Sacred Lands

The recent Nez Perce reacquisition of 148 acres near the town of Joseph was a big event. Scores of walkers and riders with their horses gathered at the school on the hill on one side of Joseph, and made the journey through town and onto the airport road to the place just west of the city they now call Am’sáaxpa, or “place of boulders.” Drummers and singers in a “long tent”—a longhouse—prayed, sang, and spoke to scores of tribal people and local supporters, and reporters.

Newspapers and journals from Enterprise, Portland, and Salem in Oregon, Lewiston in Idaho, Spokane and Seattle in Washington State and on USA today and US News nationally, covered the story of Nez Perce return to a land they had been forced to leave in 1877. Eastern newspapers had covered that 1877 journey away from the Wallowa into war and through the 1200-mile fighting retreat that left the Indians 40 miles short of sanctuary in Canada.

Many Easterners followed and even supported the Nez Perce during the press-covered war. We should remember that most American Indians from east of the Mississippi had been moved west with the Removal Act and 10 years of forced relocation beginning in 1830. East Coast people could safely root for Indians from afar; their own lands and towns were safely removed from the ubiquitous “Indian question” and Indian Wars of Westward expansion.

The 1877 Nez Perce story began with the Nez Perce’s assistance to Lewis and Clark in 1805. An 1855 treaty that “reserved” seven million acres for them had shrunk to 750,000 acres with the discovery of Idaho gold and a new treaty in 1863. The new treaty divided the tribe into “treaty” and “non-treaty” bands, signers and those who refused to sign. And the War began with General O.O. Howard’s demand that the wal’wá·ma, the non-treaty band that lived in the Wallowa Country under the leadership of Young Chief Joseph, hinmato·wyalahtqit, leave their homeland within 30 days.

The wal’wá·ma tried to comply, made it across the spring-flooding Snake River on their way to the diminished reservation at Lapwai in Idaho, but confrontations with settlers there hurled the Indians into war. Other non-treaty bands joined the wal’wá·ma, and led four US Armies over and across some 1200 miles of rugged, mountainous territory threaded by the Salmon and other rivers—including the Yellowstone. Yellowstone was already a national park, making the war even more newsworthy for eastern followers.

Eventually, the Indians were ground down by travel, fighting, loss of leaders, cold and hunger. It ended at Bear’s Paw in Montana, forty miles short of sanctuary in Canada. Joseph, managing the last days and promoting survival of his people, stalled a few days at Bear’s Paw, allowing about 150 Nez Perce to make it to Canada. They were mostly from White Bird’s band.

After the War, the remaining survivors were not allowed to return to Idaho as promised, but herded by horse, boat, and train to Bismarck in North Dakota, Leavenworth in Kansas, and eventually to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. The Nez Perce call it still the “hot country,” where many died.

Joseph, badgering the War Department, Congress, and the White House, with help from local and national Presbyterians, won his way back to the Northwest in 1885—but not to Oregon or Idaho. There was in fact a warrant out for his arrest in Idaho.

War and Hot Place survivors made their way by train to Wallula Junction in Washington. Some went to Lapwai; Joseph and most of his wal’wá·ma band went to the Colville Reservation in north-central Washington.

Division didn’t stop with War and Hot Country exile, but followed the path of government assaults on tribal culture and unity across the country: boarding schools, the Dawes Allotment Act, Tribal Termination and Indian relocation continued to take Indian lands, languages, and culture away, attempting to assimilate, or blend them into the mythical American soup.

Miraculously, Indians, and in our case the Nez Perce Indians, have not become part of the soup, but have stubbornly fought to save land and ways of life. Split by treaties and war, by relocation and the needs of life to hold onto land, language, family, and tradition, the Nez Perce now—many still tracing ancestry to a specific band, live on the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho, the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon, the Colville Reservation in Washington, and on other reservations and in cities across the country. Some still live in Canada!

Indians in all those places trace heritage to Joseph and the wal’wá·ma band, but land transactions are made by tribal governments, not individual tribal members. Almost 100 years ago, Nez Perce from Umatilla played a prominent role in the reburial of Old Joseph at the foot of Wallowa Lake. In 1939 and 1940, an all-Indian CCC camp from Umatilla built the wall around that site. From 2007-2009, all three tribal governments cooperated with the state of Oregon to buy the land that is now called Iwetemlaykin— “the edge of the lake,” which includes the Old Joseph gravesite.

The Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho acquired 16,000 acres of Wallowa country they call Héte’wits Wétes, “Precious Lands,” in 1997, and they recently added an easement at Wallowa Lake Lodge to provide spawning grounds for an anticipated return of Sockeye Salmon to the lake. And the old Methodist Church in the town of Wallowa donated itself to the tribe.

There are surely some tensions with land reacquisition among individuals and groups in the wide and complicated Indian community of people who call themselves Nez Perce, or Nimiipuu. But those tensions can mostly be traced back to the ways that we, mostly white Americans, through our government, have forced and contributed to division.

The hope is that healing—among tribal peoples and communities; and with the non-Indian community as well—will come swiftly and naturally with the return of sacred lands, and the drums, songs, and prayers that celebrate again these ancient connections.

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(Photo by Rob Kemp, Joseph, Oregon)