Honoring Nations: Aaron Miles: Idaho Gray Wolf Recovery Program

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

Aaron Miles, Natural Resource Manager for the Nez Perce Tribe, shares the progress of the Idaho Gray Wolf Recovery Program and talks about how the program hopefully will begin to seed a change in the mindset among those human beings who share the wolves' environment.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Miles, Aaron. "Idaho Gray Wolf Recovery Program." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Sante Fe, New Mexico. February 8, 2002. Presentation.

Andrew Lee:

"We now have a presentation from Aaron Miles from the Nez Perce Tribe who is the department manager of the wildlife there, and he's going to talk about the Nez Perce Gray Wolf Recovery Program, or actually the Idaho Gray Wolf Recovery Program, which has been a phenomenally successful recovery program led by the Nez Perce Tribe and was a High Honors winner in 1999. Aaron."

Aaron Miles:

"Thank you. Thanks, Andrew. I really appreciate this video. My mentor, his name was Roger Van Houghton. He was a forester, he was of Dutch descent, and I remember him when he had his computers, you carried those big cards around to program his computer and you had to keep them in the right order. The cards were about that big around or square and it had the capacity...it didn't have near the capacity of the memory that you have in these computers. And that's pretty interesting to see how kids have that technology available to them and to be able to learn like that. Like I was mentioning, Roger was a great mentor to myself.

And before I was the Natural Resource Manager, Jaime Pinkham actually was the manager who had brought in, had been a part of the wolf recovery effort initiating this with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. You'll see in my slides here some of the more aspects of who I am I guess. I'm more of a fisherman, so you'll see some of the tribal elements in this, because the way our treaty reads is that we have the exclusive right for taking fish and then all other privileges, hunting and all that, come in after the fishing right. So wildlife and all that stuff is tied to our fishing rights. It's kind of a weird little set up because you think culturally, all animals are equal, all two-legged humans, we're all equal to the animals and so. Why don't we get started?

First of all, I'd like to first go over the introduction and the Nez Perce history a little bit more so you understand the dynamics of wolf recovery a little bit in conjunction with Nez Perce culture. And then I'll get into more of the logistics of Nez Perce, the contract with the gray wolf recovery from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I'll give you an up-to-date report on what we're doing right now. And then I think also kind of going over some of the...understanding the value differences between Indian versus non-Indian entities and the politics. And then kind of get into the larger picture of really looking at repairing, mitigating Nez Perce country, and so that we have a diversity of species within our country and the benefits as well.

So the first part, my administration, I have around anywhere from 90 to 100 employees right now. I have six division directors. I have everything but fisheries. In fisheries, Jaime Pinkham is now the new Fisheries Manager for the Tribe and so I work with him. And then there are several places where I represent the tribe at the Intertribal Timber Council, I'm a board member of that board. And the State-Tribal Working Group, the states and tribes work collaboratively to make recommendations on clean-up efforts for the Department of Energy and so we meet with them [DOE] quite a bit. And now we're trying to get...administer the Integrated Resources Management Plan. And then I lobby, I work with my policymakers, the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee and many of you met Justin yesterday I believe.

First of all, I've got to get started off really understanding Nez Perce culture, Nez Perce history a little bit. In 1855, how we became politically established was Chief Looking Glass, old Chief Looking Glass was hunting buffalo in Montana, buffalo country -- we'd been battling the Mandan, Hidatsa, the Blackfeet and all over for the buffalo resource. And one of the things during that time, the governor then, Isaac Stevens, wanted to negotiate a treaty with the Nez Perce Tribe and so that was held at Walla Walla, Washington or the Washington Territory. And so we had actually come in, there were 2,000 Nez Perce warriors who had actually stopped hunting and come in for this treaty. And during that time, it was not about conquering the Nez Perce, the Umatillas, the Yakimas, it was not about conquered because the cavalry only had a few...they didn't have a large number of soldiers there so it was just...it was...the tribes could have taken them out easily. It was about perpetuating our rights...reserving our rights for the future and which now I'm the seventh generation from the Treaty of 1855 signers. Chief Looking Glass...so this is the Young Looking Glass who fought in the Nez Perce War. There is not a picture of his father who signed the Treaty of 1855. As you can see, this is the circle of influence that the Nez Perce had in regards to hunting, gathering, fishing. And so what you see is the original reservation here in 1855 and you had the northeast Oregon, you had the Wallowa Band, this is where Chief Joseph comes from. And so our rights going into buffalo country to be able to hunt and then fish with our sister tribes on the Columbia River. And then battling...we fought a lot with the Shoshone Bannock down in southern Idaho.

Before the treaties or before this reservation was formed, Lewiston's right here, so you had a lot of non-Indians waiting for the opening of the reservation. What they were doing was illegally going on to the reservation and looking for gold, looking at our resources, and so there were a number of things that were unexploited at that time. This is the reservation that Joseph refused to go to and so the Nez Perce War of 1877 escalated. We were actually...Joseph and the Wallowa Band were actually heading to the reservation and two young warriors before they actually got the reservation had retaliated and killed a couple of non-Indians because they had murdered their fathers and so retaliation escalated the War of 1877, so the first battle takes place in Salmon River Country. And my great-great grandfather Two Moon and Ollicot led the first battle in which we had won most of them throughout the Nez Perce war, but the Bear's Paw is where we surrendered. And this is a picture of Big Hope Battlefield, and you can see where they placed the Howitzer up above here when they had snuck up on the Nez Perce, our encampment. The encampment was down here and that day they killed 60 to 90 women and children. It was the first act of genocide by the U.S. government on the Nez Perce people. They had blatantly come after our women and children...had smashed in the heads of all the infants just to prove a point to us and to get us back to Lapwai on the reservation. And so when the Howitzer would...the cannons would land and hit...cannonballs would hit out there in the encampment, shrapnel would blow everywhere and would kill people. And my great-great grandfather Two Moon was actually down in this area and he was one of the first...he had killed three or four soldiers that day. We had the guns in my grandpa's place for quite a while and their house burnt down and so we lost not only a number of resources from the tribe, but even the cavalry. And so the Nez Perce chased back the cavalry and made them retreat during this time. And Yellow Wolf, Chief Joseph's nephew, had actually...they went up...they only got two shots off, I believe, with the cannonball and they had dismantled that Howitzer and buried it and so it only took just a matter of minutes for the warriors to make the cavalry retreat.

And then Chief Joseph, Hinmatoylokekt, leads, he's the leader of the Nez Perce, which we had many chiefs, Chief Looking Glass, White Bird, Toohoolhoolzote and so he surrenders at Bear Paw [Nez Perce language] and my history there is...my great-grandfather was born the year after, James Miles, who was born at Fort Walsh. Some of my family had made it into Canada, into Sitting Bull's camp. That's who we were trying to reach was...we were allies with Sitting Bull and one of the things...for me I feel fortunate enough to be here today and lucky enough because the things that they did, their existence, their living and survival is the only reason why I'm here today. And so Chief Joseph, ‘I will not fight no more forever.' And then the other thing...one of the other things that he said was, ‘The earth and myself are of one mind.' And that's kind of the premise of how I look at natural resources, ‘The earth and myself are one mind.' I remember when I was going to school I had learned a lot about Aldo Leopold, I learned about the great conservationists and preservationists, but I only had to turn to my family or turn to the chiefs that have been part of our history, and so I didn't have to look very far to find guidance.

Okay, right after the War of 1877 the Nez Perce get split up, we go to the Colville Reservation, some go back to Lapwai on the Nez Perce, Umatilla, and then eventually go to Oklahoma. One of the things during this time the, here's the part that kind of, I always have a big problem with is, we were to provide testimony as Indian people to all the animals who had lost their voice when we had become in existence, so we as humans have a submissive role to animals, not dominion. And so when we have that...the ability to take an animal to feed ourselves, we are to provide testimony and to perpetuate that animal. And so during the unregulated times when ranching, mining, all these 'lords of yesterday' that Charles Wilkinson talks about in his book, they are dominating, they are...so environmental degradation and loss of habitat, this is where it happens and then extirpation and extinction of plant and animal species takes place. And during this time a tax on tribalism began through the government programs such as the Dawes Allotment Act, the boarding school era, and the Relocation Act. So becoming no longer a tribe no more, we're becoming somewhat acclimated and assimilated to become Americans, and so the animals have no voice to speak on their behalf when we're in the boarding schools, when we're learning to just become American and have dominion over the animals.

And so during that time a lot is lost, loss of the chief system and we go to...that's actually Big Hole as well, Big Hole Battlefield. So tribalism is almost lost to Eurocentric values. Indians are demonized with predators such as the wolf and grizzly bear. Indian leadership is reduced from a proud man or woman with a role in the tribe to a hopeless reservation individual. And so a lot is lost during that time of...now it's just 'me, me, me, I, I, I' -- it's no longer we together as a tribe. And then we also...I don't know if it's whether to combat and beat the white man at his own game, we adopt the first modern version of the constitution and bylaws of the Nez Perce Tribe, approved by the Assistant Commissioner of Indian Affairs and so it's ratified by our General Council and then Robert's Rules of Order takes front and center rather than coming into a meeting setting and listening to our elders first. And so, anybody can get up and talk now without...and so maybe a loss of respect takes place there. And then later on...we've been fighting a diminishment case on the Nez Perce Reservation. Right after 1893, the Dawes Allotment Act, I think it was 1897, I believe, in our history that the Indian Affairs Commissioner said, ‘No, the reservation was not diminished when it was opened up for the Homestead Act.' And so we've been facing...we have an anti-Indian group on our reservation who is saying, ‘No, you guys accepted money so that's ceding your land away and the reservation lines disappear.' And it comes over really employment issues where we're trying to employ our tribal members. We have an unemployment rate that probably reaches 40 percent at different times, but we are with, through Harvard, I've got to say this, we are actually at the table with them and they've been a great facilitator in all this. Where's Joe [Kalt] at? Oh, there he is in the back. He's been a great help to us.

And so this is what the Indian Affairs Commissioner...the Commission defines as Nez Perce country. So it goes all the way down the Montana border over into northeast Oregon so we have the exclusive right to take fish in all streams and so we can still go on the Columbia River even outside of this barrier and if there were still buffalo in Montana we'd still be able to hunt over there, which I know some other tribes don't like that. And then here's...I wanted to bring this to your attention because this is kind of the...this is the individual practice, the practice of what we always want our kids to do, to practice and exercise our treaty rights. And this is myself at Rapid River and then this is...I'm catching a fish. There's a dam, the trap, which is about maybe 200 yards up above. But we fish three different ways: with this large dip net, there's a hoop on the end and you just put it up river and go downstream, you make one sweep and that's how you catch them in your net. The other way is we have a gaff hook, it's a large hook like this and you feel around in the river and you just pull when you feel...when it feels like a thigh or something you just yank on it. And then the other way is we spear them as well. And so we had fought the Shoshone Bannock, they had actually...we have history of where they killed a lot of Nez Perce when we were fishing during this time and so fighting over the fisheries resource was also a big deal pre-European contact.

And then this is what it's really about -- it's about our kids, our youth. This is my oldest daughter. Last year she caught eight salmon. I was very proud of her. She's very much a tomboy so she wants to go hunting and fishing. And so my two youngest boys, they're not really into that yet, but they're starting to learn and this year I catch them, they're wanting to, they carry around poles with them and act like they're fishing so that's part of their experiential learning. And then my youngest son James, he's named after my great-grandfather James Miles who was born in Canada, James Joseph Miles. My daughter Celilo and Aaron, Jr. His Indian name is 'Two Moon.' So that's kind of the exercising of our rights. That's a very important part of our lives.

People always tell me, ‘Well, Aaron...' I've been confronted by individuals saying, ‘Aaron, you don't go to powwows, you don't do this, you don't do that.' And I'm like, ‘Well, you can do whatever you want if you...whatever you want in your mind that you feel that makes you Indian.' I hunt and fish, my hair's short. My grandfathers, their hair was short and I've always been...that's always been my lifestyle. I always used to listen to them in the sweathouse; they would be talking the old Nez Perce language. You could hear women's names in there sometimes. It's just part of the culture, and so there's new culture that is established during that time and it's important that you encourage your children to go in any way that they want to just as long as they're...that they have some ethics behind them.

And so, the tribal side, now we're getting into the management side of things in which the tribe contracted the gray wolf recovery effort from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1995. In 1995 what I understand, I've talked with the Wildlife Director, Keith Lawrence, he's told me during that time the State of Idaho, the legislature passed...prohibited the Idaho Fish and Game from being involved with wolf recovery so the tribe lands wolf recovery by default. They think the tribe's going to land flat on their faces and not be able to recover wolves into the State of Idaho. And so the gray wolf recovery, 250 wolves later, 17 packs, we're doing good. The wolf already knows that's his country and the bulk of it's right in Nez Perce country. And so we become the contractor and then later on, last year the Idaho State Legislature memorializes the removal of all wolves from the state. And so right now to be involved with wolf management, which we're getting into de-listing, they have to undo some of the legislation that they put on the Idaho Fish and Game to be involved. And so right now, the Nez Perce Tribe is trying to bring them along, help them along with wolf management and accept the recovery efforts. And so the tribe's successes that we've had and obstacles, Curt Mack received an award for the top 100 scientists for Audubon Society for the 20th century, the National Wildlife Federation Conservation Award, the Harvard Award, we've received.

The biggest obstacle is obtaining the social acceptance of wolves. We know the biological acceptance is much greater than what cattlemen and the row growers will allow the wolves to do. There's much more that they can grow. We've identified the train wrecks, where the livestock interactions and wolves take place and where the depredations take place, but the problem is the ranchers, since the American government put them there, they want the American government to bail them out. So they want subsidies or even...so if there's a depredation they want the government to pay for their livestock or their cattle and so we're trying to work with them because wolf management, that's not going to happen. There's not going to be no compensation plan for them. Right now Defenders of Wildlife, they pay for, like if a calf is killed by a wolf, they'll pay full weight, calf weight, as if it was, even if it was real small, just born, they'll pay that price for the rancher and even depredations that even look suspect that may or may not have been killed by a wolf, they'll still pay for it. And so the ranchers have a lot of...I'm not sure if it's incentives, but there's a lot that's going for them in this. Right now, we believe that the environmental groups are going to probably sue in this...the wolf recovery effort because it first called for 10 breeding pairs in the State of Idaho, 10 breeding pairs in Montana, 10 breeding pairs in Wyoming and so it's a 30 breeding pair aggregate and right now the State of Idaho is taking up the bulk of, with 17 pairs and Wyoming and Montana still are lagging, I think, I believe seven or eight, seven packs and I think Wyoming's down to like five and so they have to have 10, 10 and 10 and so that's what the environmental groups are saying or the Nez Perce is saying, ‘We know it's not going to happen in Montana and Wyoming so we've got to get everybody on the same page to get the wolves delisted' because we need more social acceptance. We need the state to be involved rather than just ignoring the whole issue.

The biggest thing in this effort that I've learned... Well, you've got to understand the value differences between Indian and non-Indian, tribalism versus individualism. Ranchers are worried about their economy, their check book, their...and it's not about...it's not about us, it's just about me, that type of mentality and the definition of 'natural' from a tribal perspective versus non-tribal. When I went to my first wolf oversight committee meeting, one of the things that I was really in awe about was everybody except the biologists were around a table talking about wolves. So you had ranchers, you had livestock owners...it was even farmers around the table and so it was like, ‘Well, where's the biologists, where's...' We've gotten to a point where how much local control can you have? So local that you just take biologists out of there and people who really care about the resources. And so learning...and also learning from the past versus sustaining the present. And so the tribes are very much...and it goes down to the tribal Garden of Eden versus the state's Garden of Eden. What is the picture that the tribe would like to see versus the state? Well, the tribe would like to see the rolling hills with pine back on those hills where the state would rather see rolling hills of wheat. And so our difference...there are so many differences that we have between the state and the tribe. And then the definition of American from Indian versus non-Indian, that's just the whole...they believe that America is all about us, and here the bulk of the land is federal land that the wolves occupy and it's all taxpayers, just not the State of Idaho taxpayers that fund wolf recovery and are part of what we want in America. And so it's also a selfish point of view in my eyes. But still, nonetheless, we're the contractor; I still got to work with individuals that have definite differences between the tribe...among the tribe. And so that leads me to my...how are we going to start mitigating in a holistic manner all of Nez Perce country, the things that we typify as 'the West'?Some of the things that we...the things I have to continue working with private landowners, changing the mindset for the highest economic return. I believe that's probably what guides the natural resources in the State of Idaho. Collectively protecting our ways of life, and what I mean by that, last week I met with the Idaho Cattlemen's Association and the...growers for the first time and I told them, I said, ‘You know, we as Indian people are very much in the same boat as you. As ranchers and farmers where maybe sometimes people perceive that as a way of the past, the dying out and we need to stick up for each other rather than looking out ways how we can get rid of each other because for us we want ranchers to accept that wolves are here, they're here to stay and this is the animal, this is the icon that was with the Nez Perce Tribe when we were flourishing economically, everything about us culturally, socially, politically before the white man was here. So we want you guys to understand that this is an important species to us spiritually, and that it's important for you to accept this animal. If you're claiming that you're five, six generations in this country, then you will accept these ways as well, not just the agrigarian part of your livelihood. It's all about the hard-working individual being able to overcome these obstacles. That's really what our heritages are about.'

Benefits of wolf recovery: so we're restoring the west. We're restoring the image of the hardworking individual with Indians, with wolves, with the predators and then learning to live with our neighbors is the biggest deal. I mean, we're so close to non-Indians, but we haven't been able to come that close, not until JFK [Kennedy School] came into, or Harvard School came in and help us out, sit down with the North [Central] Idaho Jurisdictional Alliance. We've never been able to sit down with them. I sat down with an individual who made a public comment who said, ‘bloodshed is inevitable.' He was referring to that sometime we're going to go into battle with the Alliance and so that's how far we have gotten from that point. And then the other thing is, for us elk populations become healthier. You've got a healthier ecosystem. There's some things we don't understand about wolves yet, whether they're additive or compensatory. We don't know if they're taking additional elk or additional livestock or are they just bumping out another predator so there's less of another predator deprivating on livestock and elk. One of the things that I thought was kind of humorous is the state, they actually...they want slower moving elk, they want the most elk they can have in the State of Idaho and so they can sell the greatest number of out of state tags and so the Idaho Fish and Game, their very existence is based upon money, it's not about science. And so we're learning more about them as we go through wolf recovery and it just...they want accessible elk and it's kind of a crazy thought in my mind.

And then the spiritual significance of [Nez Perce language]; [Nez Perce language] is 'wolf' in Nez Perce, restore it to the Nez Perce people. And above all, our belief in perpetuation and protection of the [Nez Perce language] is the creator, his natural resources. It's not about us, it's about how we can get the spirit animals back that belong to the Nez Perce when we used to perform [Nez Perce language], when the spiritual elements to the tribe, that we know we were facing a lot of social ailments, social-economic conditions. When I was growing up in Lapwai, we had an unemployment rate of about 80 percent. There were more dogs in Lapwai than there were human beings. There was so much going on. I'd have to walk by two bars every day when I'd walk to school and there'd be fights breaking out and it was a rough time in our tribe's history, and to be reduced from this very respected individual in a community to someone who's now just an alcoholic. Through our natural resources, that's how we address these issues and some people look at them that way or some people just seem them as totally different. And I hope that with what, I'm able to leave you here today that natural resources, that's who we are as Indian people. Without them, we're almost like we're just another regular American and we've been fighting for that right to be different for so long. We weren't a part of the civil rights movement by and large 'cause we were fighting for the right to be different with our reservations and be unique, and so that's really what America's about today and so I think America is learning that sometimes my ways are un-American, but they have to accept us whether they like it or not and learn to live with us and vice versa."

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