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A Few Thoughts ... on 58 visits to Nespelem

Life is full right now. Time seems compressed, but on Saturday, I will take a day to travel to the Colville Reservation to visit a dried-up cemetery. I have written about this place and those buried here often, including this piece — slightly modified — for The River Journal, telling of my 40th visit to the grave of Joseph of the Nez Perce. I would apologize for repeating myself, but the message here bears repeating.

Nespelem, Washington, October 25, 2014:

There are few new buildings in Nespelem. Or newish, at least. Of note within the village limits are the Nespelem Senior Center, the fire station, and the Chief Joseph Rest Area. The rest of the town is in varying states of decay, with many buildings tottering on the edge of collapse, some abandoned and some not yet. I only have a superficial impression, having never made any sort of social penetration of this place. I am merely a casual observer.

In the parking lot at the Chief Joseph Rest Area is an incredible metal sculpture of Joseph, full of symbols; from the tiny horse decorating the pipe in his hands, to the lightning bolt strips of steel striking down his imaginary robe, but perhaps the most striking symbolism of all is that when you look at the sculpture face on, it has no face, just what appears to be a flat oval of metal with no features at all. It is only as one begins to look at it in profile that the portrait appears.

It’s difficult to get a profile of life in Nespelem. What I know from an outsider’s perspective is that things never seem to get better, but only get worse. And I am truly an outsider, a white guy from Heron, Montana. But I have also been here 40 times, counting this trip, and over those two score visits, I have noted interesting things about this tiny reservation town in north central Washington.

There are two stores here, one that sells gas and one that doesn’t. They both have heavy-duty cage fronts to secure against unauthorized late-night entry. They are both about the same color of gray. They both face on the same highway on opposite sides of a side street that doesn’t go much of anywhere. It’s not an intersection of importance. The turnoff to Keller, across Cache Creek Pass on the Sanpoil River, is a block north, and even it is an indirect route to anywhere. Two 90-degree turns, one left and one right, are required to get on the way to Keller. If you miss the right turn, you end up on a knoll with a southwest exposure overlooking sad houses; and a view of the Chief Joseph Rest Area, the highway to Omak and the Nespelem River valley. You are also at the Nez Perce Cemetery.

The cemetery is where Joseph of the Nez Perce is buried. That Joseph, the man made famous by saying — some purport — “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” If he did say that, he was the single man in a small gathering in Snake Creek on the north slope of the Bear Paw Mountains of central Montana in October, 1877 who managed to keep his word.

The cemetery seems always to be the same, excepting new graves that appear between my visits, graves often extravagantly decorated with everything from plastic pinwheels to elaborate metal sculptures. In contrast, surrounding Joseph’s obelisk are dozens of small and large graves with no more designation than mounds of dirt and rocks kept up by someone I have never seen. They rise through sparse grass and knapweed, marking places where people known and unknown, often very young and not often very old, have been laid to rest. Tiny graves abound. Wooden crosses rotted off at the ground are laid on some of the mounds, but most are bereft of even that symbol. But, in this place of many symbols, some in great conflict with others, the mounds themselves are symbols of life and death on the reservation.

The ancient elm guarding Joseph’s grave continues to amaze me. It stretches east as if in protection over Joseph’s grave and monument, with a long counterweight hanging to the west. I don’t know how it survives with scant water and no care except the occasional pruning away of dead branches by I know not who.

Maybe I need to come live here for a year and come every day to this place and learn who these shadow figures are that keep the mounds built and trim the old elm and bury the freshly dead. Maybe then, I would find that profile. And understand better why I come back.

Saturday will mark Sandy’s 58th visit to Nespelem. Blue Creek Press has just published his 13th book, Her Name Is Lillian. It will be released October 1 in honor of National Book Month.


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