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White Bird Canyon: A Wish To See Cultural Healing

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White Bird Canyon: A Wish To See Cultural Healing

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John Michael’s newest Life Is a Sweet, Tender Bruise column, “White Bird Canyon: A Wish To See Cultural Healing,” shares about his dad and relationship with local Nez Perce Natives. 

My dad’s family owned an orchard along the flats of the Clearwater River just outside my hometown of Lewiston, Idaho. Dad passed in February and, until recently, I knew next to nothing about the orchard. However, the September before, I traveled to Boise to help him catch up on some yardwork and I did what I could to pull stories out of him.

The orchard had over 3,000 cherry trees, which seems like an impossibly large number. Dad struggled with gout as an adult and the conjecture was that he may have gotten the disease, which caused some severe knee pain, from chemicals he used to apply to the cherry trees.

Working the orchard was also where it was said that Dad built his legendary physical strength. The cherries in our little valley are looking to be abundant on the trees this year after a cold wet spring. We finally got a day in the 80s on the first day of summer. Last year at this time, we already had several triple-digit heat days.

An orchard the size of my family’s is going to need some pickers. I was surprised when Dad said they employed a lot of Nez Perce Indians to pick the crop. I was also surprised to learn that the Native American pickers were segregated from the whites. This was 1940s and ’50s America.

I assumed that my dad was a racist. I remember him saying stereotypical things as a kid about “drunk, lazy Indians.” But he also liked to provoke my mom who was a classic liberal. I remember her saying, “For God sake, David,” in an exasperated tone quite a bit to my dad when I was a kid. Dad was in recovery for alcohol since his mid-thirties but was never comfortable around people. I remember driving around with him one time when I was in my early 20s and he said, “I hate everyone.”

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In my adulthood, the only thing I remember Dad saying about the Nez Perce was that they were a “broken” people. I may or may not have said it, but I remember thinking, “Aren’t we all?”

During that last September visit with my dad, I was surprised to learn that he actually played with Nez Perce kids as a child and knew many of them personally while growing up. He used to go into areas where the Nez Perce were camped for Spring gatherings with his dad, in search of pickers.

The land where the family orchard was, the land where I live now, used to all be Nez Perce territory. The war of 1877 between several bands of Nez Perce led by Chief Joseph and the United States Calvary was one of the last Indian Wars and among the most famous. Joseph and about 250 warriors, along with 500 women, children, and elders, fled their homeland rather than be moved onto an ever-shrinking reservation. They had several battles with the Calvary over a 1700-mile journey through what is now Yellowstone Park to the border of Canada where Joseph finally surrendered. Some of the band did make it to Canada and took refuge with Sitting Bull’s band of Sioux.

Last Saturday, I joined a Nez Perce sponsored tour to where the first battle between the Nez Perce and Calvary took place at White Bird, Idaho. There were ten of us in a van, a mix of Native and white. I thought I was going for a history lesson. But it was actually a ceremony marking the anniversary of the Battle of White Bird Canyon.

White Bird Canyon, Photo by John Michael

When I found this out, I became uncomfortable. Who am I to intrude on a sacred Nez Perce ceremony? Our tour guide runs a Native gift shop in town, and I have gotten to know and really like her over the last couple of years. She assured me that my presence was fine and that it was her grandfather’s wish to see cultural healing.

The ceremony was lovely and included some Nez Perce kids riding their sturdy mountain horses, the Appaloosa. They also had a talking circle at the end where many Natives shared personal stories.

Where does a story begin and end? What heals generational trauma?

Where does a story begin and end? What heals generational trauma? … Both cultures and individuals need time to heal from trauma. 

Both cultures and individuals need time to heal from trauma. My own healing will probably take my entire lifetime. Most Native American tribes culture and spirituality was tied to the land. After the wars, many Nez Perce children were sent to boarding schools, they were granted a tiny fraction of their ancestral homelands, they were not allowed to use their own language or practice their own spirituality. But after hearing some stories at the ceremony, and in my own interactions and friendships with tribal members, I can say the Nez Perce culture and language are alive and well.

This was going to be a short introduction to a story about some kids I have gotten to know through doing a community feed at a church in Lapwai on the reservation. I will tell that another time.

Here is a poem I wrote after attending the ceremony.

Gray and white in the sky
Green, tender hills
Jagged outcroppings
Songs in a native language
That is foreign to me
Mournful and celebratory
I too know these things
Smoke from pipes carry prayers
To the sky
To the ancestors
Trauma in the land
Trauma in the culture
Trauma in myself
Spotted horses
Tall grasses
Field flowers
Colorful as the children
Healing for the sake of the land
And for memory
For me
For you


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John Michael

Hello, good people. I am rarely sure how to describe myself. If I say I am a Christian, many things may arise in your mind that ain't necessarily so. I was homeless for seven years and learned more about myself in that stretch of time than in any other segment of my life. I read the Bible a lot out there and came across a passage in Proverbs that has shaped my approach to life: "A man's pursuit is his kindness." I am well educated with a Master of Social Work degree and have worked a wide variety of jobs in my 52 years. None have lasted too long however. When I was homeless, the beauty of Texas wildflowers made me decide to want to live again. Along with kindness, beauty, play, and self-expression are life-guiding ideas. My shadow contains things like feeling sorry for myself, a truckload of defiance, a desperate need to please women, and no small amount of cruelty. A quote from Luke also has had a lasting effect on me: "For God is kind to the ungrateful and the evil." When I read that I thought, "Hell, I have got a fighting chance." I am here to tell you, you have a fighting chance as well. Besides Christianity, practicing Buddhist and Shamanic techniques inform my relationship to God and the world.

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