Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Clear Day 95° Clear
News >  Travel

Nez Perce Tribe works to reclaim its history one tour at a time

By Julia Duin Special to the Washington Post

Stacia Morfin is of medium height, slim, with arched eyebrows and long brown hair separated into two braids, both clasped with panels of red, green, blue and black beads, dressed in regalia that reflects her Native American heritage. She is leading a “Hear the Echoes of Our Ancestors” boat tour on the Snake River between Idaho and Washington state.

“My name is One Who Takes Care of Water,” she tells us as the jet boat pushes away from the dock. “Our ability to hunt, fish and gather across our homelands, whether it’s berries, roots, medicines, and the responsibility to hunt our winged and four-legged relatives, is vital.”

Morfin is talking about the tribe commonly known as the Nez Perce, whose name, meaning “pierced nose,” was bestowed upon them by French-speaking fur traders. The tribe, which calls itself the Nimiipuu, is known for their expertise in horse breeding and fishing. Its most famous member was Chief Joseph, whose 1877 speech marking the tribe’s surrender to the U.S. Army ended with: “My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

Numbering about 6,000 at the beginning of the 19th century, the Nez Perce once roamed 17 million acres spread across four states. Their reservation is now confined to a patch of high desert less than one-tenth that size, and their enrolled (official) membership is about 3,500. The 765,000-acre reservation is flanked by the Snake and Clearwater rivers in North Idaho, with the closest cities being Lewiston on the Idaho side of the Snake and Clarkston on the Washington side.

For years, the tribe has watched as tour operators have built a $4 million riverboat business through its ancestral lands. But Morfin is forcing the tourism industry to take the Nez Perce into account – and is rewriting her own story, too. This 36-year-old entrepreneur, who once spent three years in prison, is now the owner of Nez Perce Tourism, a business that offers dinner tours, powwows, Appaloosa-riding experiences, white-water rafting and, of course, the river tours.

She’s hired more than 55 drummers, singers, historians, presenters, storytellers and artists from her tribe to contribute to the company, the only local tour business owned by a Nez Perce member.

The idea behind her river tours is that there will be Nez Perce on board to share insights that other tour companies cannot. Our excursion, which took place when the Clarkston-Lewiston area was experiencing triple-digit temperatures, was also guided by Morfin’s uncle, Maurice Wilson, who was wearing a blue Hawaiian shirt. He sat in the bow pounding a frame drum as Morfin spoke, then lectured about local herbs used for healing.

There have been more than 200 years of interaction between the Nez Perce and white Americans, starting with the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who traversed this region from 1803 to 1806. That opened up the land to massive immigration by white settlers who eventually dispossessed the Nez Perce of nine-tenths of their ancestral territory. As we cruise by basalt cliffs, Morfin shares that she’s giving a lecture that night, on a nearby cruise ship, on the “Nez Perce Perspective on the Lewis and Clark Expedition.”

“We know there’s three sides to every story: the first side, the second side and the truth,” she adds. “We like to share the truth.”

Although Indigenous tours have been around for years, they’ve been “poorly marketed,” says Alexis Bunten, a Native Alaskan scholar and author of the book “So, How Long Have You Been Native? Life as an Alaska Native Tour Guide.”

Morfin’s decision to steer business toward her own tribe isn’t unusual, Bunten says. “It was the same thing in Alaska. There was a cruise industry, but the Natives weren’t benefiting from it. So they started Tribal Tours out of Sitka.”

She sees Indigenous tourism going mainstream.

“I think we’re about to see it blow up in the next few years,” she said. “I know people are really hungry for it.”

Morfin began her boat tours in spring 2019 to give the Nez Perce perspective to some 25,000 annual passengers on jet boat tours of the Hells Canyon area, a wilderness of tall peaks and stunning vistas overlooking North America’s deepest river gorge.

“A lot of companies play off the history of this area,” she says, “but there was no tribal member taking advantage of that.”

It’s also a way to honor the past.

“Around every river bend, there’s a story or a village,” Morfin says. “It is beautiful tying our people to our homeland.”

As we cruise past landscapes of rangeland and desert grasses, Morfin shares the story of her outfit, starting with the 200-year-old buckskin dress cinched in the middle with a wide black leather belt. Brightly colored beads are on every item of her clothing.

Morfin says they originated in Venice and were brought by Russians to the U.S. West Coast, where coastal tribes traded them for bear and buffalo skins provided by inland tribes. Until the late 19th century, the Nez Perce had vast stretches of land on which to roam and collect those skins.

Morfin makes sure her listeners understand the losses the tribe has suffered.

“This was a Nez Perce village site,” she says as we pass Asotin, a small town on the west bank, “but not one Nez Perce lives there today. Unfortunately, we were dislocated and moved to reservation boundaries where we didn’t want to go but where the U.S. government wanted us to go.”

Asotin was once known as “place of the eels” or “Eel Creek,” she adds. Thanks to dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers built by various government agencies starting in the late 19th century, the eels in question – lampreys – disappeared, but a tribal restoration program is bringing them back.

The entire area is soaked in Nez Perce lore; the oldest known inhabited site in North America is an ancient Nez Perce village upriver where the Snake and Salmon rivers converge. Woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers had not yet gone extinct.

“The Nimiipuu have been here 16,000 years,” Morfin says. “The more science and technology advances, the earlier they date us back.”

Eventually, we hit Buffalo Eddy, a site some 20 miles upriver. On both sides of the river are petroglyphs that are at least 7,000 years old depicting mostly hunting scenes. Over to the left about 10 feet above the water is “Grandmother’s Rock,” where one prays for guidance about compatibility with a potential spouse.

“I did this in 2015,” Morfin says, after her longtime friend Carlos Diaz proposed. He had waited for her while she was incarcerated for drug dealing. After she went back to college and finished a marketing degree, they married and had a daughter.

Three hours pass quickly, and as we speed back, my daughter races to the rear of the boat to enjoy the wind in her hair. Our fellow passengers seem impressed with the tour, briefly clambering out to see the petroglyphs before fleeing to the comparative coolness of the roofed seats and eagerly swooping down to buy a few Native crafts Morfin has on board.

When the coronavirus shut down all tours one year after Morfin started her business, she pivoted, opening up Nez Perce Traditions, a shop in downtown Lewiston’s Newberry Square that features Native products, including beaded jewelry, deer-hide baby moccasins, warrior art, medicine bags, dresses decorated with cowrie shells, a beaded cradleboard, horse forehead ornaments and more. She was able to restart the tours and other activities again this past spring and hopes to provide scholarships for Nez Perce children to better learn their culture.

Reactions have run the gamut. American Cruise Lines, which sails the Columbia and Snake rivers, said in a statement that Morfin’s “carefully curated” tours offer “an exceptional experience” for its guests who go on the excursions.

Garry Bush, owner of Idaho History Tours and a longtime friend of Morfin’s, says the Nez Perce have long wanted a cultural center on the reservation along with cultural tourism, but it took Morfin’s can-do initiative to get the idea off the ground.

“She’s a good spokesman; a head-turning, bright, beautiful Native American who is very positive,” he says. “People want to help finance that kind of cultural tourism.”

In fact, the NDN Collective, a South Dakota-based philanthropic organization that supports Native projects, awarded Morfin a $200,000 community self-determination grant in April. PennElys Droz, program officer for the collective, said Morfin’s work is seen as “regenerative” and a way to support an economy that allows Natives to stay on their homelands.

“Stacia is actively working with elders and knowledge keepers, people who know the land intimately and can tell a good story,” Droz says. “She is pairing them with youth, so it’s an intergenerational knowledge transfer.

“She has culture and language in there. It was the whole package of sustainable, healthy economic development that was non-exploitive and included strong capacity-building in the community.”

Morfin’s efforts aren’t considered serious competition for two other companies that also run Hells Canyon tours, according to Kacey Jackson, tourism and marketing director for the Lewiston-based Snake River Adventures, who points out that Morfin’s tours are shorter yet more expensive than those of her competitors. Jackson’s company charges $137.80 per person for a half-day tour that goes 55 miles upriver; another company charges $143 for a similar package, but Morfin’s tours cost $150 for a three-hour tour that goes 20 miles downriver.

“The tour she sells doesn’t even go into Hells Canyon,” Jackson says. “It’s a disappointment that they sell it as a Hells Canyon tour whereas it’s not.”

Morfin responds her tours are booked well into the early fall and that hers is a unique angle other operators will miss.

“People are looking for a relationship with authentic people,” she says, “and we’ve been here for centuries.”

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox

Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.