Oldest member of Chief Joseph Band of Nez Perce talks little of traditional upbringing, lives to pray for tragedies around the world and close to home
BREWSTER – Like a vein tapped of its resources, Iva Saxa’s memory seemed all but gone; a vast knowledge of Nez Perce tradition and history with it.
Questions dictated by family members, like, “You said Chief Joseph was known as a good man, wasn’t he?,” were easy to answer yes or no as the 98-year-old tribal member stared into a body of photos here at the Harmony House Health Care Center.
But the lack of depth may have sent a researcher packing early.
“I don’t remember,” served as her frequent response, legitimized by a 2013 stroke, according to family members.
History she wrote into a fuchsia notebook in 1989 indicated Saxa is the granddaughter of Little Wolf Moyese, who—at age 16—fought alongside Chief Joseph in the Nez Perce War. He remained loyal to Joseph, who wound up on the Colville Reservation in 1885, as others in the Tribe settled separately on the Nez Perce and Umatilla reservations in Idaho and Oregon, respectively.
An example of her retention ability would be a 2012 fire to the Nez Perce Longhouse in Nespelem, which devastated the local population with the loss of artifacts that can never be replaced. All funerals have been moved to the local gymnasium. Saxa has been told this news previously, but handled it as if it were the first time.
“Oh yeah?” she said.
After 20 minutes of navigating the remnants of her mind, she suddenly chilled the room with a response to why she thinks she’s alive today.
“To try to lift up the good news about Jesus, because he’s a savior. And when he saved me he really saved me, saved my soul.”
Did this elder—the third-oldest in the tribe, according to enrollment records—have a piece of her story in tact?
What could she need saved from?
“Well, I was feeling bad because my husband and I weren’t getting along very good,” said Saxa, married twice—the final time to John Saxa, Sr.
A Pentecostal Church had sprung up in Nespelem in the 1950s, and she began attending.
“Even before that, I was just, kinda had a vague feeling that there was a god,” she said.
She dove into the religion and never looked back, going as far as serving as a missionary in British Columbia.
Saxa continues to pray for those near, like her family and tribal members, locals, and those impacted by world events.
“Mostly,” she said, “when I see bad things happening to people.”
IN THEIR FINAL HOURS
At the Harmony House, Saxa has been asked several times to pray for patients at their bedside in their final hours, according to environmental supervisor Gisela Porras.
“Lots of times she’s been with people at the last minute, leaving,” Porras said.
It’s a rarity for the facility to have a patient who is so concerned about the well being of others, she added.
“I have been here for 22 years,” Porras said, “and that’s what I’m telling you. You have to believe me. She’s the first person with so much to give and so much qualities.
“I don’t like to get so close to some people because we have to be ‘so’ close. Her I can’t help it. She’s just unique, one of a kind.”
Saxa, who is able to move around in a wheel chair, frequently asks to be carried around the facility, Porras said.
“(Iva’s) always looking out for other people’s needs, asking me,” she said.
“She’s very, very involved in what all other residents are going through; it’s a blessing.”
Saxa thinks God has given her this special gift, “because, I wouldn’t do it myself; because the lord wanted me to do it. He’s directing your path.”
“I tell her the lord takes good care of her, said Porras, who said her faith has been forever impacted by Saxa. “I even learn to how to pray because of her. I learn from the best [laughing].”
The prayers are not restricted to other patients and her family.
Sister Inez Cleveland, 89 of Nespelem, visits her every Tuesday after her son Dune gets off work and tells Iva the latest. This week an airplane crashed, killing several people, and a family member hasn’t been behaving, Cleveland said into her good ear.
“I really don’t like to give her the bad news,” Cleveland said. “She wants to know everything that’s going on in the world and in the family. I just let her know. I don’t keep anything back from her.”
Niece Connie Johnston, 65, noted Saxa—who has outlived four of her five children—is the rock of the family with her devout belief in God.
“Everybody turns to her,” Johnston said. “She’s our example.”
Saxa’s faith in god led many family members to convert. She believes with her remaining influence, she can help others be saved just as she was. One particular area she prays for is the local tribal youth.
“I’d try to tell them to love on another and to grow up like coming from one family: from Adam and Eve,” she said. “We’re all one race.”
For the tribal membership, she believes it’s vital to learn how to love one another, because, “that’s not done now … too much fighting.”
What causes that?
“The devil, probably,” she said smiling.
The Last of the Old Ones series tells stories of 11 Colville Tribal members ages 80-100, for which 199 total remained as of Jan. 1, 2015, according to Tribal Enrollment. These members represent about 2 percent of the 9,500 tribal population.