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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Ever since the U.S. Army forced the Nez Perce people out of their homeland in the Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon in 1877, the tribe has been working to get some of that land back. Over the past 120 years Nez Perce leaders have traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with Presidents, Congress and bureaucrats. By the 1930s the effort had become know as "the Nez Perce lost cause". Until now. This spring the Nez Perce took title to ten thousand acres of their old homeland in the Wallowa country and will soon purchase six thousand more acres with plans to convert the former ranch land into a wildlife preserve. In an ironic twist of history, descendants of the settlers who once hated and feared the Nez Perce, are welcoming the tribe back home. Producer Vicki Monks prepared our report.


KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. Ever since the US Army forced the Nez Perce people out of their homeland in the Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon in 1877, the tribe has been working to get some of that land back. Over the past 120 years Nez Perce leaders have traveled to Washington, DC, to meet with presidents, Congress, and bureaucrats. As early as the 1890s they were giving newspaper interviews, posing for photographs, and lecturing in an attempt to build public support. By the 1930s the effort had become known as the Nez Perce Lost Cause, and nothing happened. Until now. This spring the Nez Perce took title to 10,000 acres of their old homeland in the Wallowa country and will soon purchase 6,000 more acres. The tribe plans to convert the former ranch land into a wildlife preserve. And in an ironic twist of history, descendants of the settlers who once hated and feared the Nez Perce are welcoming the tribe back home. Producer Vicki Monks prepared our report.

(A horse neighs)

MONKS: Near the top of a steep grassy canyon 2,000 feet above Joseph Creek, Appaloosa horses emerge, then disappear into a cool morning fog. Nez Perce riders are preparing for a ceremony that will take place later in the day celebrating the tribe's return to the Wallowa Valley as a land owner after an absence of 120 years.

PINKHAM: We were dispossessed. You know, Nez Perce were forced off of this land. And while physically we may have been forced off, you know, the spirit of the Nez Perce is still cast across this landscape.

(Neighing horses)

MONKS: Jamie Pinkham, one of the tribe's young leaders, has been traveling to the Wallowa country in northeast Oregon since he was a child. It's a wild, ruggedly mountainous place bordering Hell's Canyon on the Snake River. With habitat for elk, black bear, cougar, hawks, owls, and rattlesnakes. Until white settlers took control, this entire region was home for the Wallowa band of Nez Perce. There's evidence they've lived here for more than 10,000 years.

(Wind blows)

AXTEL: You felt that gust of wind? That's the spirit of the old people coming and saying, oh, we're glad you hear.

MONKS: A spiritual leader of the Nez Perce, 72-year-old Horace Axtel is keeper of the tribe's traditions and, in a sense, keeper of the collective memory. This morning he sits on a boulder watching changing patterns of cloud shadow over the canyon. Mr. Axtel's grandmother, Piwiyahtahmahlupt, was born not far from here. She was only 6 years old when the US Army forced her family out of this valley and fighting began.

AXTEL: She remembers gunshots, and she remembers people crying, people laying on the ground, and tipis burning. I guess you would say she was glad to be alive. That's the way I used to look at it. Because so many of them her age got killed. In the winter when we'd get snowed in or had to stay at home, well, she would go through these pictures. And when she came to pictures of Wallowa Valley and this country she'd cry. You get lonesome for your land. You get lonesome for your people.


MONKS: As we talk, a gentle rumble of thunder echoes in the distance. Mr. Axtel recalls Chief Joseph, whose Nez Perce name Heinmot Tooyahlakekt means "thunder over the mountains." It was Joseph who led his people on an incredible 1,600-mile journey, trying to reach sanctuary in Canada, with the US Cavalry in pursuit. And Joseph who surrendered during a Montana blizzard 35 miles short of the border, because the children and elders were freezing and had no blankets or food.

VAN BLAIRCOM: They were here, they had their culture. And boy, I can see why they didn't want to give up this land.

MONKS: E.H. Van Blaircom, rancher, amateur historian, private property rights activist, recognizes full well how much his own people have benefitted from the Wallowa land. At the same time he believes the Nez Perce were badly wronged.

VAN BLAIRCOM: Here you had the settlers coming in and there no doubt were conflicts. But like I say, I blame it more on the eastern Congressmen who had this bias toward Indians and regarded them as savages.

MONKS: But Federal politicians weren't entirely to blame. Documents from Indian Bureau archives show how settlers invented phony stories of Nez Perce atrocities to build a case for moving the Indians out. At the end of his life, after years of confinement on reservations in Oklahoma and Washington State, Joseph's one wish remained that he might return to the land of his ancestors in the Wallowa Valley. He never made it. None of the whites here would even sell him land. As a final insult, grave robbers unearthed the remains of Joseph's father and a dentist put the skull on display. Horace Axtel.

AXTEL: I understand he died with a broken heart and loneliness. That can happen. I know that now.

MONKS: Anti-Indian sentiment held steady here for a century, and with it came a fierce resentment of Federal efforts to redress tribal grievances. That anger was still burning in the 1980s when the anti-Federal Sagebrush Rebellion caught fire. Judy Wortman is a leader in that movement. She chairs a statewide private property rights group called the Oregon Lands Coalition.

WORTMAN: My family were the first settlers in the freeze-out country, which is one of the big side canyons between the Snake River country and what the call the Imnaha River country, and so they were some of the first...

MONKS: Judy Wortman's people came to Oregon from Missouri in the mid-1800s. She and her husband Pat raise cattle and run a small logging company. Pat Wortman has been a Wallowa County Commissioner for 9 years. From the front port of the Wortman's ranch home, you can see the Wallowa River and a breathtaking spectacle of snow-capped mountains. The Wortmans are afraid they could lose all of this because of logging and grazing restrictions on Federal lands.

WORTMAN: Well, you just cannot rip people away from their roots. You can't rip a ranching family that has 4 generations of ties to the land and say well, you just go somewhere else and ranch. You cannot do that.

MONKS: And she does perceive the irony that what she fears might happen to ranching families is exactly what did happen to the Nez Perce.

WORTMAN: We sure have a lot of empathy for the Nez Perce because now we understand, you know, exactly what happened to those people when they loved this Wallowa Valley so very much. But it's one of those injustices that happened, and you know, we have to move forward. We can't go back and fix it. I'm sorry, but we can't.

MONKS: Even so, her husband Pat and other county leaders played critical roles in pushing the Nez Perce land deal through. Several newspapers have suggested that civic leaders want the Nez Perce back home to draw tourist dollars. That's offensive to many people here, and it misses the point. The real issue in this county is access to the natural resources on public land. The Federal Government already owns 64% of Wallowa County. Several years ago the US Forest Service restricted some logging on Federal land to protect damaged stream side and mountain habitat.

(Milling, voices in background)

LAWRENCE: Well, there's a big effort underway to restore bighorn sheep to the prominence, former prominence that they had in the canyon here. And all of the protection of this property is going to be part of that story.

MONKS: Tribal wildlife biologist Keith Lawrence says elk and song bird habitat will also be protected. He's standing at the edge of a cliff overlooking the new Nez Perce land, and he's holding a hand-colored map showing more than 100,000 acres set aside in other conservation deals.

LAWRENCE: ... tribal acquisition. These are all independent acquisitions, but they all have happened in the same fairly large geographical area over the last 10 years...

MONKS: Mr. Lawrence is excited about combining so much territory for wildlife habitat. But to the locals it means an awful lot of land taken out of productive economic use. Tensions ran so high a few years back, someone put up a noose at the end of town for US Forest Rangers. And for Ranger Van Blaircom, the preservationists are just about as bad.

VAN BLAIRCOM: Who want this land for national parks and for its scenic value, and they would like to see us removed from the land. So there is a certain irony there of a parallel that we feel. And it wasn't until then that I really understood how the Indians were really wronged.

MONKS: Over the years, the tribe's persistent attempts to get back some of their land in Wallawa County had all failed. But this time, the Nez Perce had another card to play.

(Voices and drizzle; crackling flames, chopping sounds)

MONKS: As a cold morning drizzle settles in over Joseph Canyon, people are drawn to an open, crackling fire ringed halfway around with fillets of salmon tied to tall stakes. Millie Axtel sits under a lean-to nearby preparing the fish.

M. AXTEL: All this last night I filleted salmon until about 2 o'clock this morning, and I had to go out and cut the posts for the salmon to stick them on the stakes. This is the way I learned from my grandmother. We always were river people, we always stayed by the river and harvested the salmon. It was a way of life for us.

MONKS: The same treaties that had taken land away from the tribe had also granted the Nez Perce rights to continue hunting and fishing in their old territory. In modern legal terms, the old ways codified in the treaty give the tribe considerable authority over how fish and wildlife resources are managed. Authority the tribe has used to build friendships in Wallowa County. In the late 1980s, Chinook salmon were about to be listed as endangered in Wallowa's streams.

WORTMAN: This is how it kind of got started.

(Flowing stream)

MONKS: The tribe had legal authority to devise a salmon recovery plan and County Commissioner Wirtman decided he'd much rather deal with the Nez Perce than the Federal Government.

WORTMAN: The tribe was trying to increase the fish runs, and I think we had those concerns also, because it was going to if they were listed, it was going to put some restrictions on how we manage and do business.

MONKS: Residents were worried about their livelihoods, but they were willing to go along with more limited, voluntary measures they worked out with the Nez Perce. The salmon are beginning to come back, and the planning process has helped to heal old wounds.

WORTMAN: The first thing I think you've got to do is quit pointing fingers and sit down and find common ground. And I think we've done that.

MONKS: Later on, when Nez Perce treasurer Jamie Pinkham sat down with Mr. Wortman over coffee and donuts to discuss the land acquisition plan, the county commissioner was willing to listen. The national conservation group the Trust for Public Land had identified a magnificent property that a retired rancher was putting up for sale. The land offered prime habitat for bighorn sheep, elk, and song birds, but project manager Bowen Blair knew he would face serious objections to another government land reserve.

BLAIR: If Trust for Public Land had come in and just tried to convey this into public ownership, it never would have happened.

MONKS: So Mr. Blair approached the Nez Perce tribe, and soon the county dropped its opposition.

BLAIR: This started out as a wonderful wildlife habitat mitigation project but with the Nez Perce dimension, their return to their ancestral homeland after 120 years, this became a good project and went to an unbelievable and remarkable project. One that has to be the most fulfilling transaction that I've done in my 8 years at Trust for Public Land, and probably one of the best things I'll accomplish in my life.

(Dancing and singing/chanting; drum beats)

MONKS: As the ceremony to dedicate the new land begins, 2 dozen Nez Perce Appaloosas and riders in traditional dress move in slowly across a broad hillside. By the time Horace Axtel stands to offer a blessing more than 300 people are crowded beneath tarps or standing in the pouring rain. Scores of elderly had traveled from reservations in Idaho and Washington State and braved a deeply rutted muddy road to witness this event.

(Rain pours)

AXTEL: So from now on, our title of this land will be Hatawaysnict Watas. Precious land.

(Dancing, singing, drum beats continue)

MONKS: The 16,000-acre reserve is only a small part of the county. In the greater scheme of things it won't make much difference to the way ranchers or anyone else runs their business here. But the Nez Perce are bringing a way of life back into this community that's been missing for a long time. And one thing is clear: the tribe intends to continue a tradition of sharing. Of neighborliness and forgiveness that's meant to heal.

(Dancing, singing, drum beats continue)

MONKS: Hatawaysnict Watas. Precious land. For Living on Earth, I'm Vicki Monks.



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