My Experience in Joseph, OR — A Journey of Discovery Among the Nez Pierce

Noemi Skovierova, Staff Reporter

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  • The town of Joseph, Oregon is the home of the Chief Joseph memorial, whose tribe returns annually to the Wallowa valley each year.

  • Female dancers of all ages are dressed up in hand-crafted garments, with the younger generation adding a more modern twist.

  • During midday, the massive parachute ceiling of the festival grounds guards the dancers against the eastern Oregon sun.

  • Those who come and watch the festivities are given a glimpse into the traditional dress, dance, and music of the Nez Perce Tribe.

  • Detailed beading and embroidery work is one way that competitors impress the judges who consider each dancer at the festival.

  • After a year, a new generation of dancers enjoyed each other’s company.

  • The head decoration, which is often brightly colored, and worn by many men is meant to replicate the guard hair of a porcupine.

  • The Nez Pierce people have historically had a powerful relationship with Appaloosa horses, specifically bred for speed and endurance.

  • Handmade jewelry and clothing remain a staple for participants. Many add their own twist on traditional beading.

  • A dancer performed a dance around the central pole of the dancing arena.

  • On the last day of the festival, participants gather to greet the sun on the surrounding cliffs.

  • The closing ceremony of the Tamkaliks festival features a sun greeting and morning rituals.

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As the dry sharp grass danced across the hills, our family car rolled to a stop by a field, empty except for a large canvas tent flapping in the wind. 

At the age of 10, I had no idea that this tent and what I would witness in it would shape me into the person I have become today, as a high school senior. 

The nights that followed after we arrived in Joseph, Oregon — a quaint town on the edge of the Wallowa Mountains and named after Chief Joseph — became more and more memorable with each sunset. All day and all night, members of the Nez Pierce tribe danced, brightly adorned with colorful beads and elegantly draped dresses.

Falling asleep on our first night, the drums seemed to sync with my heartbeat and vibrate my body. As a sheltered girl who was raised inside of the tight circle of my Catholic family and friends, watching the Nez Pierce dancers changed my perspective more than my 10-year-old mind could have ever anticipated. This experience was my first push towards maturity, which enabled me to contemplate my own thoughts and opinions and later prompted me to expand my compassion for others. 

My family stumbled onto the Tamkaliks festival in the early 2000s while exploring eastern Oregon. The charm of the quaint town was welcoming, but what had us coming back year after year was the community that we continued to build with those that we met at the festival. 

I had previously been convinced that there was only one way to live my life, which just so happened to be the life that my parents had propagated to me through their own lifestyles and experiences. 

But after visiting Joseph, I was exposed to people who were kind and powerful in a way that I had always dreamed of being but had never really seen. It was after visiting Joseph that I began to realize and explore the many different ways of living, and the thought process I continue to explore today. 

During my middle and high school years, having a wider outlook on others’ lives and options that might be different than mine has served me well, providing me with the ability to reflect on things that I might not originally see from my perspective. Compassion and an open mind, which I began to form in Joseph, have provided me with the opportunity to have meaningful conversations with everyone around me, no matter their outlook on different issues. 

It has since become even more important to me that I give myself space to engage in my own experiences to find the right path for myself, rather than just taking the easiest or most content path. 

Sitting on the dusty benches and watching everyone around me interact, dance, sing, and enjoy themselves, I realized that the journey of finding myself had only just begun. I didn’t yet understand that what I had experienced there that July of 2013 was about to jumpstart my spiritual and mental contemplation, as well as deepen my compassion and understanding of others that I still use today.