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Nez Perce Tribe Reclaims A Piece Of Its Homeland

Wallowa Lake
Timothy Bishop
Wallowa Lake in eastern Oregon. On Thursday, the Nez Perce tribe blessed about 150 acres of land in the area that's part of their ancestral homeland.

They came back the same way they were forced out — on horseback.

Members of the Nimiipuu, or Nez Perce tribe, rode through the town of Joseph in northeast Oregon Thursday on their way to bless nearly 150 acres of land the tribe bought in December — an area they call Am’sáaxpa they had occupied for thousands of years.

“Am’sáaxpa translates to place where there’s boulders scattered about,” said Nakia Williamson, director of the tribe’s cultural resources program.

Different bands of the Nez Perce tribe would meet in the Wallowa Valley during the summer when the blueback salmon would return and spawn in the nearby glacial lake.

“It would become kind of a large gathering where they would do a variety of activities: horse racing, Lopmix – stick game – dancing,” Williamson said.

After years of homesteaders pouring into the region, tribal leaders negotiated with Isaac Stevens, then-territorial governor of the Washington Territory, and reserved 7.5 million acres for themselves in what’s now eastern Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

But Dylan Hedden-Nicely, head of University of Idaho’s Native American Law Program, said that peace didn’t last long.

Gold miners and White settlers pushed onto the reservation anyway, with the U.S. government doing little to stop them.

“The Nez Perce story, in a lot of ways, is very typical of what occurred throughout the western United States,” Hedden-Nicely said.

After a few years, the feds signed a new treaty with just some Nez Perce bands to significantly shrink the reservation — one that excluded the Wallowa Valley. Tribal members who agreed to the terms in 1863 already lived on the proposed reservation land, but several bands refused to sign the new treaty.

The Wallowa band, which would eventually be led by Chief Joseph, left the negotiations early and didn’t view the new deal as valid.

Each band retained their own autonomy, in their minds, which the federal government didn’t recognize.

Federal negotiators, Hedden-Nicely said, preferred to deal with one chieftain, or a handful of leaders.

“They didn’t want to negotiate on a family-by-family basis or a clan-by-clan basis,” he said. “[The U.S. government] wanted to acquire as much land as it could in as few agreements or treaties as it could.”

The Wallowa band returned to their land with increasing friction between them and the new settlers. The U.S. military eventually forced them out of Oregon in 1877, shortly before the Nez Perce War.

But Williamson said many tribal members still returned to the Wallowa Valley over the years.

“Our people still continued to go back to those places because there were burials there that need to be upkept. There were traditional foods that had to be gathered and other things that had to be attended to that that we were responsible for,” he said.

That’s why, he said, getting even a piece of it back holds such meaning.

“Our way of life, our culture and spirituality — everything that makes us who we are — is based on that relationship to the land and to this broader environment.”

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio

I cover politics and a bit of everything else for Boise State Public Radio. Outside of public meetings, you can find me fly fishing, making cool things out of leather or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season.

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