Standing like a weathered pine at the edge of Musselshell Meadow, Horace Axtell could see 60 acres of grass and 120 years of history.
It was here, said the 72-year-old Nez Perce spiritual leader, that Nee Mee Poo - the people - camped with Chief Joseph on the first night of their fighting retreat to Montana in 1877.
“This is the beginning point,” he said, surveying the plentiful camas and crystal stream that cuts the glade from east to west.
Drifting pine smoke and the drumming of hooves once again echoed through the pristine meadow as 20 young Nez Perce gathered at the feet of their elders on a recent afternoon for another beginning: a graduation.
The children, all Nez Perce who have had difficulty learning in conventional schools, are the first Nez Perce Mounted Scholars, a new program based in Lapwai, Idaho, and jointly developed by the University of Idaho and the Chief Joseph Foundation. The program aims to help troubled youths meet the demands of the present through contact with the past.
Melanie Hamilton prefers to call it “culturally appropriate learning.”
“We do math, reading, science, all with the focal point of the horse,” said Hamilton, 23, the program’s teacher and coordinator since its inception a year ago.
Georgia Johnson, an assistant professor of education at the University of Idaho who helped set up the program, said the children have special needs, but she rejects traditional labels to describe them.
“These children are not at-risk,” she said. “It’s the uneducated who use that term. It’s also culturally loaded. I don’t understand the Nez Perce culture enough to label a child.”
Funded by a two-year, $172,452 grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust (set up in the memory of the late Fred Meyer), the program aims to teach children to get along with teachers and peers, at the same time teaching them academic subjects in a way that applies to their lives.
“Responsibility, accountability and respect - those are our three,” said Hamilton.
For the Nez Perce, it would be difficult to find a more culturally appropriate learning symbol than the horse.
But not just any horse.
“It has a speckle on its eye, stripes on its hooves and polka dots on its rump,” said 12-year-old Carl Powaukee, pointing out defining features of the appaloosa.
The speckles, stripes and dots formerly meant little to most of the youngsters. Now they are learning to read them as points on a map of their past.
By the 1720s, the Nez Perce had begun selectively breeding a horse for strength, speed and agility. Before long, says tribal leader Allen Pinkham, 57, there was no equal to “a Palouse horse.” The name evolved through several incarnations - apalouse, apalousie - before arriving in its current form, appaloosa.
Like the name, today’s appaloosa has changed dramatically since Chief Joseph took 2,000 of the horses through this meadow in 1877. None returned. Soldiers shot many of them in skirmishes along the 1,400-mile trail into Montana, and the rest were scattered. The breed vanished, and with it a way of life.
Today the tribe is actively working to restore its heritage. A new selective-breeding program is attempting to restore the qualities of the Nez Perce horse by combining today’s appaloosa with a rare Central Asian breed called akhal-teke.
But it’s the children who matter most.
One of them played with a grasshopper as Axtell closed his eyes and tilted his chin skyward.
“I don’t think all of you realize how important you are,” he said. Admonishing the children to care for the land, for the horses and for each other, Axtell spoke for 15 minutes before leaving them a final thought: “Learn to respect each other all your life.”
Wearing a pair of coveralls and a parent’s proud smile, Hamilton picked up a stack of hand-lettered certificates. After a hug, she passed one to the first graduate. Pinkham shook the child’s hand, and Axtell solemnly extended an eagle feather, a symbol of power and strength.
The irony of a white woman teaching native culture to Nez Perce children was not lost on Hamilton.
“That’s why I don’t do it,” she said.
Confining her teaching role to academics, she turns to people like Rena Ramsey, 79, when she needs to address cultural topics.
“I’m willing to share my work with the children,” said Ramsey, who teaches native languages. “I think it’s great that they’re willing to learn.”
Alex Cross, 16, is thirsty for that knowledge. Until recently, he said, “I don’t even know how to spell my own (Indian) name. It’s hard enough to pronounce it.”
E.J. Kipp, 12, said he’s learned more than traditional skills: “I’ve learned a lot of respect up here, a lot of respect for me, a lot of respect for my elders, a lot of respect for the land.” Since the program started, he said, horses have become his life. He doesn’t own a horse but hopes to someday.
“Sometimes I pray for a horse,” he said.
After the last feather had been collected, Pinkham addressed the circle: “Anybody now can speak. This is how it was whenever the people came together,” he said.
After a pause, Kipp stood and stepped forward. “I just want to say I appreciate everything you’ve done for us,” he told his teachers. “Sometimes I don’t say it enough.”
Then Lorna Marsh, who cooked meals for the group, spoke. Overhead, an airplane droned across an ocean of blue.
“You hear jets, you see helicopters, but this place is the same,” she said.
Her voice broke, and she wiped away a tear.
“It makes me emotional to think about those who aren’t here. Someday it will be your responsibility to be here, to carry on, to teach the values you’ve learned here today.”
Bonnie Ewing, a member of the Chief Joseph Foundation, didn’t have to think about the future to measure the program’s success today. She just looked out at the meadow.
“It’s about the most beautiful thing you can see,” she said. “A child on a horse, smiling.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 6 Color Photos
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