Thomas Joseph Peterson turned 100 on Friday, and as the oldest member of the Nez Perce Indian Tribe, it was time for celebration and a little reflection.
On Saturday, friends and family members from throughout the West gathered at Chief Leschi School here, bearing food, gifts and best wishes.
For American Indians, centenarians are especially a treasure, a link to traditions and an otherwise inaccessible past.
But Peterson, who has lived the past 20 years in Tacoma, downplays the significance of his birthday. The celebration wasn’t his idea, he says.
“The children, they started that,” he says. “I was not going to do anything about it.”
Peterson’s hearing has faded and he’s a little unsteady on his feet, but otherwise he’s healthy with an agile mind.
“My body is getting weak,” he said in an interview last week. “But inside, I don’t feel old.”
Peterson is by nature a positive man. But, all things considered, he says, the world is a worse place than it was 100 years ago.
“I used to think civilization was wonderful,” he said. “But it backfired. Now we have all these things - dirty air, smog - we never had before.
“When I was young I could travel in the nighttime. I was never afraid to travel. Now the streets aren’t safe anymore. I see the way our nation has gone and wonder, how can God bless America when things are so bloody?”
Peterson was born in Ahsahka, a now-vanished settlement on the Nez Perce Reservation, about 40 miles west of Lewiston, Idaho.
His birth was just 20 years after the Nez Perce War and the tragic, 1,800-mile flight of Chief Joseph.
Peterson’s great uncle was White Bird, a Nez Perce chief and medicine man who fought alongside Chief Joseph.
Peterson was raised speaking the Nez Perce language, not learning English until he was 9 and had made friends with three white boys his age. One of the boys, he said, was the grandson of Marcus Whitman, who founded the mission at Walla Walla.
Peterson went to a government school where teachers did their best to assimilate Indian children into white culture.
If the children spoke their own language, they were punished. Presbyterian missionaries taught them that wearing eagle feathers and buckskin clothing was the work of the devil.
Far from resenting the missionaries, Peterson embraced their beliefs and remains a devout Christian.
When Peterson was in his early 30s, he met Carol Contraro, a Suquamish girl who had been sent to the boarding school on the Nez Perce reservation. They were married a week later.
“We lived 63 years together in the world, and that is wonderful,” Peterson said.
Together, they had 10 children, nine of whom are still alive. He has 43 grandchildren, about 60 great-grandchildren and 10 great-great-grandchildren. His wife died in 1991.
Peterson is dismayed to see old Nez Perce traditions disappear or misconstrued. He says the ceremonial dances are different now, and so is the clothing that is supposed to be traditional.
All his friends and members of his generation have died, many of them decades ago. When he goes back to the reservation for visits, he says, there’s no one for him to talk to. He is one of just 92 people who still speaks Nez Perce.
“It’s all young people now. They don’t want to listen to this old man talk about old times.”
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