Longhouse Destroyed in Fire, But Not All Is Lost

The Chief Joseph Nez Perce Longhouse on the Colville Reservation was destroyed by fire in December. Many cultural sacred items were lost.

A disastrous fire rocked the Colville Reservation as the year ended. A news release from the office of Chairman John Sirois expressed the sorrow felt throughout the reservation.

“Our community, especially the Longhouse Community, stand in a state of shock a day after Christmas. At approximately 12:30 a.m. a fire broke out at the Chief Joseph Nez Perce Longhouse and it completely burned to the ground.”

“This building was more than a place of worship; it was a place of giving and a place of teaching and love. Our prayers are with those families affected and we ask that our heavy hearts are lifted in time.”

Milton Davis, a Chief Joseph Band member had similar comments. “It was our home. It wasn’t just a place of worship. It was a community place where we had funerals, weddings, memorials, name-givings and rejoinings. We had language classes there.”

Twelve tribes live within the boundaries of the Colville Confederated Reservation and there are a number of longhouses and a number of ways of believing and ways of worship, the Chief Joseph Band being one of those twelve.

Albert Andrews Redstar is principal leader of the longhouse and arrived as soon as possible after getting word of the fire and remained until 3:30 that morning. “It started at the back of the building. It was an electrical fire. It built up over a matter of hours but when it kicked in it just took the whole building. We had stacks of chairs and they are highly combustible if stacked together. They cause what are called flash fires. That’s what happened.”

The building was insured and it will be replaced when the insurance process is finished, most likely in the same location. The loss of the building was hard enough, but even more difficult is the loss of the items in the building.

“We lost all our drums,” Davis said. “There were probably over 12 drums. We had different items: artifacts, things given to the Chief Joseph Band like plaques, eagle fan or artwork.

We had pictures and different artwork from some of our members in our band. Those things can’t be replaced. We can’t really put a dollar value on them.”

Fortunately some things can be replaced. Redstar said that a hand drum maker on the Umatilla Reservation has already made drums for them. “Some ladies are planning to get together and rebuild the tule mats,” he added. The bells are also replaceable. “All in all, I think we’re going to survive okay, absorb the loss, keep moving, and do what we need to do.”

Sirois recalls one message, one teaching, that has remained in his mind. “You really take good care of your Indian belongings, these sacred objects you use when you’re singing and drumming. You take care of them strongly and they’ll take care of you. But the important thing to remember is that you’re building that relationship with the Creator. If something happens to one of these things, they’re material things. They represent something, but that relationship you have with each other and with the Creator is the most important thing.”

Redstar spoke of the support already received from not only this reservation, but elsewhere. Many of the Joseph people live elsewhere; on the Umatilla and Yakama reservations and along the Snake River as well as friends on the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho. “Many of them are supportive of our group and many on this reservation have stepped forward and offered support and help.”

“At this time I think it’s so important that our community comes together and really help one another. We’ve already started doing that. That’s the best part. They say something good always comes out of something terrible,” Sirois added.