Last week we ditched the trailer for canoe paddles and took a trip down the Missouri River. We floated (and at times even paddled) from Coal Banks down to Judith Landing, a 47-mile excursion. On the way we slid past the white cliffs of the Missouri Breaks, hiked through slot canyons, climbed to towering sandstone hoodoos and searched for fossils in the muddy banks of the river. Along the way, our writer in residence, Todd Wilkinson, related the river through the eyes of Lewis and Clark and artist Karl Bodmer. It was at times wet and more than a little breezy but we all enjoyed the rest and recuperation that only time on the water can provide.
“Son, do something for your people.” These were the words of advice left to Allen Pinkham, or Paaxat Higatin in the Nez Perce language, by his father. Pinkham is a Nimiipuu elder who has accomplished a great deal for his people, a vast family that includes salmon, deer, eagles, grizzly bears, wolves and insects. “Everything you see on this earth is your people,” Pinkham told us. “We have red blood just like them.” This concept, one of Pinkham’s “mythological truths,” was the basis for his 1999 book on Nez Perce fishing culture, Salmon and His People. Last year, Pinkham published a second book, Lewis and Clark Among the Nez Perce: Strangers in the land of Nimiipuu, to recount the famed explorers’ journey from his people’s perspective. As former Chairman of his tribal council, Pinkham fought to enact treaty rights, bring fish ladders to local hydroelectric dams, and reintroduce coho and fall chinook salmon to the Clearwater River. While he has won many battles as leader and activist, Pinkham’s greatest gift is his ability to weave together history and future through story-telling. He invited us to visualize our bodies as part of the earth, each finger representing a species. “When you lose the passenger pigeon, you lose your little finger,” he explained. Because we abuse ecosystems, we’re at risk of losing bison, salmon, and thousands of others. Wounded, fingerless hands seared across our imaginations. “The earth is squirming,” Pinkham concluded. “How much longer until we say, no more body parts lost?”
By: Nina Finley