Oregon is Indian Country

This is a regular “Main Street” newspaper column for the Wallowa County Chieftain, a column that I have been writing every other week for about 24 years. It will also appear on the Oregon Days of Culture web site (OregonDaysofCulture.org). As you will see in the column, dealing with political issues in Indian Country can be tricky–waters run deep. I hope I have done justice to all parties, but especially to the Nez Perce.

The “Oregon is Indian Country” exhibit currently showing at Stage One in Enterprise was put together by the Oregon Historical Society and the “nine federally recognized tribes of Oregon.” Fishtrap and its Josephy Library, the local hosts, have invited elementary student groups for special programs, and are bringing in speakers to address issues suggested by the exhibit.

Most of the young students have quickly identified the Indians who once lived here, in the Wallowas, as Nez Perce. Few could name other Oregon tribes—even our close neighbors on the Umatilla Reservation near Pendleton, the Umatilla, Cayuse, and Walla Walla. But even adults are surprised to learn that the Nez Perce are not a “federally recognized tribe OF Oregon.”

We’ve hung a good map of the Nez Perce War of 1877 on the wall at Stage One. The retreat starts in the Wallowa valley, crosses the Snake at Dug Bar, and becomes a fighting retreat as it meanders through parts of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. It stops at Bear Paw in Montana, just 40 miles short of the Canadian border and freedom. A few Nez Perce did, in fact, make it across the border, but most surrendered, and this is where Joseph made his famous speech, asking leave to look for his scattered, hungry old and young.

The map does not show what happened then to the Nez Perce: the trip to Leavenworth Prison and the years in Indian Territory—land the Nez Perce still call the “hot country”; the eventual return by train to the Northwest and the split at Wallula, where the old and Christian were allowed to join Nez Perce from other bands on the much reduced Nez Perce Reservation at Lapwai, and the young, and specifically the followers of Joseph, were sent to Nespelem in north central Washington to live among Indians of different cultures and languages. Oregon and Idaho were afraid of another uprising by Indians wronged by the broken treaty of 1855, which had left the Wallowa Country to the Nez Perce.

Joseph came back to the Wallowas in 1904, with money in his pocket, but newspapers railed against Indians and locals would not sell him land.

Alvin Josephy, the late dean of Western American and Indian history, and part-time Wallowa County resident for over forty years, explains the “conviction,” from colonial days, “among settler-invaders and their descendents that Indians in their native state and Whites could not live together in peace… If the Indian submitted, cut his hair, dressed like a White, lived like a White, became a Christian—in short, was assimilated and no longer an Indian—he might survive. Otherwise, he was to be pushed a safe distance away from White society [onto reservations], isolated and rendered harmless…, or he was to be annihilated.”

According to Josephy, “these three options ran thereafter like threads through the course of Indian-White relations…” The assimilationist urge reached its zenith when the Eisenhower Administration decided to solve the “Indian question” once and for all by “terminating” all tribes with cash buyouts of old treaties. Ironically, according to the “Oregon is Indian Country” exhibit that now celebrates our tribal neighbors, Oregon led the way nationally, with 62 of 109 terminations—all of the Western Oregon tribes—between 1954 and 1961. Fortunately, the policy was reversed, and Oregon tribes have been reinstated, though now “confederated” into one or another of the nine “recognized tribes.”

Our young students were surprised to learn that there were thousands of Indian tribes and bands living in the Americas when Columbus landed—Josephy says that there were probably more than 2500 mutually unintelligible languages spoken, as many as 90 million people, and cities larger than any European cities of the time. Oregon alone must have been home to over 100 tribes and bands.

For the moment, as evidenced by the Oregon exhibit, Indians and Indian culture enjoy more favorable attitudes from the general population. Indians are allowed to dance and drum openly—things once legally outlawed in attempts at assimilation and Christianization—and we go to see them. We applaud their efforts in bringing the salmon back to the rivers.

Locally, we welcome Indians at Chief Joseph Days, and at the Homeland Project in Wallowa and its annual powwow and Nez Perce Art in the Wallowa show. Although Nez Perce Tribal government is headquartered in Idaho, (and the exiled Nez Perce are governmentally part of the “confederated” tribes at Colville, Washington), the tribe owns land in Wallowa County, and, possibly of more importance, its Fisheries and Wildlife departments work IN Oregon under federal recognition of “usual and accustomed” places acknowledged in the 1855 treaty and in subsequent negotiations.

And, in fact, a 1999 Oregon Legislative Assembly joint resolution offers an apology for the Nez Perce removal, and says that “The people of the State of Oregon welcome the Nez Perce Nation in their return to stewardship in the Wallowa Mountains.”

We are Indian country too.