Chief Jo students learn of famous namesake (w/ gallery)

RICHLAND -- "Do you forage and hunt like your ancestors did?" a Chief Joseph Middle School student asked a Nez Perce tribal member Tuesday.

"Oh yeah, that's what this is," said Josiah Pinkham, pointing to the nearby animal hides, several of them fashioned into clothes. "But we go to McDonald's, too."

The laughter quickly turned to awe as Pinkham related an old Nez Perce legend about the animals giving their lives to help the tribe survive.

A delegation from the Nez Perce visited the Richland school to answer students' questions about the tribe's traditions, foods, clothing and their famous historic leader who gave the school its name.

The three tribal representatives displayed traditional medicines and clothing made from elk and cougar hides on long tables in the school hallway. They spent hours interacting with groups of students, who clearly relished the opportunity to supplement what they had learned in state history class.

One group of children was particularly fascinated by the Native American culture on display.

A small class of immi-grant children from China, Vietnam, Mexico and the Ukraine had been looking forward to the visit for months, said their teacher, Susan McKinney.

Before they moved to the U.S., these children's perception of Native Americans had come from old Hollywood movies they had seen in their home countries, she said.

"They had huge misconceptions, mostly negative," she said.

As McKinney taught them the history of tribal people in the state and about Chief Joseph in particular, the foreign-born children found they could relate to the prejudice Native Americans encounter, she said.

"Learning about the Indians made a huge difference to them," McKinney said.

Kids of all ethnicities crowded around the tables loaded with things they had never laid hands on before.

"It's OK to gently touch," said Linne Pinkham, whose older relatives had supplied many of the items.

The foods and medicines on display Tuesday weren't outdated artifacts. They're still in wide use today, Pinkham said.

A remedy called Qaws Qaws, for example, still is popular to fight respiratory ailments such as asthma or coughing, she said. It's also used in sweat lodges. The herb, which only grows in high elevations, is sought after by other tribes.

The Nez Perce roamed all over the Northwest in the old days, Pinkham said, including in the Tri-City area.

But Tuesday was the first time tribal members came to the school named after their most famous member.

The school hopes the delegation will come back every November, said Assistant Principal Lara Gregorich-Bennett. November is national Native American heritage month.

The event was initiated by the Department of Energy and the tribe's cultural resources program.

The children who came to talk to the delegation were almost all in seventh grade because that's when they take a Washington state history class, Gregorich-Bennett said.

"I love how interested the kids are in this," Gregorich-Bennett said. "We focus so much on reading and math, but we have to remember the whole child."

-- Jacques Von Lunen: 509-582-1402; jvonlunen@tricityherald.com