The students of the Friends Meeting School (FMS) in Ijamsville gathered on Dec. 18 for a visit from Chief Charleton Jesse Chapman Nightwalker of the aboriginal Palouse tribe.
Annie Garland, director of admissions, said, “(Chief Nightwalker) joined us in Meeting for Worship, lunch with Lower School, and class discussion with Upper School. At the end of each session, he sang songs of his tribe, both new and old. One song was likely heard by the explorers Lewis and Clark. He spoke of his own experience growing up, and of the history of his ancestors as nomads across (the Palouse region of Washington state) as far back as 14,000 years ago.” Nightwalker visited dressed in a ribbon shirt, moccasins and a headdress made up of golden eagle feathers, leather and beadwork.
Nightwalker was in town visiting Washington, D.C., to urge lawmakers to honor a handshake agreement the Palouse say was made in the 1950s between Nightwalker’s grandmother and the late senators Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson. The agreement stated that the government would build dams on the land, but after 50 years, the land would be returned to the tribe.
“Now,” said Nightwalker, “it’s almost a decade overdue.”
In 2018, Nightwalker addressed the United Nations in person, sharing from a letter he had written. He explained that in the 1950s, “as the last existing (fishing and) living encampment upon the banks of the Snake River, my grandmother and mother were wrongfully removed off our lands for the sake of building the dams. … We are no longer able to practice our culture and traditions on our own land because of our forced relocation.” A team of archeologists, he said, “removed the bones of our ancestors off the land and shipped them all over the country and the world (for) scientific inquiry.”
For the past two years, Nightwalker has thrown himself into advocating for his tribe and the ecosystem. While in Frederick, he attended a Human Rights Day luncheon held by the Frederick County Human Relations Committee.
“I’ve been trying my best to make sure our tribe’s history is heard and acknowledged,” said Nightwalker. This visit was a follow-up to meetings he had in July. “They were surprised I returned. (I said), you guys are in a position for one to three years, but I am in a lifelong position. This time, I felt like they were really listening.” Nightwalker has met with the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other governmental and environmental organizations.
There are four federally owned hydroelectric dams on the Snake River. The Palouse Regional Transportation Planning Organization describes them as “an important component of the transportation system serving the region. (It) enables ocean-going cargo to travel inland as far as Lewiston, Idaho.”
Nightwalker’s mother, Elder Carrie Chapman Nightwalker Schuster, joined Nightwalker by phone for an interview. “They call it progress,” she said, “but it isn’t; it’s extinction.”
Schuster, who speaks of her experience in a documentary, “Dammed to Extinction,” is referring to both her tribe and the ecosystem. Breaching the dams would replenish salmon that nourish not only her tribe, but species such as the orca whale. She and Nightwalker have recently joined environmental protests advocating for the orca.
According to the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, “all three Snake River salmon species are endangered or threatened” and, out of Columbia River Basin’s 28 federally owned dams, “no other dam removals in the Columbia Basin would open as much habitat (as the Snake River dams).”
“(We) First Nations should be on that endangered list,” said Nightwalker.
Schuster was a young child when her family was removed from their allotted land. “I didn’t have the complete picture. I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t go home. It was horrible to see our house consumed by water.” Schuster wants to see the Snake River “do what it was created for, to be a highway for the salmon and a place for them to breed. We’re all connected. If we abuse a resource to extinction, then we’re next because of our relationship to all of our brothers that live in the water and in the land.”
During his school visit, Nightwalker sang “The Changer,” a Skokomish Nation song by Bruce Miller, while beating a drum made of deer hide and cedar. He later explained that he uses the Skokomish song to connect nations, and to connect salmon to orca and orca to salmon.
Nightwalker is on social media as @jessenightwalker. He intends to return to Washington, D.C., as many times as it takes until the dams are breached and the land is returned to his tribe.