SPALDING – Museums may come alive in the movies, but at the Nez Perce National Historical Park visitor center in Spalding it is the park rangers who bring history to life.Rangers engage their younger guests the moment they enter the center, where a low table welcomes them with coloring pages and a well-stocked crayon box. Alongside lay the less familiar: a simple wooden drill and stone mortar and pestle. A beadwork display sits opposite.
Interacting with the Nez Perce culture is a center specialty. Besides hosting cultural events, such as the upcoming Family Day on Wednesday, Aug. 8, regular displays invite kids to decorate shields and feel animal furs. A full-size tipi goes up outside the entrance everyday around 9:30 a.m. and is taken down around 4 p.m.
“Anyone who is here is invited to help us,” said Terry O’Halloran, chief of interpretation.
The experience is a highlight for kids, who often remember it for years to come. While setting pegs and poles in place, they participate in history as rangers explain how tipis fit into the Nez Perce way of life.
Besides displays and events, rangers pass on Nez Perce history through the regionally developed junior ranger program. Unlike a sit-down lecture, the program is contained within a booklet available at the front desk. Kids move through the activities in it at their own pace.
“They have to explore some and find things here,” said O’Halloran. “It’s a great way to engage them in the culture.”
Designed to be completed in one visit, the program directs kids through indoor displays and outdoor areas as they race to find artifacts, complete mazes, learn new words, and more, all while taking in the story of the Nez Perce people.
The challenge is not without reward. When kids complete the required activities, the ranger at the front desk bestows upon them the distinguished junior ranger patch. Applause and proud smiles generally follow.
Each of the rangers at the park offers areas of expertise.
“Engaging a ranger is one of the best things you can do,” said Chris Schlect, park ranger. “We don’t want to impose on people, but they miss out a little if they keep to themselves.”
Conversations can lead to little-known tidbits of information, better understanding, or even a tasting sample of camas root, a traditional food of the Nez Perce.
Over time, rangers have developed the outdoor picnic area to bring the past to life. Guided trails walk families through both natural and historic developments. Displays translate the shaped earth where a gristmill pond once lay and the crumbling chimney piles from the home of Henry and Eliza Spalding, missionaries to the Nez Perce.
Daily programs are offered at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. and range from guided walks to demonstrations and are suited for all ages. Weekends hold additional opportunities for interaction, as rangers often open the agency house on weekend mornings and the Watson Store is open on Sundays from 2-4 p.m.
The park service Facebook page says the Nez Perce National Historical Park has 38 sites in four states (Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington). There are two visitor centers, one in Spalding, and the other in Wisdom, Mont.
Rangers occasionally travel to other sites, such as Buffalo Eddy up the Snake River or the Whitebird battlefield near Riggins. Visitors can connect with the park on Facebook and Twitter to get announcements and find out about upcoming events.
IF YOU GO:
What: Family Day featuring natural and cultural history
When: 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 8
Where: Nez Perce National Historical Park Visitor Center, Spalding, east of Lewiston off U.S. 95
Cost: Admission is free, donations accepted
By Michelle Schmidt for inland360.com