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Robbie Paul: Healing grief by exploring the past

SPOKANE, Wash. – Robbie Paul has a remarkable story to tell, and she’s telling it through a dissertation that will earn her a doctoral degree. It’s the story of five generations of a Nimiipuu family, never before told within the Nez Perce Tribe.

Paul was raised on a ranch on the reservation near Craigmont, Idaho. It’s allotment land that her grandfather, Jesse Paul, started and where she was raised by her parents, Titus and Maxine. Jesse Paul was part of Chief Joseph’s band and was in the Nez Perce War of 1877 as a small boy. His five brothers and sisters all died during the war, as did his father, Seven-Days-Whipping. Only Jesse Paul and his mother, Phoebe Lowery, survived.

Paul didn’t know much of tribal or family history while a youngster. “We didn’t talk about it,” she said. “It was too painful to talk about. Grandfather witnessed that; the war and all the trauma. That grief got passed on.”

A second-grade teacher once called her a “dumb Indian,” and that mental tape was replayed often throughout her school years. “Mom and dad told me to be proud of who I am, but that tape kept coming up.” She finished high school in 1967 and enrolled at the University of Idaho where she graduated in home economics with barely a 2.0 grade point average. During that time she married, a marriage that produced two children but ended in divorce 20 years later. She had returned to college before the divorce, still wondering whether she was smart enough. Getting 4.0 grades helped ease that concern and she started the day care facility at Whitworth Presbyterian Church in 1986.

The divorce was devastating; and while she suffered severe depression for many months, it made her realize that day care work wouldn’t pay the bills and she needed more training. She applied for a master’s program in psychology at Eastern Washington University but first had to make up the necessary undergraduate psychology classes. That degree was realized in 1994.

At the time her depression was greatest, she heard a voice telling her to go home – back to the ranch. “I’ve since recognized that voice as my grandfather, Jesse,” she said. “That voice has been very powerful in my journey, giving me little pushes to do certain things. Learning to listen to your ancestors is very key. They’ve been there all along, but sometimes you don’t recognize it ’til you’re hurting so bad and you hear a voice, a nudging.”

She returned to the ranch, full of fear and needing to feel the security she had felt as a small child. Sitting and listening by the creek brought great peace. “I sat there hearing grandfather saying, ‘This is where you belong.’”

Following the completion of her master’s degree, her father said she needed to go find her story. She studied the story of Coyote and the killing of the monster. She learned that the monster meant many things. She learned she must be prepared to meet monsters in her life and she hadn’t been doing that. Her father’s encouragement and the words in her mind from her grandparents – “You’re going to do this. You’re going to tell our story” – caused her to begin retracing her ancestry and start conquering the monsters and healing the grief.

She read the book “Yellow Wolf: His Own Story,” which tells his story of the Nez Perce war. She was sobbing when she finished, realizing her grandfather had been there and how he’d lost five siblings and a father. She realized she had to go. Her father accompanied her to Big Hole National Battlefield, where so many Nez Perce lost their lives.

Since that time she’s retraced the entire trail, not only the portion through Idaho and Montana but also where the survivors were sent – eventually to Oklahoma before being returned to the Northwest. It was a painful journey for her but also a chance to let healing begin.

She eventually accepted a job in Spokane as the Native American coordinator for Recruitment and Retention at the Washington State University Intercollegiate College of Nursing. It’s a position she still holds to encourage Native youth to go into nursing or health professions and to establish relationships with health clinics of area tribes to provide students with practical experience.

In 2000 she began working towards a doctoral degree through Gonzaga University. She is on schedule to receive that degree in August. The title of her dissertation is “Historical Trauma and the Effects on a Nimiipuu Family – Finding Story, Healing Wounds.”

Her paper starts with Chief Ut-sin-malikin (Paul’s great-great-grandfather) who, as a boy of 12, met Lewis and Clark. He later signed the treaties of 1855 and 1863 and died from a fall from a hotel in Washington, D.C., when he was 75. His son, Seven-Days-Whipping, was a warrior in Joseph’s clan. He married Phoebe Lowery and they had six youngsters. Two died at the Big Hole battlefield, three died while in exile in Oklahoma, and he died of typhoid on the march to Oklahoma. Only Phoebe and son Jesse survived.

Jesse Paul was sent from exile directly to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and eventually returned to Idaho, where he built a house on allotment land in 1895. Titus was born in a tipi in Kamiah, one of the 11 children of Jesse and Lydia Conditt. Titus married a white woman named Maxine Caster (which was unusual at that time), and they were married for 71 years. These are the parents of Robbie Paul and her four siblings, one of whom has since passed away.

It’s an incredible family history and personal journey for Paul. Once the dissertation is accepted and the doctorate awarded, she hopes to publish it in book form.

Paul added, “I would encourage all to look at their family history. It helps you understand who you are and helps you heal. Sometimes you just have to listen. Lie still and let your ancestors talk to you. I really encourage that. I think it is a time