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Nez Perce Tribe Battling for History : Culture: Native Americans dispute Ohio Historical Society's ownership of artifacts.

December 17, 1995|TOM KENWORTHY | WASHINGTON POST

"From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever," said Nez Perce Chief Joseph when he and his band finally surrendered to the U.S. Army in the fall of 1877, after one of history's epic retreats.

The Indians had fled 1,100 miles across Idaho and Montana in a desperate bid to reach Canada and escape confinement on a reservation.

But 118 years later, the Nez Perce are fighting again to preserve a part of their culture, this time in a quieter battle with the Ohio Historical Society over 19th-century artifacts that the tribe believes should remain in Idaho, but the society intends to move to Ohio.

The tug of war centers on the Spalding-Allen collection, 19 items including Nez Perce shirts, dresses, hats, ropes and other objects collected in the 1840s by Presbyterian minister Henry Spalding, a missionary to the Oregon Territory. Spalding sent the objects back east, where they were donated to Oberlin College in 1893 and later to the Ohio Historical Society.

Since 1983, under one-year loan agreements between the society and the National Park Service, the Nez Perce artifacts have been on display at the Nez Perce National Historical Park in Spalding, Idaho.

Now the historical society has recalled the collection, and unless last-minute negotiations between the tribe, park service and society succeed, artifacts the Nez Perce view as a priceless and irreplaceable part of their heritage will be shipped to Ohio.

Officials of the society, who believe their careful stewardship of the fragile artifacts has helped preserve them, worry the artifacts may be irreparably harmed if they are continuously exhibited. It is time, historical society director Gary C. Ness said, to evaluate their condition and give them a "rest."

Although the society recognizes its position could be viewed as insensitive, he added, it has a fiduciary responsibility to its trustees and Ohio citizens to hold onto the valuable collection, appraised in 1993 at nearly $600,000 and probably worth more today.

"We are talking about items that are in the condition they are in precisely because of the stewardship of our organization and others who've had them for 150 years," Ness said. "There is documentation that the items were purchased, as opposed to wrested away, from the tribe."

But to the Nez Perce, a generally peaceful tribe who aided explorers Lewis and Clark when they traveled through the Bitterroot Mountains in 1805, the loss of this link to their past is another sorry chapter in a long history of mistreatment by white society.

That history is exemplified by the Army's relentless pursuit and slaughter of the Nez Perce, who, under Chief Joseph, refused to abide by a treaty ceding most of their lands in eastern Oregon's Wallowa Valley.

Over three months, Joseph and his band fought 13 battles with Army units that pursued them through rugged country in the northern Rockies, prevailing until the battle in the Bears Paw Mountains of Montana, almost within sight of sanctuary in Canada. It was, an admiring Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman said, "one of the most extraordinary Indian wars of which there is any record."

"These are perhaps the oldest items known to exist that relate to the history of the Nez Perce people," said Allen Slickpoo Sr., the tribe's historian. "First of all, there is a question of insensitivity to native religious and cultural values by the membership of the Ohio Historical Society. They don't fully realize how much it means to the Nez Perce people. It definitely has historical and cultural value to our children, their children and their grandchildren. These artifacts should be located here in Nez Perce country."

This time, the federal government is siding with the Nez Perce. The Park Service has tried to facilitate negotiations between the historical society and the tribe, which is trying to raise $583,100 to purchase the collection.

"It is very difficult to watch the Nez Perce, which is a small tribe of about 3,000 people, try to raise almost $600,000 to buy part of their culture back," said Frank Walker, superintendent of the national historical park that in 38 sites in four states commemorates the tribe's history and its unhappy relations with the U.S. government.

There is considerable irony in the Nez Perce struggle to raise such a large sum to purchase the Spalding-Allen collection. According to the tribe's oral history, Spalding persuaded the Nez Perce to discard their native dress. He then sold or traded the items, which he purchased for $57.90.

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