew they were coming. It just surprised us that Lewis and Clark showed up one day in Sept of 1805. We had a lot of questions about them. They had a peculiarity about them. And they had an ability we didnít have that is writing. The elders said we needed to understand how they do that. Actually it was how do they do business? Well, they do it by writing.
We finally determined they were human beings. How then do we deal with them? Well, we need to get what they have and we need to learn to write like they do. And they sent out a bunch of missionaries, thinking that what we wanted was the Bible. Well it wasnít the Bible. Writing was part of it. We understood who the earth was, Mother Earth, Father Sun. We asked that question of Lewis and Clark but they didnít understand that. We never got a good answer, and they didnít even want to write about that because thereís nothing in the journals.
What kept the Nez Perce from killing Lewis & Clark?
It was a difficult choice with Lewis and Clark. We had to make a trade off. We knew what Lewis and Clark possessed. We knew Lewis and Clark possessed powder and lead and firearms. They would make our lives easier and protect us as well, and we didnít know how to make those things. We needed to understand how these things were made, so we needed to understand how they did this writing.
People donít give us the credit for being progressive and inquisitive but we were. We had a 2000-mile radius that we traveled because we wanted to know what was going on; but we were not given that credit.
When Lewis and Clark came out here. We picked their brains. Red Bear said when he heard they were here, ďIíve got to smoke with these peopleĒ. When you smoke with them, you pick their brains.
We could have been more hostile. We could have wiped them out. But they had resources we didnít have Ė so we had better treat these guys well. Feed them, take care of the horses, help them make canoes, guide them down the river. We thought we were going to get something back. But we never got anything back. All they wanted was more so we gave up more. But we were still treated lousy. We were still dispossessed.
What do you think when you hear the phrase the ďLewis & Clark trailĒ?
Lewis and Clark were following our trails. They were following what we call the buffalo trail to Yellowstone and Missouri country. Itís probably the least untouched area in Idaho and probably the northwest. It has an esthetic value to us. We have a sense that this is where we were created. We still have a sense of belonging here because this is where we were created. Weíre not going to move anywhere.
We didnít have to go some place else to find what we needed. Everything is provided right here, the salmon the birds insects, all here. We had it all from the river system to the top of the mountain.
We had a good life here until somebody came along and told us we were poor and wretched. My father said, ď we had a good life until somebody came along and told us we didnít.Ē
What has been the impact of Lewis & Clarkís visit?
It has had quite an impact. This is one of the last areas that has been relatively untouched in Idaho. Environmental protection right now is a top priority for the Nez Perce tribe because weíve seen whatís happened over the last 200 years. The decimation of the buffalo, wolves are nearly extinct. You could count them on one hand 15 years ago in Idaho and now there are over 200 wolves; and the Nez Perce tribe has been instrumental in that. And weíre doing that with the salmon, too, establishing our own hatcheries.
We have to get involved in the management of our own environment because we consider ourselves part of it. We are not separate. Christianity tried to separate us from it and that was wrong. I do not call myself a Christian because I do not want to be associated with them to that degree. They have been telling so many falsehoods over the years. Why should I believe that if they canít practice what they preach?
Thereís a whole mindset that weíve had to change over the last 150 years and weíre still doing it. Many of the Christian Nez Perce still apply themselves to the traditional ways and have not renounced their culture.
We still carry the message. We need to protect mother earth. We need to protect all the resources. It is no easy task. The mindset of the Euro-American is to conquer, control, possess. Thatís what it has been for the last 500 years and we want to turn it around. Share and protect Mother Earth rather than exploit it. Itís a very hard message to sell. Many people are listening. We have done things right. At the same time there are those who have got to go cut a tree down or go dig up more gold and minerals because thatís what they need to maintain their lifestyle. Thatís the justification for the exploitation of resources. The battle was going on 200 years ago and itís going on today.
Why are the Nez Perce involved in the Bi-Centennial celebrations?
We want to educate the people, tell another opinion about Lewis and Clark. Itís our story of the last 200 years of history. We want to have input rather than go to a high school or college and hear about Manifest Destiny and conquering and possession of territory. Thatís not our story.
We have a story to tell and that story is based on sharing and friendship and being a good neighbor. You share with your neighbor Ė your knowledge and story telling and history so that when you look back over 200 years your neighbor begins to understand, and mistakes made over the course of 200 years arenít repeated.
Jefferson thought it would take 200 years even for the white people to get west of the Mississippi but it only took 30 or 40 years. The development was very rapid, probably because a lot of Indian tribes accepted what was happening because they wanted some of the things white society had. How to get them? By treating those guys good. The society in return did not treat us good. Dispossession still occurred.
It is with a lot of mixed feelings that I state some of these things because I know the history of my people and I know what happened and I know why it happened. I cannot go back and change anything. The law said this is the way it was going to happen and did happen. Changing the law is very remote. It is white societyís law, not our law.
For the last 200 hundred years we somehow survived all of this violence and genocide and pox and measles and the onslaught of the missionaries. Weíre still here after 200 years. Thatís the message we would like to convey and weíll probably be here another 200 years at the minimum.
Iím working on a book with Dr. Steve Evans, a retired historian. What is written in journals people accept as the truth. Itís true through the angle of American eyes. Looking through Nez Perce eyes, they are missing at least 50% of the story we should be telling.
Itís not this intrepid duo of Lewis and Clark conquering the great unknown. We were already here. We accepted THEM into our neighborhood, into our country and let them go through our country. We were the good guys. Why donít we get that in return?