After 120 years, the Nez Perce come home

  • The Nez Perce Wildlife Preserve

    Diane Sylvain
  • Horace Axtel and grandchildren overlooking Chief Joseph Ranch

    Liz Kishimoto

PARADISE, Ore. - A few weeks ago, when I ran down a slippery road near here, the soggy weather seemed unfortunate.

It was the day of a naming ceremony and salmon feast celebrating the return of the Nez Perce, a Northwest tribe driven from this region 120 years ago. The Nez Perce were returning as landowners and managers of a 10,300-acre wildlife preserve, and hundreds of people had gathered on the rim of Joseph Creek Canyon to hear it named.

"Hetewisniix Wetes," tribal elder Horace Axtell almost whispered, after stringing the crowd along in suspense for a good 15 minutes. "The Precious Land."

The ceremony had attracted dozens of journalists, officials and photographers, and it all took place - the drumming, singing, prayers, processions and speeches - during a relentless rainstorm. But there was still a sense of history being made that day. Six of us who were late, two Nez Perce women and a child, a Nez Perce man carrying a lawn chair, a Forest Service official and I, had run a mile together hoping to make it there in time. At the rim, we huddled with hundreds of others under white party tents.

We could have walked, as it turned out. Some participants were still stuck on the road, their four-wheel-drive trucks knee-deep in mud.

Perhaps all historical events are like this - far messier than any official version lets on. The speakers' schedule, with a crisp five minutes allotted to most, disintegrated well before the drumming stopped. And when one of the flagpoles didn't fit into its base, someone whittled it down on the spot.

Then, halfway through the ceremony, Soy Redthunder spoke of a divided tribe.

A Nez Perce from Nespelem, Wash., Redthunder publicly scolded Nez Perce tribal leaders at Lapwai, Idaho, for excluding other Wallowa Band Nez Perce from the current land deal among the tribe, the Trust for Public Land, a private landowner, and the federal government.

"If the negotiations have gone on for four or five years, we haven't been here. It wasn't until yesterday that I received an invite," said Redthunder in one of the briefest speeches that day. "I don't know whether coming here today is going to atone for all of those things."

The speech seemed surprising, but no doubt those familiar with Nez Perce history and politics had expected it.

According to the history books, when the U.S. government reneged on its 1855 treaty with the Nez Perce and tried to sign a second one, the only chiefs it could coerce to sign were a handful of Christian chiefs at Lapwai, Idaho. Those chiefs signed away the Wallowa lands while the Nez Perce who actually lived there, including Chief Joseph, refused. In 1877, the non-treaty bands were driven out of the Wallowas.

As they left, a few Indians killed some whites. That skirmish started a 1,200-mile fighting retreat that finally ended four months later, when Joseph and his followers surrendered at Bear's Paw, Mont. "I am tired of fighting," said Chief Joseph in an unforgettable speech that roused white sympathizers as far away as New York. "My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."

The government scattered the Nez Perce after the war. Many died in Kansas and Oklahoma; others found their way back to Lapwai, to Canada, or to the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon. Some, including Chief Joseph himself, were exiled to live among non-Nez Perce Indians on Washington's Colville Reservation.

But no matter where they live today, or which band they trace their ancestry to, nearly all Nez Perce will tell you Joseph was their leader. Resentment still lingers, as Redthunder's speech showed, but all Nez Perce agreed that the June 12 naming ceremony was a homecoming.

That became clear when, toward the end of the ceremony, tribal elder Horace Axtell called on three elderly women to speak. Agnes Andrews Davis, from the Colville Reservation, recalled growing up with one of Joseph's wives:

"I used to wonder as a little girl, "how come she's so lonesome for someplace else," " said Davis, her voice trembling. - 'Seems like she doesn't like it where we're at." Then when I first came here with my brother Joe, I sat at that lake and I looked out and I realized why the old lady used to sit there telling stories and crying ... She'd cry about Wallowa, wishing she was home. She never got the chance to come here."

A preserve with two purposes

The land came back to the Nez Perce because a wrong had to be made right. The Bonneville Power Administration gave the Nez Perce Nation several million to buy land in compensation for habitat lost when the Army Corps of Engineers built four dams on the Snake River more than 30 years ago. The BPA has also promised funds for the preserve's management plan and for the purchase of an adjacent 4,600 acres.

Nez Perce resource manager Keith Lawrence said the land will be managed for elk, bighorn sheep, black bear, cougar, trout and other wildlife. And in accord with the wishes of Wallowa County leaders, the Nez Perce will pay taxes on the land and leave the door open for cattle grazing. Finally, the land will be accessible to the public, though state and tribal officials disagree over whose hunting regulations will apply. No Nez Perce will live on the land.

Bowen Blair of the Trust for Public Land said that although conservationists had been eyeing the ranch for some time because of its proximity to Hells Canyon and national forest land, preserving it didn't become politically feasible until the Nez Perce became involved. And while converting private ranch land into public land wasn't popular in Wallowa County, the return of the Nez Perce was - immensely.

A second return

The wish for the Nez Perce to return had become so strong among some whites in Wallowa County that it is fair to call it a movement. Although there's still bigotry in this rural place whose high school team is named the Savages, 25-year resident Rich Wandschneider says attitudes have changed dramatically in the past decade.

In recent years, in fact, a handful of people formed a nonprofit foundation, the Wallowa Band Nez Perce Trail Interpretive Center Coalition, to build a $2.1 million Nez Perce interpretive center and powwow grounds. Although Nez Perce leaders in Idaho have almost ignored the project and some skeptics have dismissed it as a mere economic ploy to lure tourists to a depressed timber and mining region, organizers have doggedly continued.

They currently have an option on a 160-acre ranch near a historic Nez Perce campsite in Wallowa, Wandschneider said, adding that the group hopes to stage its land dedication July 18, during the annual Nez Perce Friendship Feast and Pow Wow.

At a meeting that took place after the naming ceremony, I sat in a cramped, fluorescent-lit room of the Wallowa City Hall and wondered whether this group of white teachers, engineers, retirees, mothers and farmers felt their thunder was stolen up on the rim of Joseph Creek Canyon.

But no one said much about the naming ceremony. They talked instead about fund raising and juggling bank accounts to pay for the 160 acres. For inspiration, they passed around letters from a fourth-grade class in Hood River, Ore., that had scraped together $83.42 for the interpretive center.

Addressed to the Nez Perce, one letter said:

"Thank you so much for helping us (long ago) to cross the USA. Do you know what we did? WE TOOK YOUR LAND. My class feels bad, so we want to help you BUY IT BACK."

The following day I visited with Howard Johnson, 83, as close to an elder as white residents in Wallowa have. His grandparents were living here when the trouble first started, but because they were friendly with the Nez Perce, said Johnson, they were told they could stay.

Johnson and his wife, Muriel, recently gave $5,000 to the center. Howard said he hoped it would bring some business to Wallowa; he also said it had more meaning than that.

"If the Nez Perce are interested, then I think it's a good thing for both our communities," said Muriel, 82, looking over at a crate full of Indian stone pestles that her husband found while farming. "It kind of relates back to what was here originally. It ties with the past."

That recalled what Soy Redthunder had said about the downpour during his bitter speech: "The land needs cleansing," he said. "It's doing that."

Perhaps it will rain during the July ceremony, too.

Elizabeth Manning is a former assistant editor for High Country News; she now works as a freelancer from San Pedro, California.

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