by Susie Wall
Indigenous tourism is defined as travel experiences that allow direct engagement with Indigenous people to learn about their history and culture. I experienced one of these unique opportunities during a recent trip to Lewiston, Idaho, where I learned about the history and enduring culture of the Nez Perce.
The traditional name of the Nez Perce is “Nimiipuu” which translates to “the people.” Nimiipuu believe that they were created at the dawn of time in the area that is now north central Idaho. Since their creation, the Nimiipuu have felt a great obligation to be responsible caregivers of the rivers, plants and animals found within this area and view themselves not as owners, but as borrowers, of the land.
Stacia Morfin, a citizen of the Nimiipuu Nation, started Nez Perce Tourism, LLC “as a way to ensure that traditional knowledge and places continue to be shared among our people, as well as to create a platform for our people to share our own narrative of the past, present and future.”
Morfin hopes to tell visitors the Nimiipuu’s side of history and educate them about her peoples’ deep connection to the land and water.
Visitors can delve into a variety of tours and experiences through Nez Perce Tourism to immerse themselves in the Nimiipuu culture. Some run on a regular schedule and are geared toward individuals and families. If you are looking for a more customized experience or have a large group, Morfin and her team will put together a tour based on the interests, ages and abilities of the group. Tours can last a few hours to a few days, and most tours run year-round.
Join artist-lead Nez Perce beaded-necklace- and bracelet-making workshops at Cultural Sit and Paint. Feast on traditional salmon and huckleberries and learn about the culture through song and dance with Dinner with the Nez Perce. Experience the strong connection between the Nez Perce and Appaloosa horses during an individualized riding session. Spend a few days taking in many of these experiences plus much more on the Nez Perce Journey Tour.
Morfin recommended that I begin my cultural tour ten miles east of Lewiston in Lapwai at the Nez Perce National Historical Park Visitor Center. A personalized visit to the center is incorporated into many of the customized tours, but I chose to make the visit on my own as I was excited to catch the early morning tipi demonstration. Despite the threat of a 100-degree day, Nez Perce park rangers graciously guided me as we erected a towering pole and canvas tipi. As I slowly walked the tall poles up hand-over-hand, I learned about how these structures played a vital role in the daily lives of the Nez Perce.
My education continued inside the visitor center where I marveled at intricate beaded clothing and watched a film featuring tribal members talking about their successful efforts within the Snake River Basin to restore a heathy salmon population, something of vital importance to the wellbeing of their people.
Later that day, I was able to take one of the most exciting tours offered, the Saqánpa Hells Canyon Jet Boat Tour. The Nez Perce captain and guide welcomed me onto the sleek boat just south of the conflux of the Snake and Clearwater rivers. As we pulled away from the dock, they introduced themselves in the Nimiipuu language and explained the significance of their traditional clothing. We continued slowly up the Snake River in the open-air boat listening to stories about ancestral lands while watching bald eagles soar above the wide river and bighorn sheep graze along the banks.
At the turnaround point, the captain deftly navigated the boat toward the rocky shore so we could get a close-up view of ancient Nimiipuu petroglyphs carved into the rock. I scrambled onto the bow, thankful that I could share in these treasures of their people. The captain then cut a tight turn in the river and the “jet” in jet boat was on as we sped back to the dock clocking the miles at a thrilling pace.
My fascinating immersion into the Nez Perce culture was coming to an end, but I was able to enjoy one more experience that evening through the Visit Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) Experience at the Holiday Inn just over the Idaho border in Clarkston, Washington. I was mesmerized as drumming and singing began and beautifully dressed dancers made the grand entry. Dancing continued while Morfin explained the significance of each style. As the evening drew to a close, Morfin and the dancers demonstrated the importance of community to the Nez Perce as they welcomed us all to join in the Circle of Friendship round dance.