NESPELEM – Since their longhouse burned to the ground, Dec. 26, 2012, the Nez Perce have been without a home on the Colville Reservation, and one of the sentiments shared by all present during a meeting Monday at the Lucy F. Covington Government Center in Nespelem was that that has been too long.
While questions remain concerning how, where and when the Nez Perce Longhouse will be rebuilt, an understanding of a need for the building is shared.
And the time is right, Colville Business Council chair Rodney Cawston told the group of close to 50, which included Nespelem district CBC representatives, Nez Perce tribal members and the Nez Perce Longhouse Rebuilding Committee, which is chaired by tribal elder Albert Andrews: “I really believe council wants to support this and wants to build this,” said Cawston.
The difficulty comes in getting to an agreement on those unanswered questions.
The immediate effort to rebuild
The rebuilding process has been on-going since the fire destroyed the longhouse.
After a short period initially grieving the loss of the Nez Perce Longhouse, the group came together to address rebuilding. A Nez Perce Longhouse Rebuilding Committee was formed and began holding weekly meetings, said Andrews.
Within the structure of the longhouse committee, subcommittees were formed for various tasks.
A funding and donations committee established an account at the North Cascades Bank in Grand Coulee, called the Nez Perce Rebuilding Fund, and the group began looking at additional funding opportunities.
A communications committee was formed to schedule meetings, keep records and share important information with the community.
A building committee was formed to gather information on design and construction. They toured longhouse facilities in Umatilla, Yakama and Celilo, said Andrews. They met with architects and construction experts, and they communicated with cooks and others on needs for a new building.
The committee developed new building plans.
While the old longhouse was little over 6,900 square feet, the new conceptual design was over 13,000. It was designed to accommodate more people than the other longhouse, and it incorporated additional rooms to house cultural teachings. It also provided dressing rooms and more storage areas.
“We realized that the gatherings spilled over in the old longhouse, especially for funerals,” said Andrews. “Have to admit, we had some prominent people going through that longhouse for funerals. More than once we were filled to capacity and spilled over. We had relatives sitting in the dining area, even sitting outside, waiting to participate for funeral services. So, for explanation, that’s why the building was so large. According to the code, it had to be that large to accommodate such a gathering. They estimated about 400, and that’s being kind. I think we had up to 500 or 600 people at one gathering.”
The building was designed similar to three longhouses on the Yakama reservation.
But immediately, hurdles presented themselves.
Raising large amounts of money was difficult without a 501C3 tax status that would allow those interested in donating to receive tax benefits for their donation - which is a standard for large donations.
The effort of filing for the tax status was laborious, said Andrews, and eventually the Colville Tribes’ Office of Reservation Attorney’s office provided assistance (though Andrews noted, “It still took a lot of time to get through the bureaucratic network to make sure the document was well in hand.”).
The building itself has proved difficult: A bid on the building came back just short of $7 million, according to Cawston.
Then there was a question of insurance.
In Jan. 2013, only a month after the fire, the tribe received an estimate from one company that stated the tribe should receive only $298,400.30 for replacement of the building.
A second estimate, completed in April 2014, increased that amount to $658,218.62.
The group also inventoried items lost in the fire, ranging from cultural items to appliances, and they received an additional $1,154,415.88, though according to Andrews one total from the inventory came up to “$3 to $4 million.”
“There had been points where the administration had been toying with the idea of suing for the rest of the amount,” said Andrews. “That went on for several months, and we didn’t hear one way or the other about what the dickering was about. All we knew was that the company, the insurance company, wasn’t willing to come forward with the amount that we were protecting.”
A decision to scale down, and a place to build
Earlier this summer, a letter was sent from the CBC chairman’s office to all Nez Perce tribal members within the Colville Tribes’ enrollment lists, inviting those tribal members to participate in a discussion related to the ongoing effort to rebuild the longhouse.
During a five hour meeting, ballots were distributed that asked the Nez Perce two questions. The first question concerned the location. The second question concerned the size and cost of the proposed building.
“It was somewhat overwhelming to keep the longhouse where it is, was,” said Andrews, “but the size would need to be dealt with. We would downsize.”
The next day, CBC held a closed session to discuss the longhouse.
“We were not to be involved in the discussions, none of us, until an emissary came out not once, but twice, perhaps three times,” said Andrews. “The last time was to invite one of us to go into the council. [Veronica Redstar, Sahaptin Coordinator in the Office of Reservation Attorney’s office] was asked to go in by herself, just by herself. At that time she was given the options, gift deed or not. She then came out and took us aside, Victoria and myself.”
The problem was that the former Nez Perce Longhouse had been on private land, owned by the Redstar family. CBC had proposed to Veronica Redstar that her family gift the property to the tribe, or trade the property, to allow for the construction of the facility.
“I think it goes to say that I really believe that everybody wants this longhouse,” said Cawston. “The difficulty is that for the tribe to look at building this longhouse on somebody’s personal property. You can take that anyway you want, but that is basically what the issue is. Should the tribe place millions of dollars into someone’s land that is personally owned. We can say all ‘we want into perpetuity’ in an agreement, but we don’t know what is going to happen in 20 years, 50 years.”
After hearing from council, the family agreed they could not gift the property to the tribe.
“That land was given to Willie Redstar by one of Joseph’s wives,” said Victoria Redstar. “We all know, well if you know blood lines, it’s unusual how that came to be, but it did because she loved Willie Redstar in that sense. When the council came to us and wanted us to gift deed that land to the tribe, we said there is no way that is going to happen, because of how that land came to us. I hope that the council can appreciate why we said no. We felt like we were backed into a corner.”
When the old long house - not the longhouse that burned but the longhouse that had been in Nespelem proper, and still stands to this day on the south end of town - was moved to the location south of Nespelem where it eventually burned, the family had leased the property to the tribes, said Victoria Redstar.
“[The council and a Nez Perce Longhouse council] had worked out a lease, and in that lease that committee had say, a lot of say, in how that longhouse would be operated,” said Victoria Redstar. “There wouldn’t be any church-like things in that longhouse, because we are not a church. We’re a longhouse. ‘Church’ is converted kind of language … There was no money making process that was supposed to happen in the house. They had it all drawn out, and the council understood and the longhouse committee understood.
“They came to understand things together, and they worked it out, but this whole gift deeding thing, it kind of took us by surprise … We were willing to have that longhouse be rebuilt there, but in the same process in the way it had happened before with the lease and everything, those same understandings.”
A long time to wait
While tribal members expressed sentiments on all sides of the issue - some calling for the building to go back to where it was, some calling for a new building to be built elsewhere, some sentiments boiling down into family issues - one shared sentiment concerned the time spent without a home.
“Every time I drive by there, even the old longhouse, I think about the folks when they got together and they grieved. All of them sat together and said okay we will do it this way,” said tribal elder Grace Moore. “That was all agreed on. I don’t know what they would think if they were to sit here right now. That’s what bothers me ... I think about them sitting at this table with their heads down, not crying but sad. I think about the young kids now, needing a place to grow up like you young ones. We can’t wait much longer, because they are going to get lost.
“And we’re not getting any younger. We want to see that day when we can open that longhouse. I sure would like to see it in that same place, but if that isn’t going to work, fine we will move one. Find a place we can all come together and say ok. Welcome everybody. We are all related somehow in this building.”
“To me, I think the important thing is that it is going to get built, for me,” said tribal member Jewie Davis. “It doesn’t matter where it is built for me, as long as we get a home> I mentioned before. With our younger ones. It’s been gone for 7 years, almost 8 year. We have a generation that is missing out on what the rest of us have learned.”
“I don’t want to move it,” said Junior Simpson. “I grew up there. The elders come. The ancestors know it’s there. The creator already knows it there's. He’s waiting for our songs there. He’s waiting for our words there. He wants to see us dance there.”
“We see that building it tore apart, now it is just a piece of dirt up there,” said tribal elder Bill Timentwa. “Tonight what has been said, may be a new beginning for all of us. I miss the days we used to be outside, me and Albert, Frank Half-moon, be outside taking care of the salmon, the fish. That has been lost. That has been taken away. Our ways that we used to conduct our services are being lost. I am thankful for the men who journey, the families who journey down to other longhouses to learn ways that they take care of their longhouse, bring those ways back here, keep us going, but I still think about the ways we used to do things.”
“Like Jewie said, we have to move on,” said Gloria Atkins. “So as a group we regrouped and formed the committee and started working on rebuilding. It took a lot of time. I put my heart into it. Like others. This is an important place for our way of life, not just for us, for our children and their children. To see how to carry themselves in the path they came.”
“I remember when we first lost the longhouse, the first root fest, albert said we had to be mindful of the Headstart building,” said Dave Shaw. “We used to have our feast on tully mats and now we are getting accustomed to tables, so much so we forget how to take care of some of the foods Grace was telling me about on the ground and sharing them as close to Mother Earth as possible. I remember Albert saying we have to be mindful of the building because we are just guests. Ever since then we have had to be mindful because we are just guests … I am more of a simple person. I support everyone no matter. You know, even if you built a tully mat hut right here, Rodney’s longhouse here, we would open it properly.”
Tribal members Jimmy Andrews and Cubby Lonebear opened and closed the meeting with prayer.
Currently, the Nespelem district council are looking at alternative properties in the area.
CBC members Darnell Sam and Jarred-Michael Erickson reported, along with Colville Tribal Reality, they had identified three properties on the School House Loop Road that could be possibilities.
Those properties have access to water and power, said Erickson, meaning the properties would be more quickly and easily developed.
“Various people have come and gone, even our representative with the tribes’ insurance came and went,” said Sam. “Then the negotiating back and forth with council turn over. It’s progress and stop, progress and stop. A lot of that has been out of the control of the planning committee and various council that has come and gone since… I perceive myself to be as traditional as anyone else. I know what it’s like to go without a longhouse. I know what it's like to practice some place else. So that has always been my mindset. I still stand and support building a longhouse, and that is the consensus from the table as you guys know today.”
CBC member Janet Nicholson further noted she would work to identify a timeline.
“I hear the hurt,” said Nicholson. “I’ve heard the hurt. Listening to the elders, I know we are going to move on. We are going to move forward. The council does support the building of a new longhouse. One thing I hear here tonight is you’d like to know what we are going to do to move forward … We will get a schedule, a timeline, to see where the process will go. The teaching I learned, being a little girl in this way of life was that it comes from your heart and then to your mind. When I heard some of the folks here tonight sharing that maybe the council looked at it as a business decision, but we need to get the longhouse for this way of life … Wherever the new location is, we will work together to get the new home.”