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Sunday, June 21, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kittitas Indians Fear Few Left To Carry On Band's Culture

Ellensburg Daily Record

ELLENSBURG - Ida Nason Aronica squinted through old-fashioned glasses, her hair in thick white plaits on either side of her head, her face furrowed with age. She looked to the side with a stoic smile.

"Everything change," she said. "Everything change."

Ida was in her 90s when she was interviewed on videotape in 1986. The venerable matriarch of the Kittitas Indians, Ida lived to be more than 100, and in her lifetime she experienced enormous changes that came to her beloved Kittitas Valley.

Now her youngest son, Allen Aronica, 50, is experiencing more changes, changes he fears could mean the end of the line for the Kittitas band.

"What I call the true Kittitas have pretty much all passed away," Aronica said. "The elders have told us that it's important to preserve our culture. They say that to preserve our culture we must keep it going for seven generations. I'm the fifth generation, and if I can't keep it going, there won't be anymore."

Aronica feels the pressure of keeping his ancestors' heritage alive. Aronica is enrolled in the Yakama Indian Nation but so far he hasn't been able to enroll his children. They are not considered "Indian enough," he said.

The Yakama Nation does not recognize the Kittitas band as one of the 14 bands that make up the nation.

How Aronica's family arrived at a cultural crossroads is a complicated story, but one that is fairly common, said Merle Kunz, history professor at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.

Indian cultures have been diminished over the years by a variety of factors, Kunz said, but there are three primary ones: intermarriage, disease and pre-20th-century war.

The major factor for the loss of the Kittitas band's cultural heritage, Kunz said, was the custom of "marrying out," either to members of other bands or to non-Indians.

When Lewis and Clark passed through the Northwest in the early 1800s, they estimated as many as 3,000 to 4,000 combined Yakama and Kittitas Indians in the area.

The valley also was a gathering place for Indians. The old Indian race track is still traceable in the Naneum area where bands would gather to feat, sing and engage in sporting competitions.

As Euro-Americans began to stake homesteads in the 1800s, the Indians were forced from their lands. The Bureau of Indian Affairs encouraged native families to move from the Kittitas to the reservation of the Yakama Nation, about 50 miles to the south, or later to the reservation of the Colville Confederated Tribes, about 100 miles to the north.

"My family was about the only one that refused to move," Aronica said. "They wanted to stay at their home place in the Naneum."

Ida was born in the late 1800s, the daughter of Charlie Joseph. She carried Snoqualmie and Wenatchee Indian blood. When she married into the Kittitas band and assumed the task of caring for Kittitas elders, she made it her quest to preserve the Kittitas culture.

Ida's children also "married out," moving with their spouses to the Colville reservation, the Yakama reservation or to other states. The only child of Ida's marriage to John Sohappy Nason who survives is John Nason. John, 68, lives in Toppenish, about 60 miles south of Ellensburg.

Allen Aronica is married to a woman who is part Blackfoot, but she is not enrolled in the Blackfoot Nation and their children also face enrollment challenges. He indicated his grandchildren will have no chance to enroll unless they marry into one of the recognized bands.

Does the Kittitas band face extinction? It's a real possibility, Aronica said.

He gets emotional about the dilemma. But he said he's not alone. He said when relatives get together, they recall their ancestors and their Kittitas roots.

"The rest of the world looks at us as Colville or Yakama or non-Indian or whatever," he said. "But in our hearts we know we're Kittitas."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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