Of Lands and People

This photo from the air was taken by Leon Werdinger and used in Wallowa Land Trust’s campaign to save the Wallowa Lake East Moraine. Photos of Wallowa Lake are ubiquitous; photographers from around the world vie to get some special vision of it to take home to Los Angeles—or London or Berlin.

This one, in which you can clearly see the East, West, and terminal moraines, traveled far enough and well enough to help raise the money to buy most of the East Moraine and forestall further development Some grazing is allowed, and hiking; the deer—and someday, maybe, once again, the antelope—will play.

The Wallowa Valley, which formed as ice and water pushed and flowed over the terminal moraine thousands of years ago, is a narrow winding strip of lush green land and sprawling waters—flowing now in rivers—with towns dotted from the Lake to the river canyon, a winding 35-40 miles below it.

It was all once home to the walwa ma band of the Nez Perce Indians, called ni-mi-pu—“the people,” or the cuupn’itpel’uu “people walking out of the mountains.” The people—there numbers here might have varied from 200-500 depending on the fish and game, roots and berries provided by land and climate in given years or decades—were forced out in 1877, victims of soldiers and settlers, broken treaties and Manifest Destiny. They fought a courageous five-month long 1200–1400-mile retreat, and were stopped by cold and hunger just 40 miles short of the Canadian border and a waiting Sitting Bull.

I’ve lived in the shadow of the moraines and on the land of the Nez Perce for over 50 years, and the more I learn, the more the Nez Perce Story astounds me. Geologists are fascinated by the Lake moraines, and visitors and donors are awestruck by the landscape; but almost 150 years after removal, the Nez Perce story lives on in books and languages across the world, and draws people here as much as does the land. People are bitten—or smitten—by it. They catch a glimpse of Chief Joseph in an Edward Sheriff Curtiss photo, or come across the story in a children’s book, or stumble from the Civil War to Daniel Sharfstein’s Thunder in the Mountains, a dual biography of Chief Joseph and Civil War General O.O. Howard. They come here to see the place that Chief Joseph and his people left. They come here to start a journey horseback or by car, following the epic fighting retreat. For many, it becomes an obsession, and they move here, or go they home to write their own books about it.

The story grows with new research by Oregon State University anthropologists: The oldest known human habitation in North America, more than 16,000 years in age, is located at the site of an ancient Nez Perce village known as Nipéhe, near the confluence of the Snake and Salmon Rivers. A geologist friend says that the lake’s moraines were still in motion in those times, that there were witnesses to the formations that we see today.

I live here by good fortune, by luck. I didn’t know the Nez Perce from the Navajo when I arrived with an Extension Service job 50 years ago. I live a few stones’ throws from the moraines, amazed at the landforms, but more amazed at how a small band of people, likely descendants of the oldest inhabitants of the continent, who treatied successfully for remaining on the land and then, when gold was found and new treaties were made, tried to share the land with white settlers. Under duress, they left, taking horses and cattle across a raging spring torrent on the Snake River. On the other side, in Idaho, there was trouble—and then the War.

The walma wa  left—and reventually eturned to the Northwest, but not to the Wallowa. Yet they are close-by, scattered on reservations in three states, and they come here and call this place where I have a home their “homeland.” I’m privileged to know many Nez Perce as I am privileged to live on this land. And I think their story—the story that is told in so many books—has become The American Indian Story that so many want to hear and know.

It’s a story of Land and People, braided together in a thousand ways. Each of the books I’ve read uncovers a few strands, but I know enough now to know that there are many many more. My work now is to unravel a few of them.

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