The peal of voices rose above the tepees.
“Jesus is all the world to me,” a group of Nez Perce Indians trilled in unison, their eyes fixed on the words printed on burgundy “Praise and Worship” books.
For decades, hundreds of Nez Perce from all over the country have gathered on this hilltop near Craigmont, Idaho.
They set up tepees and portable toilets. They build campfires and host barbecues. They sing hymns, study the Bible and worship God - the same one introduced to them in the 1800s by Christian missionaries.
“We are celebrating the Gospel being brought to us,” said Annette Penney, a Nez Perce Indian and church elder in nearby Kamiah. “After the Lewis and Clark expedition, (missionaries) shared the book of heaven with our people.”
Unlike some of the traditional Nez Perce in Nespelem, Wash., who believe in the Great Spirit, many in Idaho are Presbyterian who read the Bible. Their Christian legacy started in the mid-1800s when Henry Spalding started a mission in nearby Lapwai. This month’s gathering at Talmaks celebrates that history and the 100th anniversary of the Nez Perce Indians’ Presbyterian camp meeting.
For the past century, Indian families have spent two weeks of the year atop this 4,000-foot-high butte. They come not just to visit with other families, but also to pray and “be closer to God.”
“When you know God, you realize how much more you want to know Him,” said Rachel Aripa, leading a group of about 40 people during a hymn service in the camp’s church. “He is so precious to me.”
The Talmaks celebration this month was nothing like a powwow or traditional Indian encampment.
No one wore feathers or moccasins. There were no stick games, drumming or traditional dancing. Fry bread wasn’t even a staple at the dinner table.
Except for the tepees, the atmosphere was more like summer camp: An American flag hung above the doorstep of nearly every cabin. Red, white and blue streamers decorated the poles, the buildings, even the antennas on cars. Children rode their bikes, played games and swam in the lake when the weather was warm.
“You don’t have to wear buckskin and headdresses to be Indian,” said camp elder Cecil Corbett of Scottsdale, Ariz.
Being Indian, many say, is something you feel inside.
They’ve learned that at Talmaks, said Edith Strombeck, of Lapwai.
The area is sacred, many Nez Perce say. Some families come from as far as West Virginia and Arizona just to be here. Each has a specific cabin or campsite they return to every year. Most have missed only three or four gatherings during their lifetime.
Strombeck, 65, can hardly see or walk. Her hair is gray and her face wrinkled. She moves slowly with a cane, taking as long as 30 seconds to walk 15 feet.
Still, she doesn’t skip a camp meeting. The only time she couldn’t come was when she was a missionary, preaching among the Hopis and Navajos in Arizona.
“When I come up here, I feel closer to the Lord,” said Strombeck, a Nez Perce elder with a rich, bass voice.
Sitting at a campfire outside her family’s cabin and tepee one evening, the church leader roasted marshmallows using a two-pronged twig and told the history of Talmaks and the Christian Nez Perce.
“This is a family gathering,” Strombeck said, recalling her childhood years when hymns of devotions could be heard from every tepee. “It’s always a spiritual uplift to me.”
Talmaks, which means “thunder over the buttes” in Nez Perce, has become a place of renewal for the Presbyterian Nez Perce, Corbett said. “It is a sanctuary for the worship of God.”
While their gathering resembles those of other Christian groups, the people at Talmaks maintain an Indian identity.
At the front of the camp church, for example, hangs a violet quilt with a message on a gold cross: “God - Ki Piwaukunyu Hanaka Nun.”
“God Be With You ‘Til We Meet Again,” the words say in the Nez Perce language.
Sitting on mint-green pews or folding chairs, the Nez Perce Christians look upon this quilt when they study the Bible.
In the makeshift building made of 2x4s, tarp and sheet metal, they sometimes sing Christian hymns in the language of their ancestors, their loud voices accompanied by the twang of an electric keyboard.
Being Indian has little to do with what a person looks like, said Corbett, the former president of what’s now Cook College and Theological School in Arizona.
And becoming Christian, he added, doesn’t mean becoming less Indian. The two go hand in hand.
As Nez Perce and as Presbyterians, they honor the family and their surroundings, he said. They combine the oral teachings of their ancestors with the Gospel of the church.
The two make up an “Indian Bible,” he told the congregation during a service one evening. Their messages, he said, are one and the same: “Respect for the Creator and creation. Respect for others and respect for one’s self.”
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