100 years after forceful removal, Native American tribe celebrate reclaimed land in Oregon

(USA Today) - On Thursday, more than 150 Nez Perce (Niimiipuu) people returned and blessed part of their homeland, a hundred years after the U.S Army drove them from the Wallowa Valley in eastern Oregon.

100 years after forceful removal, Native American tribe celebrate reclaimed land in Oregon

In direct violation of the 1855 Treaty of Walla Walla, the Nez Perce in 1877 were forced from their 7.5 million-acre homeland to a 750,000-acre reservation in Idaho.

For years, the tribe has worked to keep a connection to the ancestral land they were driven from. Last year, they successfully reclaimed part of that land. 

The Nez Perce tribe purchased a 148-acre property in Joseph, known as Am'sáaxpa, or Place of Boulders, in December but could not formally perform a blessing ceremony until Thursday due to COVID-19 concerns. 

The property had been privately owned and operated as a ranch for more than a hundred years. It is located at the edge of the city's rodeo grounds.

Surrounded by the Wallowa Mountains, the property rights include the house near Airport Road built in 1884, barns, grassland and Wallowa River frontage where the Nez Perce would camp and catch sockeye salmon. 

It also includes the ridge where Chief Joseph once held council.

"We would hope that our ancestors would feel the tears of joy and their tears will turn to joy because they see our people coming back to the land that we belong to," Wheeler said before the ceremony. "Our people know that we sprang from this land and we're tied to the land in that manner and the land is also tied to us in the same way." 

The blessing, he said, was important in making sure ancestors could "hear our voices" and "feel our moccasins on the ground again."

Wheeler described the day as bittersweet, a victory following 144 years of sorrow and endurance. 

Forced removal 

Wheeler is a descendent of Chief Joseph, one of the several Nez Perce leaders who fought tirelessly to protect the Nez Perce tribe and its land.  

Chief Joseph was among the Nez Perce who refused to abide by the 1863 treaty that had stripped the tribe from 90% of its land and required the move to the Idaho reservation.

War broke out in 1877 when Gen. Oliver O. Howard attempted to force non-treaty Nez Perce from the land. Under Chief Joseph’s leadership, a band of about 700 people traveled more than 1,100 miles while they were pursued by 5,000 U.S troops. 

Joseph’s band surrendered to Gen. Nelson Miles and Howard on Oct. 5, 1877, after a final battle at Bears Paw Mountains in Montana. They had been 40 miles short of their goal to cross the Canadian border. 

It is estimated that more than 230 Nez Perce people died during the fighting retreat, including women and children.  

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After their surrender, U.S officials promised the Joseph band that they would be allowed to join the rest of their people at the reservation in Idaho. This turned out to be a lie. 

“As they were crossing out of the valley, one of the elders at the time told the people to look back ‘as it may be the last time we look at this land’,” Wheeler said in an interview with the Statesman Journal, which like USA TODAY is a part of the USA TODAY Network. “And for many of those people, that was the last time that they looked at that land.”

Those who surrendered were sent to Kansas for the winter and exiled to Oklahoma during the summer. It wouldn't be until 1885 that they would be allowed to return to the Pacific Northwest and even then, many including Chief Joseph were relocated to the Colville Reservation in Washington, away from their people on the Nez Perce reservation. 

A long time coming

Wheeler remembers one of the first times he visited the property shortly after they signed for the land. He visited alongside other tribal leaders including former secretary Rachel Edwards, executive leader Quincy Ellenwood, cultural resource director Nakia Williamson-Cloud and land enterprise manager Kim Cannon.

“We sang a couple of songs at that time over there just to be there. We stood on the ground and just reflected about the moment of us being there, what that meant,” Wheeler said, "knowing that in the future more of our tribal membership would be able to be there to celebrate and bless the ground that we were standing on.”

The coronavirus pandemic only delayed the inevitable, said Nez Perce treasurer Casey Mitchell, also a descendant of Chief Joseph.  

“The time is now for us getting our land back,” he said. “It means a lot, not only to us here at the council table but to our people as well. Our people have been waiting a long time to go back to the land.”