Our Brothers’ Keeper
By Richard Littell

“CA’YA H'lMIIN," said Allen Pinkham Sr., speaking in the traditional language of the Nez Perce people. He repeated his statement, this time in English: "Then there will be no more wolves." Speaking in 2003 at the tribe's headquarters in Lapwai, Idaho, Pinkham, the Nez Perce tribe's former chairman, warned the council about a threat to the wolves that the Nez Perce had been managing—and protecting—since 1995. The threat: The tribe would lose its role in wolf management. If that happened, Pinkham said, "Idaho's wolves will become extinct again." As Pinkham knew, many Idaho citizens liked to hunt and trap wolves. So Pinkham feared that if the tribe lost its ability to protect wolves, the wolves would be killed and, in a repeat of history, exterminated.

When Idaho eliminated its last wolf in the 1930s, its action was part of a long tradition of demonizing wolves. Clerics in ancient Europe preached that the wolf was a creature of the Devil. Kings in medieval England offered rewards to subjects who killed wolves. In modern times, even such a famed naturalist as President Theodore Roosevelt was convinced that the wolf is a "beast of waste and desolation."

By the time wolves were extinct in Idaho, they had been virtually eliminated from the rest of the continental United States.

The wolves' comeback in Idaho resulted from a federal statute. In 1973, Congress enacted a law requiring the federal government to protect endangered species (such as wolves) and restore them to their traditional habitat. So in 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service undertook to capture gray wolves in Canada and release them into Idaho (and two nearby states).

The agency envisioned that state wildlife officials would manage the wolves. But Idaho's then-governor, Phillip Batt, who threatened to call out the National Guard to stop the reintroduction, refused to let state agencies manage the wolves; and groups such as the Central Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition, which claimed 1,100 members, held town meetings throughout rural Idaho, thus reigniting citizens' traditional animosity toward wolves.

"The issue was too hot to handle," said Ed Bangs, the plain-speaking chief of the federal government's wolf-reintroduction team. That's when the Nez Perce came forward, saying, as Bangs put it, "We'll be glad to handle it."

Bangs quickly recognized that the tribe "had a good plan for wolf management" and had "hired top-notch people to run the program—the Service couldn't have hired anyone better." So the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service "contracted them to manage the program."

The Nez Perce tribe's management program fulfilled Bangs' high expectations. After the newly introduced wolves were released into Idaho's mountainous wilderness areas, the tribe used modern techniques to manage them. Each wolf had been fitted with a radio-controlled collar that identified each wolf with its own number. Using fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, Mike Jimenez and Curt Mack, the leaders of the tribe's wolf-recovery program, regularly surveyed each pack. Injured or isolated wolves could be removed or relocated by air.

In rural Idaho towns, the tribe conducted seminars that helped nervous citizens to overcome their fears and hostilities toward wolves.

The tribe aided pro-wolf groups in providing monetary compensation to landowners whose livestock had been killed by rogue wolves.

The tribe also cooperated with federal officials in tracking, relocating, and removing rogue wolves that attacked citizens' livestock.

The Nez Perce, like the wolf, once inhabited vast territories in the American West. When the first European Americans ventured west, the tribe occupied 13 million acres in what is today north-central Idaho, northeastern Oregon, and southeastern Washington.

In 1805, the tribe provided Lewis and Clark's cold, hungry, and disoriented soldiers with food, fuel, horses, advice, and guides. In gratitude for this help, Lewis and Clark, on behalf of the U.S. government, entered into a "peace and friendship" agreement with the Nez Perce.

After Lewis and Clark's agreement, the federal government and the tribe entered into treaties in which the Nez Perce ceded millions of acres of tribal lands to the federal government. In return, in the Treaty of 1855, the government promised to protect the tribe's reserved lands. But when gold was discovered on tribal territory in the 1860s, 50,000 miners poured onto the Indians' lands. In the Treaty of 1863, the government sought to justify the miners' presence by diminishing the reservation to a tenth of its size. Today, about 2,000 members of the tribe live on a 760,000-acre reservation in central Idaho,

In 1999, the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development's Honoring Nations Program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government honored the Nez Perce with an award for the tribe's work with the wolves. “Today the Nez Perce people draw parallels between the wolf's fate and their own. Both were deprived of habitat necessary for their traditional means of support, and both were systematically driven off their land at a great cost of life," said the members of the Honoring Nations Board, who delivered the award.

In 1995, when the Nez Perce proposed to manage the new wolves, they were motivated by more than the injustices both had suffered. The Nez Perce and other Native Americans value wolves for both cultural and religious reasons. Indeed, as the board members of the Honoring Nations Program board stated when they presented the award, the tribe's "Wolf Recovery Program is ... an investment in culture, community, and nationhood."

Culturally, Native peoples recognize a kinship with wolves. In fact, they learned hunting skills from wolves. Wolves and Cree people in Alberta maneuvered buffalo out onto lake ice, where the big animals lost their footing and were more easily killed. In Arizona, Pueblo people and wolves ran deer to exhaustion. Wolves and Shoshoni people lay flat in the prairie grass of Wyoming and waved objects that enticed curious antelope close enough to be killed.

Native peoples expressed their bond with wolves in many ways. The Pawnee identified so closely with the wolf that their hand signal for the wolf was the same as the hand signal for Pawnee.

Native peoples also admire wolves' loyalty to their family and pack. Alpha wolves traditionally take the role of provider for the larger community of the pack. Those wolves live in a manner that makes the pack strong. They provide food for the entire pack, even the sick and old. They see to the education of all the pack's young, not just each individual wolf's own progeny. And Alpha wolves defend the entire pack's territory against other wolves.

The Nez Perce people share this traditional regard for wolves. As Jaime Pinkham, the tribe's former natural resources director, said, "The wolf is regarded as an equal, a brother." Horace Axtell, a tribal elder, tells how he experienced this filial sensation at an airport ceremony in 1995, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service flew in the first gray wolves from Canada. Axtell recalled, "I had the opportunity to welcome [the wolves] back to the land here. I sang one of our religious songs to welcome them back. Then I looked into the cage and spoke to one of the wolves in Nez Perce; he kind of tilted his head, like he was listening." Axtell smiled. "That felt so good," he said. "It was like meeting an old friend."

For many Nez Perce, spiritual beliefs infuse their daily lives. Although raised as a Christian, tribal elder Axtell later embraced the practices of the Seven Drum creed and its concept of the Circle of Life. That concept, he explained, recognizes that "the Creator made it possible for the tribe to be spiritually connected to all living things, animals and plants." As Axtell observed, "We feel we are all connected." That spiritual connection was extinguished when wolves were exterminated.

Horace Axtell still conducts religious gatherings on Sunday, when Seven Drum members sing traditional prayer songs and venerate the Circle of Life.

One part of Seven Drum's spiritual connection between the Nez Perce and all living things is the belief in a legendary ritual, which Axtell calls "a vision quest," for the wyakin, a spiritual guide who can advise and protect a person throughout life.

Traditionally, in order to meet the wyakin—usually an animal, frequently a wolf—a Nez Perce child of 10 or 12 was taken to an isolated mountain place where the child remained alone, with only water for sustenance, until the wyakin appeared in a vision or dream.

Axtell said, "There is still a belief that wyakin still have power, although it's not a subject that's much discussed—and the practice has withered among today's youth."

The tribe's Wolf Recovery Program "has been a success," said Keith Lawrence, the current director of the Nez Perce program. Under the tribe's care, the new wolves have thrived, growing in number from the 35 released in 1995-96 to 525 in mid-2005.

Because of the acclaim for the tribe's accomplishments, the tribe and Idaho State authorities were able to reach an accommodation that enabled both to share in wolf management. The state's governor, Dirk Kempthorne, wrote the tribe on December 13, 2001, saying that he regarded the Nez Perce as one of the "partners in the region who share a stake in the wolf issue."

On April 7, 2005, the governor signed a formal Memorandum of Agreement that granted the tribe, which had been managing wolves throughout the entire state, the right to continue to manage them in the vicinity of tribal lands—half of the state's wolf population. The state will take over management of the remaining wolves.

The Nez Perce take pride in the recognition of its role in aiding wolves to regain their rightful place in Idaho's habitat. As Wildlife Program director Keith Lawrence observed, "Being Nez Perce entails respecting and celebrating wolves. This aspect of Nez Perce culture had languished as local populations of wolves disappeared but it has been refreshed through wolf introduction," he explained. "Today, wolf legends that had been sequestered within families are shared widely in the tribe, baby naming ceremonies include wolf names, and dancers are once again using wolf pelts as part of their regalia."

In helping the wolves restore themselves to their rightful place, the tribe has helped itself, too. "Although they welcome the wolves' return," Lawrence recognized that "the Nez Perce do not forget the injustices inflicted on both wolves and the Nez Perce." It will take more than the wolves' return to right the wrongs of the past. But in helping the wolves to restore themselves to their rightful place, the tribe has helped itself too. "Thus," as Lawrence observed, "it is not surprising that the wolf's recovery is intertwined in many tribal members' minds with Nez Perce survival and resurgence."

Richard Littell is a writer and lawyer in Washington, D.C.

National Museum of the American Indian, Spring 2006, pages 22-27.

© 2006, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian