[Interviewed by Cynthia Kelly, Tom Zannes, and Thomas E. Marceau.]
Veronica Taylor: I’m Veronica Taylor, one of the elders for the Nez Perce tribe and I work in the environmental restoration management program for the Nez Perce. One they call the community liaison.
Tell me what the Columbia River means to your tribe?
Taylor: Well, the Columbia River has played a very important part of our life. I remember the very first time that I saw it, I was just floored by the size of the Columbia River when we used to come down here and camp. I was just a very small young girl, and we used to camp along the riverside. And there was farmers in the area that had orchards and grew fruit and vegetables. And Indian people, in the early years, used to come down here and camp quite a bit and they used to fish and gather the roots and the berries and—for medicine and for trading purposes—that they conducted along the river areas.
A lot of the different tribes used to come here and participate in a lot of those different activities. And the fisher people that lived along the Columbia River used to have fish, dried fish, and they would trade that for dried meat and game from other tribes that lived out in the plateau areas that had those kinds of food. And they would have—it was kind of like a—in our modern day like a—probably like a farmer’s market, where people came and traded goods and materials and foods with each other—the roots and berries and the medicines, the herbs and the teas. That’s some of the things that used to go on.
And they would also have like the—at the long houses they would have like weddings and different things and families would come in and trade materials for weddings. The wife’s side would have, it’s kind of like a dowry, would have trading of the materials with each other. It was just kind of a central area for a lot of the tribes to come to in our area.
The Nez Perces, the Umatillas, the Warm Springs, the Yakamas would be here, the—a lot of the different branches that—that we had in our days, they were broken off like—Wanapums are part of the Yakama Nation. And then we have, like, the Walla Walla and the Cayuse that are all part of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla. And then the Nez Perce Nation that used to come in from over the—towards the [inaudible] and around the Idaho area that we have on our reservation. We used to come over this way and they would trade, you know, with each other.
Did the tribes camp together?
Taylor: Yeah, the tribes usually—they were probably camped in different locations. I know our group camped with just the families that we knew that came over from our area and camped. And we would get together and, of course, we would meet with the other tribes and other ladies and we’d have friends from the other tribes that, when we got together ,we all had little friends that we would meet and play with along the river and along the campsites. Go for walks and different things.
Just as children, you know, playing, but the old people would work and they would do—have different kind of services and different things that they participated in, you know, where some of the kids weren’t allowed to be at, you know. Some things children were not allowed to participate in because it was—because when you’re little, you know, you’re a child and you’re too young to participate in some of their activities. And then when you got older, then they let you start coming in to do the different things.
How old were you then?
Taylor: When I was over here I think probably I would be like about, maybe seven years old, six years old. And we came over every year after that that I can remember being over here. And then as the times changed and we got older, things would change. The area would change a little bit and business started coming up in the area, towns were forming and, you know, service stations. The service stations that we used to come over and use, and the area started getting bigger, and bigger ones would come around so the little ones finally eventually would go out of business. But times over the years changed, and then as our lives changed, the area changed. And when the war started, I remember I was a teenager when the war started, World War II, and our folks, our men folks, started going into the military, were getting drafted to go into the military. A nd they would leave our brothers and my fathers, our fathers from the area would all have to leave the families and go into the military.
I know my dad had to go away to military training and go into the war and the same way with a lot of the other families. And they, at that time, there was rumors about the things that they were going to be building over here. At that time we didn’t know it was going to be the place where the atomic bomb was eventually built. Built here. There was a lot of changes in the area. When we started coming this way every year in the summertimes we’d start—is our journey that we used to make over this way in the early spring and summer. We would be over here and we’d be gathering our berries and roots and our fishing and things that would go on.
And when they started changing this area, they started restricting the people that would come here. They had started posting guards at the bridge. I guess, I didn’t know that was for security but they would have to search our trucks and our vehicles that were coming over this way, towards the Tri-City areas. We’d come into Pasco and across that bridge that was on the other side of Pasco over there, coming this way from the desert area. We were stopped by military, by the Navy, police, and we were searched and they needed to know what our business was coming this direction. And we didn’t know what that was all about.
We were still kind of—not told exactly what was going on over here. It was all secret stuff I guess. We didn’t know that they were—they were had planning on building this thing over here in Richland area, until much later, and it was during the war and after the bomb that did we know what this place was, had become. We just knew that we had to go through guards and we had to go through that identification check every time.
And they would look to see if any of us were Orientals. I guess they had been looking for Japanese people that lived in the area here and were taking a lot of them and putting them in prisons and different things, because we were fighting the Japanese so they didn’t want any Japanese families running around here. And we used to—along the water, a lot of the Japanese people would be camping and they would be raising gardens and things with their families. You know, they did the same thing that a lot of the Indian people did, but we didn’t know—I didn’t know at the time, I didn’t know too much about Japanese people or anything. But it was not until the war was over and my dad came back and told us what they had been doing, that did we really know that Hanford was here.
All I know, it affected our lives, our fishing and our gathering of our food. Lot of the places where the elders would go and hold ceremonial services was being affected because we couldn’t go there anymore. And so I know that, to us, this hasn’t— it has hindered our lives quite a bit, changed our lives and our lives to this day is changed and it has affected us.
And we didn’t know too much about the radiation that was coming from this Hanford area until much later. And, you know, after I started getting involved and working with the environmental program did I really pay much attention to what effect that this had on us here, and how it affected our fish and the water. What has gotten into our water. And why some of our fish are glowing at nighttime, because of the radiation that the fish are getting. They change and they light up in the evenings. And lot of that we’ll see in a lot of the coolers that they bring into the houses, and they’ll leave them outside because the fish is—has changed and will have a glowing effect to the fish, so they wouldn’t bring them into the house at all. They would leave them out. Because we were scared to eat it. We didn’t know what had happened to them.
Did they tell you that you couldn’t come onto the Hanford property?
Taylor: Gee, I was just a young girl when that happened and we had to not come over this way for a long time. And that has affected our life from that time on because they took over this area and we couldn’t come to this area anymore. We couldn’t come do our things because of the changes that was—the places and the closest place that we could come to in a desert area to gather our roots and things were over in the Hermiston area that was kind of similar to this area over here.
And so we would go over that way towards the Umatillas and to the Columbia River in that area. And we would camp over that way and stay in camps, and do our things over there but we weren’t allowed to come over this way anymore. And I talked to my dad one time and he says, “No,” he said, “We can’t go over there anymore,” because they couldn’t bring us over. Because we had lot of friends that used—we used to meet over here and to be with and to play with when we were kids that we knew as we were growing up to be young adults that we couldn’t see anymore and a lot of my friends I haven’t seen for a long time.
And when I finally, as I got older and became an adult, did I run across my friends and find out what has happened to their lives and to their families and things and so it wasn’t until much later that we start making renewing a lot of our old past, you know, relationships and friends.
What were you fishing for?
Taylor: Used to fish for eels. They would gather eels in the tributaries that were along the Columbia River that come into the streams. Eels would come in there and they would spawn and we would fish for different kinds of seafood that we had here at that time. We had a lot of salmon and—which was a real delicacy to our people was the salmon. But we also ate a lot of the different shellfish that we would find. We would have all the different varieties of fish. The whitefish, the little silverfish, and we had, like, suckers and steelheads and different things that was in the river that they would get that we learned a little about. But mainly the delicacy that a lot of the people thrived on was the salmon.
And the salmon was the ones that—when the first salmon came, the first salmon came in the springtime was the one that was prayed over and had ceremonies over was because the fish were coming back. And we always knew the seasons for all of our different fishes, when they would come back into the river. And we knew that—what time of the year it was, you know, for the gathering of the different things because of the different seasons that we had for our roots and berries and our teas. They happen only certain time of the year and when that part of the year is gone, then they’re not here until the next year at the same time.
So you had first root feasts here?
Taylor: Yeah, we used to have root feast here and salmon feasts here. In fact, up and down this whole area now a lot of the tribes will have different feast days on different reservations and we would—when we still do journey to the different reservations, to the different areas, for root feasts and for salmon feasts.
And you know, we have different religious services at the different places and we all still continue to share in those events that we would have. And I still go like, you know, we go up to the Colville reservations for their feasts that they have up there and—and because of the roots grow in different areas not all of us have the same type of roots and berries and teas, medicines. They grow different in different areas, different regions, and that was why the Indians traded so much. And they still trade. You go here and they will trade you for whatever you have for whatever it is that you wanted—so the different things—and to this day still goes on. There are a lot of roots that we have in our area that doesn’t grow somewhere else that to the other tribes is a delicacy for them because when they get together with us we trade those foods for the things that we don’t get. So it still goes on to this day. So this area has always played a very important part of all Indian lives in the northwest area—the tribes.
And the coast Indians pretty much know, you know, what we used to do over here. And we knew when we went over to the coast area, where the fisher tribes were, because they would also have fisher feasts and ceremonies that go on over there that we would go over and visit with them. My grandmother would have friends over that way, we would go visit at their long houses. You know. And they would tell us—when we were children, they would tell us, “Don’t play here because this is where the adults are doing their things.” They don’t want children here to be making noise and to get into—getting mischievous and doing things that you’re not supposed to do. You know, because sometimes they’re going through sacred services and they didn’t want anybody making noises or talking or scolding children there, so the children were kept at bay and kept quiet. Yeah, so
How would you prepare the fish to bring it home?
Taylor: Lot of it was—they either dried it or they prepared them. There was a way that they would wrap it and bring it over. But a lot of the times depend on the year, what you are getting. What you would—you know, how you would bring it back and the distance that you were going. And some—if it came back by horseback, you know, they would have to fix it so that they would carry them back in bags. You know, we had like cedar bags and things that were all—had grass and different things in them that would help preserve until you got to where you were going. And if it took you days, then you stopped and you ate and you camped and you ate some of that on your way so that a lot of that wasn’t going to waste.
Same thing with the roots?
Yeah, sometimes they were prepared here on site. And traded so that you know, what you were—what you were trading. What you were getting. And you knew the people that you were doing the trading with, you know. They knew the families, so all the families knew each other from the previous experiences when they were little.
How has the Hanford site affected you personally?
Taylor: Well—I don’t know. I had—went through breast cancer and lot of the people that I know of the different tribes that are my friends that are the same age that were here when I was a young girl, a lot of them have had cancer, their bouts with cancer, either be prostrate or be it with breast cancer, or whatever, cancer in the uterus or whatever.
I think that a lot of it has happened because of the diet. And the things that happened here on the Columbia River because of the atomic bomb and the things that happened here, that have gotten built all through the uranium and the plutonium and the different things that has affected the water and the fish. And that we still ate and we still eat a lot of that, has affected our lives I think. And in the day that we are living now, we’re doing a lot of research and story—research into the people’s lives in the past. And I think that had the stories happened way back then and people were paying attention as to what was actually going on here, or that we were told what was going on here, we would have been maybe a little bit more selective but we were just continuing on with our lives as we have over the centuries. Our people have carried on, continuing the lifestyle, and I think that has affected a lot of the people of my generation. And a lot of my grandmothers because my grandmother and a lot of her friends have all died from cancer and from the roots that came from this area.
How did it affect the tribes back in the ‘40s when the government came in and took the site away?
Taylor: Well, a lot of the activities that were going on before had stopped. A lot of our contacts we had with other tribes have stopped because we were no longer able to come this way on our regular route that people traveled over the same lands and things. Usually there was a path that people took and when they couldn’t come—use the same path all the time, it had changed and changed the way—then eventually we would lose contact with some of those people. And we would lose contact with some of the food and things that we used to trade with and for in this area.
Lot of the people, like I said, started getting leery about, you know—we’d start getting sicknesses and different things that were happening to our families but nobody ever knew anything about the word cancer or any of the—we didn’t know anything about radiation or plutonium or anything that was going on here. Nobody had ever told us, and said, “Well, this is what’s going to take place here. This is what’s going to happen to you and to your people.” Nobody said that that was going to be a problem, that it’s going to affect our water and our land and our animals. They used to go hunting over here all the time for elk and deer and things, and now you talk to a lot of the Indian people to this day they don’t want any animals from here. They won’t come here and dig roots here anymore, they don’t come here and get things that had happened in the past. It’s no longer available to them because people are scared to come over and get anything here anymore.
I talked to some of the elders here about a couple of years ago, over at the Umatilla tribal gathering that we had where elders were. And I talked to some of my elders and I asked them, you know, “They’re going to be releasing some of the animals from Hanford because they’re getting a lot of herds here that are being built up. They’re going to start putting them in our mountains. Our mountains that are in our areas, in our Blue Mountains, the Umatilla Mountains, and what are we going to do? Are we going to be hunting and eating those animals?”
And those Indian people, the elders, said, “If they come from over Hanford area we’re not going to be eating them because we know they’re going to be filled with bad stuff. We’re not going to—we don’t want their animals over here because we don’t want to be affected anymore and we don’t want our children and our children’s children to be affected with all those bad animals.”
Same way with the roots. They don’t want to come over here and dig roots anymore because of the ground, what has happened to the ground. So lot of that has changed our lifestyle. Now we’re going to other areas and doing other things and getting other medicines and stuff that were—that we can find. And we try to look for areas, but anymore it seems to me that since Indians have survived here for a long time now, it’s getting so that a lot of the sacred areas that we used to have for our cultural stuff is now being overrun by non-Indians. And now the non-Indians are coming in and other races are coming in.
The Chinese and the different Orientals—the Koreans—they’re all coming in to our mountains area now and getting a lot of our stuff that we thrive on. And they watch what we’re doing and they come out there and they talk to us and visit with us, and they know what the—what we’re gathering and why we gather it because we talk to them. And now they’re coming into our areas and now we’re being flooded over with a lot of other people coming into our areas and taking our stuff. Then we don’t have enough for our own people, now we have to share with everybody else.
It’s not that we don’t want to share but we just are running out of space, we’re running out of room and nobody wants to come over here to have that. We have—this was a sacred place for our people. It’s not that way anymore. Some of our people are scared to come over here. It’s hard to get us—to get our elders to come over here for a look around to see, because they know what has happened here and what they built here, and they’re scared of it.
What was the reaction back in the ‘40s when the government just came in?
Taylor: It was kind of a shock. It was a disbelief. They talked about the war and the things that were going on and said that “These military people will be here and we couldn’t get through them and they had guns and things and they blocked the door—the entrance way on the roadways so we couldn’t travel unless they said it was all right for us to travel through.” Those were hard things for us because I have never ever been approached by a military police person that had a gun in his hand and said, “You can’t go this way. You go back. Turn around and go back because you can’t go on this road.”
And it’s a scary thing because, you know, you hear about guns and things but you don’t really don’t know anything about them, and we were all scared. We didn’t know what to do. You know, we weren’t prepared for war or for any invasion of anything like this before. It was all new and it was really scary. Was scary to me and probably scary to all of the—the other—my other little friends that were with us when we would travel over this way. We were all kind of scared because we didn’t know what was going on, we didn’t know anything about wars or anything, except what people tell us.
Is there anything that the site can do to—?
Taylor: To try to make things right again? I don’t know. We—I know that I’ve talked to a lot of the people and they’re pretty upset with the things that are going on over here yet still today, a lot of our tribal people—the cleanup efforts and the things that are going on here today. I know a lot of our elders are pretty much opposed to a lot of things that they hear that’s going to take place with this land and I know that I have talked to a number of the elders on the Yakama reservation and the Umatillas and the Nez Perce and told them that, you know, we’d like to gather some of the seeds from our roots that we have in our areas and try to replant and re-vegetate things over there. And they said if we could get them to grow and they would not be affected by all this bad bad land, you know, then it might be a good thing.
But I know that we’re trying to do that with some of our programs, re-vegetate the cultural plants and stuff over here, and I commend the efforts of our young people because we do have some of our tribal young men coming over here to do what they can, but still, it’s an effort. The soil is not taking, a lot of the seedlings are dying before they even get a chance to re-vegetate, and all that is having effect, you know. And I haven’t been out and I haven’t checked the grounds here within this last year or two because I had problems with my health, so I don’t know what they look like.
What do you want to teach the younger generation?
Taylor: Language [chuckle].
Do you have thoughts about teaching the young ones about the sacred place here?
Taylor: One of the things that we’re doing with the tribal programs now, and I think they’re—they are doing a commendable job with the young people. They’re—the young people now seem to be really interested in the way the Indian people had lived and their cultural part of their tribe, their gathering of roots. They take them out and they go camping and they gather the roots. They go and they teach them how to hunt and how to skin the game, what they do with when they’re skinning the game and actually make them skin the game because that’s experience and you have to know how to do that, and not just anybody can go out there and do it. Now you shoot the game and then what do you do with the game after you shoot it, you know? You have to go through this whole process. So our young people are, even our girls, are learning how the tradition works of caring for your animal.
I myself have taught my children that when you shoot an animal, you shoot it and you care for it with reverence because that animal is giving his life up for you to take care of your life and your needs. And you shoot it, you don’t laugh, you don’t go out and drink and make a party of it, you do it with care and with prayer. And that’s what I teach my kids because that’s part of your family, when you shoot an animal. That’s taking care of you and your needs. It’s not a funny thing, it’s not a fun thing, it’s a necessity, and it’s something that you do with a creation has given you. You be thankful for what you have. And so I always encourage my children to do things in a reverence way, to take care of the animal. Not to just slaughter it, not to just leave things out and open; be careful of how you take care of animals.
And take care of how you dig the roots and always replace the soil back and rest of the plant back because that plant will come back again and will serve its purpose again to you. You don’t just go and start digging holes up all over and leaving a mess. You don’t leave the earth in a mess for other people to come along and see. Look at what they did to our land. Look at what’s going on in our properties. You take care of everything that you have. You be thankful for what you get, for the roots that you dig. And that’s why we have root feasts, why we have salmon feasts, we have our different traditional things that take place on a reservation, because we’re giving thanks to the creator for everything that you have.
You’re thankful for the life, for the water, for the air that we have, for the air that we breathe, and that’s important to our people. And that’s what we’re teaching the kids: to take care of things. We don’t want to see things along the rivers and be wasteful and throwing tin cans down because that affects the water, it affects the fish in the water. And it will eventually affect the people that are drinking the water. So you want to be careful of how you take care of things. You be thankful for what you have. And we’re learning now that, you know, everything comes in a full circle and we teach kids, everything comes in a full circle. What you do to the land comes back to you by the way of the water and the rain, the snow—everything comes back. It’s a full circle of life. The people, closed circle of life.
Were there plants that you lost at Hanford when you couldn’t come here anymore?
Taylor: There’s a lot of plants that were here in the desert area, that because it’s—the desert area, that is—that is here, that was here, with the Columbia River, that only grew around in this area. Like I said earlier, there are certain plants that grow in certain areas, certain regions, and what we had here won’t come to our area in Idaho because we don’t have the same soil or the same climate as they have here. That’s why people traveled to have these trades and to have these, you know, these things that take place here. It’s because of what was here, and that isn’t here anymore.
And we’re, like I said, we’re having a hard time trying to replace some of the stuff that we had here. We don’t have access to them anymore, and by trying to re-vegetate and replant what is going on here, and like I said, our plants are having—our seedlings are having a hard time by growing up here, because of the climate in the region that it’s coming from, to try to get it to reestablish here. Some of it’s not taking hold. And it’s going to be hard work to get them to go, and if they do then that’ll be great.
But I know a lot of our young men and I know we had a program, that Hanford had a program over on the Umatilla reservation with the seeding process over there, where they were trying to grow the seeds and everything and transplant them over here. And some of that worked a little bit but not very much that I’ve seen evidence of it growing in abundance here. Even the sage that is growing here is not the same of the sage that we have in other areas because the sage has been affected by this land here. So it’s not the same affect that we have even though it comes from here and even though we used to have it from here, it’s not the same that we get over there, in another area, it’s not the same.
They might grow the same things but all plants are—have a special meaning and a different flavor, a different taste. And you have to be careful of what you’re looking for and like I tell the kids, there’s a good one and there’s a bad one and they grow side by side and you have to know which one’s the good one and which one’s the bad one. And if you grab the wrong one, then it’s a poison plant. You have to know what you’re digging.
You have to—that’s something that the elders teach you when you’re going out and you’re digging. They say, “No, you don’t dig that one, you dig this one over here.” And this is why you do that. And so we’re trying to teach the children. And now the children are going out with a lot of our program people and they’re teaching them how to do things, they’re teaching them how to keep on the tradition and the culture of the different tribes. And each tribe has its own unique program that it’s doing the same thing with our children and our grandchildren. They’re learning how to do things and they’re being taught in a right way because they’re being involved with elders that are coming into the classrooms and working with them.
We’re trying to make—come back with our languages in the schools. We’re trying—we have teachers now. My son, when he was on a tribal counsel for our tribe, had the certifications for our language teachers to be granted to our teachers that teach the language in the public schools so they could be certified teachers and carry that credential with them, that nobody will question, you know, like they do a teacher. You got to be certified to teach. Well, our young people now are coming back and they’re teaching the language, and they also carry the credentials with them through that process. And the state of Idaho and the state of Montana now recognizes those certifications.
Our language is—we’re not trying to lose our language, we’re trying to keep that part of our culture going. And now it—it’s even getting taught at—the language is being taught at the college in Lewiston, at the Lewis Clark State College, is that—has a language program and the kids are getting credit for those as language credits. And we have certified professional teachers that teach at the universities in our—so that they can get credits for those grades and those languages.
What will it take for the elders to know that they can eat the food from here?
Taylor: I don’t know. There might be down the future, but like I said now, even with my discussions that I’ve had with my elders who are my elders, because I am also an elder. But I’m talking about my elder’s elder—that these are the ones that are in the eighties and ninety years old. I’m in my seventies, so I’m talking about the ones that are in the eighties and nineties years old, 100 years old, and talking to them and they—those are the ones that won’t eat the stuff from here.
But the younger ones, maybe a time, we will learn to come back here and try again. But I’m not sure if I would do that. Because I, you know, I’m still not sure of the cleanup efforts that have happened to the grounds here. I know we’ve tried , we’ve had programs, we’ve had people, but I don’t know, myself, if I would do that.
Is there a desire among tribal members to come back?
Taylor: The tribe wants to keep our cultural areas that we have been—that we’ve had association with all of our lives—the sacred places of the tribe. We had ceremonies like at Gabriel Mountain and all those sites, the burial sites that we have here, are still important to our people and always will be important to our people. Anything that holds the land of our ancestors is important to me, to my children. And even my children know the reverence of a gravesite. And would always honor those sites and don’t want anything to ever happen to those. And we’ll always have our feeling for this area. It’ll never go away. This land will never go away in our hearts. Never.
Does it just need time?
Hopefully. Hopefully, some of that land will be given back to the people—that we would have encampments here again, you know. But when that happens, if it ever happens, I don’t know. I can’t say. I don’t know that much about what is being planned here or what is not being planned here. Sometimes we’re, as tribal people, we’re not brought in to the full circle of everything because, as we have directors of Hanford Energy Department, we have all these people that are the professional people that say what, but sometimes we as small people get left out of the loop. We’re not in on the discussion, as somebody else is always coming in and making the decisions. We have tribal leaders and they have leaders that give them the advice of what is good and what is bad but sometimes the other people are being left out of the loop. So whatever happens here with the land, I don’t know. But hopefully someday.