Wyatt Buchanan and Jade Janes
— Nez Perce Tribal Chairman Samuel Penney drives 66 miles
one-way to work, everyday. When he winds down Highway 12 from Kamiah
to the Tribal headquarters in Lapwai, he traverses the Nez Perce
Reservation from one end to the other along the Clearwater River.
770,000-acre reservation of prairies, rivers and canyons is home to
3,200 Nez Perce Indians, making it the largest in the state by size.
The tribe’s aboriginal territory included over 13 million acres
of the areas now known as northern Idaho, northeastern Oregon and
In 1855, the Nez Perce signed a treaty with the U.S. Government reserving
7.5 million acres of this land. But after gold was discovered on the
reservation in 1860, the tribal lands were reduced to the current
In 1887 the Dawes Act opened the reservation to homesteading that
resulted in non-Indians owning parcels of fee-patented land within
the reservation next to Indian trust allotments. That created a "checkerboard"
pattern of land ownership on the reservation and problems over jurisdiction
Today the Nez Perce own 86,248 acres of land and individual tribal
members own an additional 37,950 acres.
Penney’s daily trek serves as a symbol of the tribe’s
daily life: the navigation of a windy and difficult road that must
be traveled — everyday. Providing economic stability to the
Tribe, the area is important to him and gaming has helped.
In 1995, the Nez Perce Tribe began its venture into gaming with the
It’se-Ye-Ye Casino in Kamiah. That was followed a year later
by the inflation of the tent-like Clearwater River Casino building
east of Lewiston. Since its construction, the tribe has talked of
a permanent building for the Clearwater Casino. The tribe now has
preliminary drawings of a $30 million casino resort that triples the
size of the current building to accommodate a hotel, convention center,
and other amenities, according to Robert Lee, former manager of the
Clearwater River Casino manager
Bob Lee shows drawings of the new casino
The two casinos employ about 250 people, both Indian and non-Indian,
and net between $2 million and $3 million a year. This money pays
for a myriad of things, but mostly goes to the tribal government,
tribal economic development and tribal member services. These services
include senior citizen and language programs. The remainder is voluntarily
given to support local governments through police and fire services,
charitable organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, and local schools.
Despite a political conflict over the legality of the electronic gaming
machines, the Tribe is moving forward with plans for expansion.
Over the past six years, the tribe has spent about $4.5 million on
land, infrastructure, judicial services and law enforcement. However,
Penney believes more needs to be done and the possibility of contracting
opportunities with the Department of Defense could add to revenues.
Relicensing of dams could also provide mitigation funds for wildlife
The issue of checkerboard land status has created a stir among non-Indian
neighbors but Penney believes through education and communication,
issues can be resolved.
The jurisdictional issues prompted the formation of a group that calls
itself the North Idaho Jurisdictional Alliance, a group of 23 local
governmental entities on the reservation founded in 1997 that challenges
the tribe’s sovereignty over reservation lands it does not own.
The alliance, composed of school districts, highway districts and
city and county governments, spars with the tribe over things like
water rights and tax revenues.
Before the current conflict escalates beyond legal challenges, the
John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University has stepped
between the tribe and the alliance to help mediate their differences.
Professors from the school have surveyed tribal members and non-Indians
living on the reservation and the parties met face-to-face in January.
Within the tribe, there is a push to preserve cultural resources.
Vera Sonneck, cultural resource program director, said the Nez Perce
Tribal Cultural Resource Program works to protect, preserve and perpetuate
the culture and language of the tribe.
The program includes a Nez Perce language program, an arts council,
archaeologists that help protect sacred sites and a "Circle of
Elders," who help oversee the language program meeting once a
Sonneck said the program provides recommendations to tribal programs
for effective cultural preservation. It also monitors areas where
there are federal and state projects within the reservation and protects
cultural properties on and off tribal lands.
Ethnographer Josiah Pinkham is dedicated to enhancing tribal members’
knowledge of their history and language. Pinkham passes on the oral
traditions of the tribe and works to maintain the tribal identity.
He also seeks out artifacts important to tribal identity. "There’s
been quite a bit of activity repatriating human remains because that’s
been a priority for us," Pinkham said.
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Federal funds aid these programs, but in the long run, the continuation
of cultural programs will depend on the economic stability of the
tribe. According to a survey conducted by the University of Idaho
Center for Business Development and Research, the tribe has had a
significant economic impact in the community.
Tribal enterprises increased nearly 300 percent from 1995 to 2000.
Most of the earnings — $10.5 million — came from the Clearwater
River Casino. Employment increased 220 percent, dramatically decreasing
staggering winter unemployment figures of close to 70% that existed
before the advent of tribal gaming.
Despite the progress the tribe has made, Penney sees more to be done.
"It’s just about a nonstop job," he said. "There’s
something that you need to be doing all the time."