By JACK MCNEEL
The exhibits on display at the Nez Perce National Historical Park Visitor Center are spectacular, dealing with the culture and history of the Nimi’ipuu, or Nez Perce, people. Anyone with an interest in Native American history and particularly this tribe should plan a visit to the visitor center, with free admission. It’s located about 11 miles east of Lewiston, Idaho, alongside Highway 95 and adjacent to the Clearwater River.
The tribe historically used the name Nimi’ipuu, which translates to “real people” or “we the people.” The Lewis and Clark Expedition gave the name Nez Perce through an interpreter, which translates in French as “pierced nose.” The tribe is increasingly returning to the Nimi’ipuu name in preference to Nez Perce.
The visitor center sits atop a low ridge overlooking the Clearwater River and adjacent to the old community of Spalding, with a church dating to 1876, a cemetery of that same era, and a few other buildings.
Upon entering the visitor center, you have an opportunity to view the One Heart movie. Brett Spaulding, Supervisory Park Ranger, explained this is a relatively new version, about 23 minutes in length, and a good overview of the Nez Perce people.
The visitor center museum has numerous exhibits, showcasing beaded items, cornhusk bags, clothing, basketry, headdresses, and wooden horses adorned with a variety of tribal items. “When you walk into the museum portion, you’re going to walk into a time warp where you’re transported back to the 1800s,” explained Spaulding. “What you don’t get is a sense that the Nez Perce are still here and still thriving.” Planning is underway for a new museum that will intermix the new with the old, sharing Nez Perce history up to the present time. “That’s the most exciting change planned for the visitor center in the future,” he added. No precise time has been set for the new museum, but most likely it will occur sometime in 2019.
Indigenous people have lived in this area for at least 11,000 years. The overall National Historical Park actually covers portions of four states with 38 different sites. The creation Story and the role of Coyote lives on, and the “Heart of the Monster” is visible eastward along the Clearwater River.
Spaulding also recommended that visitors get out to the many sites throughout the park. “In the summer, usually starting about Memorial Day and ending around Labor day, rangers here will give programs about different events that occurred in this area.” Hopefully that will get people to visit these sites, which include such places as Buffalo Eddy, the Whitebird Battlefield site, Heart of the Monster, Canoe Camp, and others.
If you’re going to be in the vicinity of Lewiston, Idaho, and have interest in Native history, the Nez Perce National Historical Park Visitor Center should be on your “to do” list.