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This land was once their land

Thoughts on tribal culture and "ownership"


"Oregon is Indian Country" is the title of an exhibit that came to the Wallowa region of northeastern Oregon this fall. I live in the small town of Joseph, which was named for the chief of the Joseph Band of the Nez Perce Indians, who once lived here. But there is no Nez Perce community here now, and the Nez Perce are not even one of the nine federally recognized tribes of Oregon, who co-sponsored the exhibit along with the state historical society.

How this came to be is a painful story. Much of this area was left to the Nez Perce by treaty in 1855, but gold seekers and settlers wanted the land, the Army threatened to attack and Chief Joseph reluctantly led his people out in the spring of 1877. They crossed the Snake River at high water, heading toward a reduced reservation with other Nez Perce bands on the Idaho side. But Joseph's intended retreat became a war, a fighting flight that persisted through parts of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. It ended at Bear Paw in Montana, just 40 miles short of the Canadian border, where Joseph made his famous speech, saying, "Hear me, my chiefs, my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever." He asked leave to look for the surviving members of his scattered group of young and old, all hungry.

A new map from the U.S. Forest Service carefully follows this retreat, but it fails to show what happened afterward. The surrendered Nez Perce were sent to Leavenworth Prison, and there were years of exile in land the Nez Perce still call the "hot country." Over a hundred babies were born there; none survived.  It also does not tell of the eventual return of the band by train to the Northwest and its division into two at Wallula, where the old and Christian were allowed to join the Nez Perce at Lapwai in Idaho, and the young -- specifically Joseph's followers -- were sent to Nespelem in north-central Washington, to live among Indians of different language and culture. The reconciliation of relatives continues today.

A few years later, in 1901, Joseph came back to the Wallowas with money in his pocket to buy land. Instead, he found newspapers railing against Indians, and the locals refused to sell to Joseph. It is said that the old chief died of a broken heart in Nespelem in 1904.

It was this tragic and dramatic Nez Perce story that captured Alvin Josephy, the late dean of Western American and Indian history. In his book, "Now that the Buffalo's Gone," Josephy explained that from colonial days, settlers and their descendents were convinced 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, with 62 of 109 national terminations -- all of the western Oregon tribes -- between 1954 and 1961.

The policy was later reversed, and Oregon tribes have been reinstated, though "confederated" into one or another of the nine recognized tribes. Confederation is a bureaucratic word that means uprooting and moving people from ground lived on from the beginning of time, forcibly making neighbors of people of different languages and cultures, as well as creating convenient administrative units for the government.

For the moment, as evidenced by the Oregon exhibit, Indians and Indian culture now 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. There is a "powwow circuit," with one held annually on land owned by an Indian-White non-profit here in the Wallowas; we call it the "Homeland Project."

Although Nez Perce tribal government is headquartered in Idaho, and the exiled Nez Perce are governmentally part of the confederated tribes at Colville, Wash., the Idaho Nez Perce Tribe these days owns land in Oregon -- "mitigation" land purchased with Bonneville Power money. And its tribal Fisheries and Wildlife departments work in Oregon under federal recognition of "usual and accustomed" places acknowledged in the 1855 treaty.

Of course, historically and traditionally, Indians never owned this or any other land. Josephy reminds us that ownership of land and any dominion over it came with the Europeans. It was all Indian Country once.

Rich Wandschneider is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Joseph, Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].