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News & Press: Community Spotlights


Monday, August 17, 2015  
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
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Kamiah in the Valley

The city of Kamiah (pronounced Kam-ee-eye and meaning the place of "many rope litters") is on the banks of the beautiful Clearwater River at the eastern edge of the Camas Prairie. Scenic foothills interspersed with fields of hay surround the city. The Clearwater National Forest begins a few miles to the east.

The city is located within the Nez Perce Indian Reservation about 23 miles south of Orofino and 15 miles east of Nezperce.

Historical Tidbits

Long before Euro Americans entered the land of the Clearwater River, the Nez Perce Indian Tribe, called by the Nez Perce “Nimiipuu” (pronounced Nee-Me-Poo), wintered in the Kamiah area, fishing for steelhead. They also harvested dogbane, or Indian hemp, that grew in the area, using the fiber to weave floor mats and a rope they called “Kamia,” the derivation of Kamiah’s name.

On the return trip from their expedition, the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery camped at what is now Kamiah from May 14 to June 9, 1806. They called it Camp Chopunnish, or Long Camp, where they waited for the heavy snows in the rugged Bitterroot Mountains to melt sufficiently for them to cross.

The Corps first encountered the Nez Perce eight months earlier when the Indians provided them with food as they emerged nearly starved onto the Weippe Prairie after crossing the snow-covered Bitterroot Mountains.

Within a few years, trappers and explorers began coming into the region followed by Christian missionaries. In 1838 Asa B. Smith, a Presbyterian clergyman, started a mission to the Nez Perce near Kamiah, which he abandoned two years later.

Until the Treaty of 1846, which fixed the boundary between the U. S. and England (Canada) at the 49th parallel, what is now Idaho was part of Oregon Country, a region claimed by both countries.

By 1846 thousands of U.S. citizens had already established settlements in the contested Oregon Country. Many Indians fought against this intrusion, raiding farms and settlements and capturing livestock. The U.S. Army and local militias, in turn, initiated military campaigns against the Indians.

To avoid further conflict, the Nez Perce signed a treaty with the federal government in 1855.

Gold was discovered on Nez Perce Reservation land in 1860 near what is now Pierce, about 22 miles due northeast of Kamiah, and, within a year, thousands of prospectors flooded the region. A new treaty was signed in 1963, but many Nez Perce refused to sign the new treaty.

The Rev. H.T. Crowley, a Congregational minister, opened a mission three miles southeast of Kamiah in 1871. With federal funds and labor provided by Nez Perce adherents to the faith, he constructed a church that still stands.

Six years later, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs ordered the Nez Perce to move to the Lapwai Reservation as specified in the Treaty of 1863. Those who did not sign the treaty, including the famous Chief Joseph, refused to move to Lapwai. A conflict termed the Nez Perce War ensued.

In one of the war’s military engagements, the army attacked and destroyed the Nez Perce village of Chief Lookingglass. The village site five miles east of what is now Kooskia is today part of the Nez Perce National Historical Park.

At the time of the war, the village of Nez Perce Chief Lawyer was encamped near what is now Kamiah. He did not join with the other Nez Perce, preferring to keep his band out of the conflict.

On February 8, 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Severalty Act which authorized Indian reservation lands throughout the nation to be surveyed and specific acreages allotted to tribal members. Congress deemed land not so allocated as surplus and available for settlement. In 1935 Congress repealed the law, but by that time ownership of most former reservation lands was in the hands of non-Indians.

Nez Perce Reservation land became open for settlement by non-Indians on November 18, 1895. An estimated 5,000 people participated in the land rush that included several Camas Prairie communities. Many of the settlers who homesteaded near Kamiah came at that time.

The Northern Pacific Railroad, now Camas Prairie Railroad, built a rail line from Orofino through Kamiah to Stites in 1900 and in 1905 surveyor James Carlisle platted the community he named Kamiah.

On October 19, 1909, Kamiah became an incorporated village. The 1910 census reported the town’s population at 324.

In 1967 in accordance with a change in state municipal law, Kamiah became a city.

Discovery of Gold and Encroachment on Reservation Land

To avoid further conflict, the Nez Perce signed a treaty with the federal government in 1855 to live peacefully on a reservation comprising over a million acres—land on which white settlers would not encroach. A large part of what is now Northern Idaho was included in the original reservation.

Elias Davidson Pierce and a small party of prospectors discovered gold on Nez Perce Reservation land in 1860 near what is now Pierce, about 22 miles due northeast of Kamiah.  Within a year, thousands of prospectors flooded the region in what was Idaho’s first gold rush. The outnumbered and outgunned Nez Perce were largely powerless to keep the prospectors off their reservation. Two years later, prospectors made other gold discoveries on reservation land.

With the flood of settlers and miners on reservation land, the federal government moved to appease them by negotiating the Treaty of 1863, which was ratified by Congress in 1867. The new treaty significantly reduced the size of the 1855 reservation. About half of the Nez Perce tribes refused to sign the new treaty.

Amenities and Attractions Today

The city has two parks on four acres. Riverfront Park, along the Clearwater River, has a log amphitheatre, covered picnic area, playground equipment, volleyball court, native plant garden, informational kiosk and murals depicting the city’s historic Lewis and Clark and Nimiipuu village heritage. In addition, the park features tiled artwork of four native flora species—biscuit root, camas, clarkia and dogbane.

A boat ramp is located adjacent to Riverfront Park as well as a nature path along the bank of the Clearwater River to Lawyers Creek.

The community encourages public art. In addition to the artwork in Riverfront Park, several murals adorn the downtown area. A three-block area starting at the credit union building and ending at the public library is an art display called Kamiah’s Western Victorian Main Street.

DuPont Park on Idaho Street features the Kamiah Community Swimming Pool, outdoor basketball court, playground equipment, picnic tables and skate park.

The Nez Perce Wa A’Yas Community Building has indoor and outdoor basketball courts and facilities for educational services. A softball field is adjacent to the building.

The Kamiah School District Gymnasium is open for youth activities, including basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, football and track.

Just outside of Kamiah is Tommy Robinson Pond, a commercial fishery catering to family fishing. Each year the business sponsors the Spring Youth Fishing Derby.

The Kamiah Welcome Center on Main Street is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The Center houses the original work of John Seven Wilson, a Nez Perce artist. His paintings—Four Seasons of a Nimiipuu Village and a Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery—are on display along with an historic handcrafted dugout canoe.

The Lewis Clark Historical Society Exhibit Hall on Main Street, is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. during the summer. Displays and exhibits include historic farming, medical and dental instruments; artifacts made by early Nez Perce Indians; bones and tusks of a mammoth excavated in Kamiah; and the trunk owned by the McBeth sisters, early Christian missionaries to the Nez Perce.

The historic home of Sue McBeth, the First Presbyterian Indian Church and the Nez Perce National Historical Park Site’s “The Heart of the Monster”—an important legend in Nez Perce Indian lore—are in East Kamiah.

The City and community sponsor numerous events throughout the year. The largest annual events include the Save the Pool Crab Feed in January featuring food, a variety show and dancing.

In August, the community sponsors the Chief Lookingglass Powwow, celebrating Nez Perce culture and history, including historic dress and dancing.

The Thursday before Labor Day, the Kamiah Chamber BBQ Days features four days of family fun activities.

Beginning each Thanksgiving, the community celebrates the holiday season with the Festival of Trees, Christmas Light Parade and the Night Before Christmas Bed Race.

One of the city’s principal attractions is its easy access to lush forests, quiet mountain streams and clear running rivers. Large numbers of elk, whitetail deer, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, wild turkeys, cougar and black bears roam the vast nearby public lands. Eagles and osprey are common sights along the rivers. City residents and visitors enjoy hiking, sightseeing, white water rafting, horseback riding, backpacking, bicycling, skiing, snowmobiling, snowboarding and ATV riding on the many trails in the area.

U.S. Highway 12 and Idaho Highway 13 are part of the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway which commemorates and frequently parallels or crosses the trail followed in 1805 to 1806 by the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery.

The Idaho portion of the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway is 212 miles long. From the western edge of Idaho, the Byway begins at Lewiston and parallels the winding Clearwater River through Orofino and Kamiah to Kooskia where the Byway forks. The eastern fork continues on Highway 12 along the wild and scenic Middle Fork of the Clearwater and Lochsa Rivers before reaching Lolo Pass and the Lewis and Clark Interpretative Center on the Idaho/Montana border. The southern fork follows Highway 13 to Grangeville and the Camas Prairie.

Twelve miles southeast of Kamiah just off U.S. Highway 12 is Lookingglass Camp, one of 38 sites that comprise the Nez Perce National Historical Park. The National Park Service manages the system of parks that follow the trail the Nez Perce took into four states before those who stopped in Montana fought and surrendered to the U.S. Army.

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