They’re just thankful to be alive.
Disease and warfare once threatened the lives of these Indians - the people who now make up the Colville Confederated Tribes.
Now, they battle for sovereign immunity.
Indians across the country were outraged when Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., proposed stripping away a treaty right that protects tribes from civil lawsuits. His proposal, which has been rejected for now, also would reduce federal funding for the wealthier tribes.
“We are celebrating the survival of a people,” said Mel Tonasket, a member of the Lake band of the Colvilles. “Every Congress has had people like Slade Gorton who constantly attack Indian rights and resources. … But we’re still here.”
Hundreds like Tonasket gathered Friday to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the Colville Indian Reservation.
In 1872, 11 bands of indigenous people were forced by the U.S. government to live in a 2.8 million-acre area in north-central Washington. Half the land was eventually taken from them. They also were joined in 1885 by the Chief Joseph band of the Nez Perce, who were banned from their homeland in northeastern Oregon.
Before 1872, these Indians were nomadic people who harvested berries, fished the free-flowing Columbia River and hunted elk, deer and other game.
They had no understanding then of boundaries.
“It’s depressing,” said Barbara Friedlander Aripa, a 65-year-old member of the Moses-Columbia band. “After (white settlers) found gold, we ended up without a place. We have a home now, but it’s not the same.”
That’s why the anniversary evoked feelings of joy and sadness for many Colvilles.
They were happy to see old friends and to honor their culture with food and dancing. At the same time, many of the elders dwelled on the loss of their people.
“We’ve always had to fight for what was ours,” said Sheila Cleveland of the Lake band. “Days like this bring back memories of suffering, humiliation and shame.
“Think of what our grandparents went through,” she told the crowd. “Remember today so you can share it with your grandchildren.”
To help preserve their traditions, Friday’s celebration included prayers recited in both the Christian and Seven Drum, or native, traditions. Children served their elders food. Dancers in fancy regalia performed traditional dances to the steady beat of a drum.
Aripa, who wore otter fur in her gray braids and beaded moccasins on her feet, cooked more than 250 pounds of salmon and half of a 300-pound elk.
“Being a descendant of Chief Moses, it is our role to feed the people,” she said as she barbecued the salmon fillets. “Moses made sure people had food.” Alex Sam, a 69-year-old from the San Poil band, served moss from a tamarack tree. As a child, he learned how to cook the black, licorice-like delicacy from his grandparents. It took him about three days to bake the moss with hot rocks in a pit 3 feet deep.
“I’m glad I learned so I can pass it on to the young ones,” he said.
While the atmosphere seemed festive at first, it was hard to ignore the sorrow - the bittersweet history shouldered by the older generation.
“There’s a heartache,” said 70-year-old Mary A. Marchand, who traces her roots to the Methow, Wenatchee, Entiat and Chelan bands. “We never forget the past, but we try to look to the future.”
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