Monument marks site along Snake River where 34 Chinese miners were murdered

By Katy Nesbitt, The Observer June 25, 2012 11:26 am

Nez Perce prayer and song and Taoist blessings were offered for 19th century  murdered Chinese miners on the bank of the Snake River Friday afternoon.

Greg Nokes, retired Oregonian reporter, addressed a group of 140 people gathered where the miners were shot in the spring of 1887 by Wallowa County horse thieves. Some think the murderers were motivated by gold, others by racism.

Nokes read the names of 11 miners; the only names known of the nearly three dozen murdered men. A bell was rung once for each of the unnamed.

Etched into a four by five foot block of Snake River granite in English, Nez Perce and Chinese is, “Chinese Massacre Cove. Site of the 1887 massacre of as many as 34 Chinese gold miners. No one was held accountable.”

Nokes said the monument was merely a reminder of the murders.

“We can’t heal a crime,” said Nokes.

A Taoist priest tossed talismans onto the ground to determine if the miners’ spirits were present and they answered, “Yes.” The priest went on to bless the site, the souls of the miners, and those in attendance.

Nez Perce tribal members offered prayers to forgive the unforgiveable and try to right the wrong. Tribe member Charles Axtell sang a Nez Perce song called “Circle of Life” in memory of the Chinese men.

“We hold in reverence all living creatures. We want to help them go to the other side through darkness into light,” said Axtell.

At the site, rock tailings are evidence of the Chinese gold mining operation. Nez Perce pictographs on a rock face where a miners’ shelter was built predate the mining camp, said Tony King, Forest Service archeologist.

Memorial organizer Bettie Luke thanked the tribe for sharing the land.

“In the early days the Nez Perce welcomed the Chinese onto their land,” said Luke. “We speak with one heart and one voice for the miners who lost their lives.”

Incense was burned to honor all spirits of all religions, said Luke. Rice wine, water and tea were spilled on the ground to honor the slain.

Luke said, “We ask heaven for peace to descend on us; a healing layer on a sad patch of land.”

Attendees of the “Chinese Remembering” conference, held the past five years at Lewis Clark State College, came together each summer for lectures on Chinese culture in the West. As part of the conference, they also traveled by jet boat each year to Chinese Massacre Cove.

The ceremony for the memorial installation was the final event of the project, said organizer Garry Bush. This year’s conference was the largest yet with 134 people.

The conference was the brainchild of Bush and friend Lyle Wirtanen of Lewiston.

With the site of the massacre in their “backyard”, they decided they should offer education of the incident and find a way to honor the dead.

They contacted Nokes, who had first written an article about the massacre in 1995 when a Wallowa County clerk uncovered a collection of court documents in an unused county safe that included the 1888 grand jury indictment of some of the accused murderers and a disposition of another.

Nokes continued his research of the crime for the next 15 years and his book, “Massacre for Gold,” was released in 2009.

All during the length of the project the organizers worked with the Nez Perce, including tribal historian Allen Pinkham, said Bush.

Nokes thanked Mary DeAguero, ranger for Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, for helping with Forest Service regulations to install the granite marker.

Ten people from Wallowa County were in attendance Friday afternoon, including Mark Lacey, board member of the Wallowa Land Trust.

“I like to see history in the making,” said Lacey.