History and (Dis)Respect on the Clearwater River

Here’s Curtis’s 1910 photo of a Nez Perce dugout canoe. This was the low point in Nez Perce life. Over the previous century, they had lost over 90% of the territory, much of their culture, and their population had dropped from 10,000 to 1500, and was going down.nez_perce_canoe_2

Note the rough pole. A century before, men would have used a paddle that was a pole on one end and a paddle at the other, to navigate the very special circumstances of the Clearwater River. Fine enough. But, look, here’s the example of a Nez Perce canoe that Lewis and Clarke and the Nez Perce built at the forks of the Clearwater River in 1805, at what is now known as Canoe Camp. It holds water, at any rate.

P1860943 Here’s another one.

P1860946 Really? Traditional canoes had gunwales 1″ thick, but were heavy on the bottom and the front, for running rapids. They had a flat prow, angled back at the right angle for beaching on the Clearwater shore. Great, but I doubt there’s any experienced boating culture in the world that would have thrown a thing like this into the water and attempted to steer it. For example, here’s Curtis’s photo of a Syilx canoe at Fort Okanogan in 1914, at the confluence of the Columbia and Okanagan rivers.canoeclip

That’s the kind of elegance one would expect, and even it is a craft built two generations after the culture had taken heavy blows from American settlement at least it still looks like a boat built by a boatman. The one below looks like a toy built by people playing at being woodsmen, or woodsman soldier, which was pretty much the case.

canoecamp Five canoes in 10 days, with mostly Nez Perce labour, as the Americans were sick and starving and near death? No wonder one of the boats cracked on a rock in a rapid in the first few minutes of the trip downriver. Respect takes a bit more effort than this. At the very least, the captions could describe this as a military log-hacking site, or the spot at which the Nez Perce decided to keep these fools alive, so they could use them to build a treaty, for help with their traditional enemies, the Shoshone, who were being armed with American arms from the Missouri and, under spatial pressures of their own were settling old ceremonial wars with increasing violence. At the very least, a proper Nez Perce canoe could be put on display in a town on the Nez Perce Reservation which was sold out to White settlers in 1893, on the grounds that small homesteads not allotted to individual Nez Perce families were “surplus.” At least, the site could lose the Canoe Camp name and be given its 12,000 years of history back. Or, the boats could be put the right darned way in the current in this plaque, instead of the right way to balance the image as a still life:


At least. It’s a valuable colonial image, but, really, it would just be better to rewrite history from scratch and write some respect into it from the start.

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