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Wanapums share their past with the present

The Othello Outlook of Othello, Washington

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They never signed a treaty... they never fought a battle. The Wanapums have existed in the area for generations, living in peace among the white men who came to the Columbia Basin and took over the land.

It's the land the Wanapums have always looked after and the land that will always look after them. They have always been here and will always be here.

Located at Priest Rapids Dam, the new Wanapum Heritage Center opened this past weekend and tells their story. Exhibits include both the past and the present, showing how the Wanapums adapted the invasion of the modern world into their simple and traditional lifestyle.

Rex Buck Jr., the chief of the tribe, explains in a video that can be viewed at the center, that the elders knew, in order to survive, they had to accept the things that were coming. It was the only way they could continue to exist.

Their first step was to learn the way non-Indians did things and to speak the English language well. They also had to accept the fact that the law said their children had to go to school, throwing them into two different worlds. With that came the influence of other cultures.

We took a drive down to the new center this past Saturday and to say we were impressed is an understatement.

When you first walk into the exhibit hall, the beautifully done interpretive panels catch your eye. The words and descriptions on them are from the Wanapum people themselves. The first display case contains a series of moccasins, from infant to adult, that span across the generations and the changes that have occurred in about the past 100 years. They show the introduction of the white man's ways and diplomas and sports memorabilia of the younger generation as they attended local schools, including awards and trophies they earned for their abilities.

Other exhibits include how the Hanford nuclear facility affected their way of life, dioramas with examples of their former lifestyle, a tule mat house, many traditional items created by the people of the tribe and the wonderful interpretive panels. There are places to sit and listen to stories by the current Wanapum members on iPads.

There is also a theater where a movie about how and why they continue to teach their children the traditions plays every half hour. Buck tells about how their goal is for the children to remember who they are and where they came from.

"People all over the world wonder who they are, where they came from," Buck said. "We know that."

It's why they take their cultural responsibilities seriously and continue to teach each new generation about the traditional lifestyle.

As we were getting ready to leave, we took a moment to visit with Susan Parker, the museum docent. She is very excited about the new center and told us about some of the pieces that are still being planned.

The Wanapum Heritage Center is a work in progress and will continue to develop. And the people of the tribe will be right there working alongside the Grant PUD to share their history and knowledge of their home.

If you have the opportunity, take a drive down to Priest Rapids and spend some time at the center. The hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

"As long as the teachings go on and life goes on, we (the Wanapums) will still be here."

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Original Publication Date: October 22, 2015

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