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Tribal ethnographer passes on heritage
to younger generations
By Wyatt Buchanan

LAPWAI — When Josiah Pinkham was young, he did not understand why his parents made him spend his free time at drumming sessions with Nez Perce tribal elders.
He was basically a "gofer," sitting and waiting to satisfy elders’ requests for things like water or coffee. As he looks back at archived tribal pictures and sees his young face in the crowd of elders, Pinkham, now 30, understands.
"I realized it wasn’t something I waited for, it was the development of the mindset that goes along with our people," says Pinkham, tribal ethnographer for the Nez Perce Tribe.
Tribal members observed Pinkham’s ability to sit, listen and absorb the stories and truths he heard. Thus, he was set apart and entrusted with carrying on the Tribe’s cultural heritage.
"I’ve been doing cultural work all my life and that’s rare," Pinkham says.
As tribal ethnographer, a position in the federally-funded Nez Perce Tribe Cultural Resource Program, he helps maintain and pass on the Tribe’s heritage to younger generations. He also works with different governmental entities.
"Basically I’m here to form a connection between our resources and different agencies," he says.
Those resources are the elders and the land. Pinkham uses his knowledge of both to safeguard cemeteries and other sacred sites from development by agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Born on the Yakama Reservation in south central Washington state, Pinkham and his family moved to the Nez Perce Reservation shortly after his birth. He has only spent extensive time away from the reservation for school at Lewis-Clark State College where he earned degrees in American Indian Studies and psychology.
In addition to work with governmental entities, Pinkham also works to identify and reclaim Nez Perce artifacts from museums around the country. The most notable example of this reacquisition is ceremonial clothes and artifacts on display at the Nez Perce National Historic Park near Spalding. The tribe actually bought the materials for $675,000 from the Ohio State Historical Society in 1996 to ensure the continued preservation of the artifacts that are worth millions.
Pinkham’s work consists of meetings with federal agencies, interviews with elders, documentation of sites and a lot of archival research. Through his research, he finds things that are not in the current "tribal memory" and thus adds to the history of the tribe by expanding the documented base of knowledge. This includes things like villages or encampments that members forgot existed but are listed in journals.


photos courtesy of the
Nez Perce National Historical Park
Spalding, Idaho
"A cultural exchange was lost when the oral history went to written history, but a lot was recorded," Pinkham says.
Along with his own research, he makes sure to pass on as much oral history as he can to his children and his nieces and nephews. This includes a lot of information about sacred sites, but Pinkham says he warns the children to be careful with the information, as many people would exploit and rob sacred sites for profit.
As he talks with the children, he watches for those who internalize and understand the stories and who, with the same upbringing, could take his place in the future. Although he has been ethnographer for only three years, his cultural experience extends beyond that, which is a trait he wants his children to have.
"I tell them everything and anything I can. No censorship goes on," Pinkham says.
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