– The Nez Perce were forced from their northeastern Oregon homeland by a fraudulent treaty and a bloody horseback war more than 130 years ago, but their passion for Wallowa County remains.
The tribe’s Wallowa Band has acquired thousands of acres on the county’s north end, making it one of the county’s bigger landowners.
Some residents worry that the tribe may love the area too much, and perhaps one day want it back. But others say the Nez Perce have been good neighbors and careful stewards of the land.
“Unless you are an Indian, it is hard to understand, but there definitely is a spiritual connection between the Wallowa Band and its homeland,” said Duane Heglie, a Native American studies professor at the University of San Diego. “A lot of the way they view the world has to do with their ancestors. The bones of their ancestors are there,” he told The Oregonian newspaper.
Since their 1877 expulsion, the Nez Perce have lived on the Colville Reservation northwest of Spokane, the Umatilla Indian Reservation near Pendleton and the Nez Perce Reservation near Lapwai, Idaho. Only three Nez Perce live in Wallowa County.
The tribe has acquired 15,325 acres as the Precious Lands Wildlife Area, developed under the Pacific Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act of 1980, and funded by the Bonneville Power Administration to mitigate habitat lost to the Snake River hydroelectric dams.
Tribal members converge there every summer for a celebration with non-Indians.
In Joseph, the tribe recently bought buildings downtown for tribal fisheries offices, sparking concerns that the tribe plans a casino.
Others have more ominous fears.
Dale Potter of Enterprise, founder of the conservative Oregon Freedom Alliance, worries the tribe may want to displace non-Native Americans.
“It is that old program of one little step at a time, and you wake up in the morning and you are gone,” said Potter, a 74-year-old retired U.S. Air Force pilot whose forebears settled along the county’s Sheep Creek in the 1880s.
Joe McCormack, a Nez Perce tribal fisheries biologist and one of the three tribal members in the county, acknowledged the tribe’s deep ties to the land, saying the Wallowa Band and Wallowa Valley are a single spiritual entity. Neither could ever be complete without the other.
The Wallowa Band still recites the old prayers and sings the old songs – their “keepings” – about their ancestral homeland, he said. He sometimes quotes Young Chief Joseph, a 19th-century Nez Perce leader who said before his death in 1904: “I love that land more than all the rest of the world.”
Fears such as Potter’s are unfounded, said McCormack, 59, an ex-Marine and Vietnam veteran.
“It’s very hard to uproot and move back to an area where you’ve been removed.” Jobs are scarce, he said. And 62 percent of the county is federally controlled.
James R. Harbeck, a Nez Perce fisheries project research leader in Joseph, said that unlike many newcomers to the isolated county, the Nez Perce have preserved access to their north-county acres.
“It’s open to everybody,” Harbeck said. “You won’t see any ‘No Trespassing’ signs.”
Tribal biologists also have helped restore the county’s salmon runs, he said. In 1999, they captured 13 spring chinook salmon at a weir on the Lostine River. Last year, more than 2,000 chinook came back.
Vera Sonneck, director of the Nez Perce Tribe’s Cultural Resources Program in Lapwai, sees Wallowa County as almost heaven, the place where her Nez Perce ancestors came to hunt, fish and seek visions.
“It is a good feeling. You are at peace there.”