Nez Perce Tribe celebrates the return of historical artifacts
by Gail Strange | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — It has been said that “justice delayed is justice denied.” However, after a great injustice against the Nez Perce Tribe, the Nimiipuu people recently celebrated the correction of a grave injustice.
On June 26, 2021, tribal members celebrated the 25th anniversary of the return and the renaming of a collection of 21 Nez Perce artifacts crafted by Nez Perce men and women in the 1800s. This collection was renamed WetxuuwÍitin’, which means “returned home after a period of captivity,” and was another important step to help shed the colonial legacy surrounding the history of these items and reclaim this important part of Nez Perce culture.
According to the 25th anniversary planning committee, the Rev. Henry Spalding, a Presbyterian missionary assigned to the Nez Perce reservation in 1836, worked to convince the Nez Perce people to convert to Christianity. As part of that conversion process, he urged — or perhaps forced — his followers to divest themselves of their traditional regalia.
Some of that regalia, which included clothing, horse accessories, bags and other items, were collected by Spalding and shipped to his friend and benefactor Dr. Dudley Peter Allen, in Kingsman, Ohio. After Allen’s death, his son, Dudley, donated the Spalding-Allen Collection to Oberlin College in 1893. Oberlin College, in turn, loaned most, but not all, of the collection to the Ohio Historical Society (OHS) for safekeeping, where it languished for decades. It was initially loaned to the Nez Perce National Historical Park (NPNHP) in 1980.
In 1992, the OHS asked for the loaned items to be returned. This request resulted in a series of loan extensions to the NPNHP and opened internal tribal discussions about how to keep the items where they rightfully belonged. Following a great deal of research and discussion, it was determined that the Tribe could not claim any of the items under existing federal law. Thus, a decision was made to launch a fundraising campaign to buy back the collection.
The items were collectively valued at nearly $600,000. The Tribe’s General Council established a committee to lead the fundraising effort. A Nez Perce delegation traveled to Ohio in 1995 and entered into an agreement with OHS to purchase the items, with a purchase deadline of June 1996.
By May 1996, the Tribe, with the help of more than 4,000 organizations and individuals from around the world, accomplished its goal. One item, a cradleboard that had been collected by Spalding, was not originally loaned to the NPNHP. In late May, the curator from the NPNHP traveled to Ohio to bring back the cradleboard. Finally, the collection was together and now fully owned by the Nez Perce Tribe.
To further right this injustice against the Tribe, on November 23, 2021, the OHS returned the $608,100 the Tribe raised in 1996 to purchase the collection.
“We received an invitation to the renaming ceremony from the Tribe,” said the Rev. Sheryl Kinder-Pyle, Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest. “I thought this was incredibly gracious and generous given our role in the history of these articles being taken away.”
The ceremony “was this beautiful event that joined various parts of the identity of the Nimiipuu people together,” Kinder-Pyle said. “It began with a ceremonial horse parade with appaloosa horses and warriors circling three times around the gallery with the warriors chanting and drumming.”
“Then they exhibited their patriotic identity with the color guard bearing the U.S. flag as a part of the color guard ceremony. It continued with the Lord’s Prayer being signed and said in the Nimiipuu language,” Kinder-Pyle said. “So you have these three different strains of their identity coming together, all part of this ceremony. You could feel the drums reverberating inside of you and the warriors’ cries just enveloping the whole gathering. It was a sacred moment.”
Kinder-Pyle says the presbytery’s efforts with the Native American community is part of a bigger ministry initiative. “After the apology issued by the Rev. Gradye Parsons, former Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, in 2017 to Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians, as a presbytery we were inspired to look into our history and our relationship with our Native American community.”
“We have four native churches that are PC(USA) within our boundaries. And so that’s when we really began our reconciliation work with the Nimiipuu people. We had the Rev. Irv Porter [the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s associate for Native American Intercultural Congregational Support] come and do a blanket exercise with us,” said Kinder-Pyle.
The blanket exercise is an interactive workshop that aims to foster understanding about the Doctrine of Discovery, which the 222nd General Assembly of the PC(USA) repudiated in 2016. “One of my pastors after that event wrote this beautiful thing,” Kinder-Pyle said. “He wrote, ‘I had known the history, but this time I felt it.’”
According to Kinder-Pyle, the presbytery is on a long journey of reconciliation. “We’re not thinking this is a one year or even a three-year kind of initiative,” Kinder-Pyle said. “We’re in it for the long haul.”
Porter was also present at the Renaming Ceremony as he is also a descendant of the Nez Perce people through his mother’s heritage and came into preparation for ministry through First Indian Presbyterian Church in Kamiah, Idaho.
“Though these items are not numerous, they are nevertheless important to the Nimiipuu people,” Porter said. “They are examples of precision artistry, elements from the land which the people have inhabited from time in memorial and precious items handled by the Nimiipuu crafters in the mid-to-late 1840s.”
“Often, these types of implements, clothing and utilitarian items were dedicated in prayers and ceremonies for their intended owners,” Porter said. “Maybe those owners gave them up themselves so modern descendants could know their talents and skills.”
Despite the heat of the day, many participants wore traditional regalia, Porter said, made from buckskin and colorful beads and adorned with precious eagle feathers to “enhance the beauty of their attire.”
After the ceremony, “I visited the Nez Perce National Historical Park Museum and Visitor Center near the park where the naming ceremony was held,” Porter said. The collection is displayed under glass and sits “alongside displays of other Nez Perce artifacts, including modern artwork done by many artists whom I have known,” Porter said.
“For me, the cradleboard is the most impressive item in the collection,” Porter added. “Its history even within the collection is a story unto itself, with the fact that it had to be retrieved from the Ohio Historical Society and physically carried from Ohio to the Lapwai, Idaho museum, is most incredible.”
“The items were shipped in barrels down the Clearwater River to the Columbia, then on the Pacific Ocean,” Porter said. “From there to the Hawaiian Islands, around the tip of South American and on to Boston. They were then shipped overland to Oberlin, Ohio, a distance, roughly calculated, of 19,000 nautical miles. The trip from Oberlin, Ohio to Lapwai, Idaho is about 2,366 miles, making the collection’s total roundtrip mileage 21,366 miles in their 149-year journey.”
A letter of thanks — and apology
Together with Celeste Brown, the presbytery’s Leadership Team Moderator, and the Rev. Steve Lympus, the presbytery’s Moderator, Kinder-Pyle sent this letter last March to the Nez Perce Tribe:
“The Presbytery of the Inland Northwest appreciates the opportunity to partner with you in support of the Renaming Ceremony of the Spalding-Allen collection of Nez Perce artifacts. Enclosed is our gift of $5,000 which we hope will assist in your planning of this crucial event.
“As Executive Presbyter I am honored to be invited to participate on June 26th. I am happy to speak or simply celebrate with you. Several members of our council will also attend.
“The Presbytery has begun a long journey to understand our history and our complicity as a church in colonialism and the violence on the Nimiipuu. We apologize especially for the role that our missionary, Henry Spalding, played in the wounding of your people and the taking of these cultural artifacts.
“The Leadership Team (Council) of the Presbytery has discussed the journey of the artifacts and we are saddened that they were taken from their home and that the reacquisition of this important collection cost the Tribe so much financially and emotionally.
“We affirm your amazing fundraising efforts to bring the collection home and are grateful to be included in this historic renaming ceremony.”
Sheryl Kinder-Pyle, Executive Presbyter
Celeste Brown, Leadership Team Moderator
Steve Lympus, Presbytery Moderator
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Categories: Advocacy & Social Justice, Racial Justice
Tags: artifacts, blanket exercise, celeste brown, doctrine of discovery, dr. dudley peter allen, nez perce national historical park, nez perce tribe, Nimiipuu people, oberlin college, ohio historical society, presbytery of the inland northwest, renaming ceremony, rev. gradye parsons, rev. henry spalding, rev. irv porter, Rev. Sheryl Kinder-Pyle, rev. steve lympus, spalding-allen collection, WetxuuwÍitin’
Ministries: Gender, Racial and Intercultural Justice