THE WALLOWA BAND OF NIMI’IPUU RETURN HOME
The Nez Perce, who originally lived in the area where Idaho, Oregon, and Washington meet, have a long and tortuous history of land theft, forced relocation, and broken treaties. Yet in the never-ending battle to return sacred lands to Native ownership, the Nez Perce have won one of the few real victories; the return of a part of their homeland to tribal ownership and stewardship. More than a century after they were forced from their homeland in the Wallowa valley in Oregon, the tribe now has ownership of over 16,000 acres of their native homeland (sacredland.org).
. The Nez Perce call themselves the Nimi’ipuu, which means “real people” or “we the people”, so this is the name I will use in this essay (nezperce.org). The name Nez Perce was given to the tribe by an interpreter in the Lewis and Clark expedition. The name translates to “pierced nose” in French, although this practice was not very common within the tribe. A band of Nimi’ipuu now called the Wallowa or Joseph band made their home in the Wallowa valley in north east Oregon, and had no contact with white men until 1805, when the Lewis and Clark expedition was making its way across the country. The tribe was welcoming to the pale strangers, and even as more and more Europeans began to move west, encroaching on the land of the Nimi’ipuu, the Nimi’ipuu remained averse to conflict, hoping the newcomers would respect their home (Edmunds). Thing seemed to be going in a relatively positive direction when the Nimi’ipuu signed a treaty in 1855 which made the Wallowa valley a reservation for the Nimi’ipuu. Yet the settlers quickly broke all of their promises when they found gold throughout the valley in the 1860s. The government wanted to reduce the reservation to one tenth of its size, taking away close to 6 million acres. The chief of the Wallowa band, Tuekakas, or Old Joseph, refused the terms of the proposed treaty for obvious reasons. But some Nimi’ipuu chiefs in Idaho, who had no affiliation with Wallowa Valley, signed the treaty. They sold land which did not belong to them, and took the money which should have gone to the Wallowa Nez Perce (sacredland.org).
Old Joseph’s son, Heinmot Tookyalakekt, or Chief Joseph, continued to live in the valley against the wishes of the settlers until 1877, when they were forced to leave under threat of a cavalry attack. Just as the tribe was preparing to depart for the Idaho reservation, some young warriors, angry and bitter at the way they were being treated by the gold-hungry white men, attacked and killed several white settlers (sacredland.org). The tribe was forced to flee towards Canada, pursued by the US army along the 1,400 mile trek (sacredland.org). Although terribly outnumbered (700 warriors to 2,000 soldiers) and outgunned, Chief Joseph and his band of Nimi’ipuu made it as far Bear’s Paw, Montana, just 40 miles south of the Canadian border. Along the way they clashed with US forces over six times, including several instances when the tribe was ambushed by cavalry while they slept. They were travelling with all of their women, children, elders, and belongings, and did not have enough horses for everyone to ride, leaving many to struggle along on foot (Edmunds). After warding off troops for over three months, hunger, exhaustion, and loss of warriors overcame Chief Joseph and his band, and he gave his famous speech of surrender; “I am tired of fighting … My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever” (sacredland.org).
Today the Nimi’ipu are scattered across several reservations, none of which are in the Wallowa valley; the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon, the Colville Reservation in Spokane, WA and the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho, with some tribe members living as far away as Oklahoma and Canada (Sacred Lands). As of 2009, there were only three Nimi’ipuu residing in the Wallowa valley (Seattle Times).
Nearly all of the land in the Wallowa valley is now in the hands of white ranchers. In 1995, the owner of the Chief Joseph Ranch, 10,300 acres of land which had once been the summer camp of the Nimi’ipuu and where Chief Joseph was allegedly born, agreed to sell the land back to the tribe. The tribe received the funds to purchase the land from the Bonneville Power Association, a power company based in the Pacific Northwest with a commitment to maintaining good relationships with tribes within the BPA service territory (bpa.gov). The Nimi’ipuu applied for funds to purchase land for conservation purposes, and BPA granted them the money as part of a conservation project to mitigate the effects of hydropower dams. In October 1996 the transaction was completed, with the help of the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, and the Precious Lands Wildlife Refuge was created. Several more purchases increased the size of the refuge to 16,286 acres, with the goal to eventually obtain 18,000 acres (sacredland.org). The Wallowa Band Nez Perce Trail Interpretive Center was created both as a location the Wallowa band of Nimi’ipuu could come home to and celebrate their culture and history, and to act as an educational resource and a positive social and political connection between locals and the tribe (wallowanezperce.org).
The return of the Nimi’ipuu to the Wallowa valley is one of the few success stories when it comes to the repatriation of indigenous people’s homelands. Although very few Nimi’ipuu actually live in the valley, they have built strong connections with the community and are working with various groups to ensure that their homeland is well maintained for future generations and that the current inhabitants of the Wallowa valley have a strong, positive relationship with the original inhabitants of the valley. Every July, the Interpretive Trail Center holds a Tamkalik celebration, which includes a powwow and a “friendship feast” with the local inhabitants of the valley. The friendship feast is attended by between 600 and 800 people each year, and brings together Nimi’ipuu from all of the three reservations they have lived on for the past century. Before the establishment of the trail center and the Tamkalik celebrations, the scattered Nimi’ipuu had no place or means to come together and celebrate their culture and history (wallowanezperce.org).
The Wallowa band has been collaborating with many local organizations on various projects with successful results. One such collaboration is the Wallowa Country Nez Perce Salmon Habitat Recovery Plan, a joint effort between the tribe and Wallowa County. This is one of the first collaborations of its kind, in which a tribe and county are working together to protect an endangered species (wallowanezperce.org). Another collaboration is with the Wallowa Ranch Camp, which teaches children about horsemanship, wildlife management and preservation, and forestry. All of these are integral to the traditional Nimi’ipuu lifestyle, and so the camp has been hosting Nimi’ipuu children from the reservations to participate alongside local white children. The students can learn these valuable skills while also forming bonds early on with local children, who will one day be their fellow stewards of the valley (wallowanezperce.org).
Although the Nimi’ipuu are still scattered far from their homeland, they are taking firm steps to reclaim their home and revive their culture and traditional ways of life. This case is unique because instead of facing only adversity from profit-motivated corporations and government bodies, the Wallowa Band of Nez Perce Indians have great support from the people who live and work in the valley. Though it will take much more time and effort from all parties involved before the Wallowa band of Nimi’ipuu are fully and fairly compensated for their loss, the Wallowa are returning home. No matter how far afield the Nimi’ipuu were scattered or how long they had been separated from the valley, the Wallowa band never forgot their homeland and it never lost its power and meaning to them. Joe McCormack, a Nimi’ipuu who grew up in Washington and did not visit until he was an adult, remembers his father speaking of the valley; “My Father used to tell us stories about the Wallowas when we were little children growing up on the West Plains of Spokane…and he always used to look to the South over the mountains out there and tell us, that’s our home. We’re wealthy people, we own that land” (wallowanezperce.org).
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