JOSEPH, Oregon — Vice-Chairman Shannon Wheeler has been dreaming about this day for years.
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.
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.
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.
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. “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.”
While the Nez Perce people have continued to fish and gather in the Wallowa Valley and near the property — a practice that the Nez Perce also fought to protect and preserve following years of struggles in asserting fishing rights guaranteed to them in U.S treaties — the purchase represents the opportunity to officially call the land their own again, Mitchell said.
It also reclaims an ancient and sacred camping ground.
“We have ancestors that are buried there,” Mitchell said. “That’s why we have a place name for it already, Am’sáaxpa, Place of Boulders, and when Shannon and everyone went to sing their songs it was to let our ancestors know that we’re coming home. We let them know that we’re home, we’re there.”
Nez Perce people filled the parking lot of Joseph High School Thursday, preparing to walk and ride through Joseph into Am’sáaxpa for the blessing ceremony.
A dozen people on horseback dressed in traditional regalia led more than a hundred others nearly a mile through Joseph to the property. A traditional long tent welcomed attendees at the top of the property.
The long tent and teepees had been set up the night before by Lee Whiteplume and his family.
Whiteplume and several others were planning to camp on the property through the weekend.
The walk and ride were deliberate, Williamson-Cloud said.
“When they [ancestors] left, they left on horseback,” he said.
Now, the Nez Perce were returning to the land on horseback.
“We’re here, we’re the survivors,” Williamson-Cloud said. “We’re doing what our ancestors couldn’t.”
Tribal leaders spoke before the blessing ceremony about what the day represented, reflecting on the history of the Nez Perce tribe and sharing joy about the day’s historic event.
Drummers sang seven sets of seven songs, as is traditional in the blessing ceremony.
Ellenwood described the purchase as another steppingstone in Nez Perce’s growth and history. He said his first visit to tour the property was emotional.
“I told them, ‘We can’t let this slip us by,’ ” Ellenwood said.
Shari BlackEagle couldn’t let the opportunity to come to Oregon pass her by either.
She learned about the event three weeks ago and immediately reached out to her cousins to find out if family would be going.
She made the long trek to the Pacific Northwest for the first time, flying in from Oklahoma.
Her mother had moved to Oklahoma years ago and it’s where BlackEagle still lives.
She met her father, Norton BlackEagle, face to face for the first time Wednesday night.
The whole day was “overwhelming,” she said, finally able to meet family she’s only known through Facebook and other social media. It’s a homecoming in every sense, she said.
Their family descends from Chief Black Eagle, the husband of Chief Joseph’s sister.
Janet BlackEagle, Shari’s aunt, related to Shari’s reaction. She’d joined family in Oregon when the Nez Perce celebrated the United Methodist Church’s return of sacred land in Wallowa in May.
“I remember the closer we got [to Wallowa] the more it was like, hurry up and get there faster,” Janet remembered. “We didn’t get any sleep…when we got there, we all felt the spirits.”
“It’s been so exciting,” she said.
“It’s about arriving at a place to forgive the unforgivable,” Norton BlackEagle said about the day.
The family was planning to return to Idaho that day, but not before celebrating Shari’s visit some more. Before she had to return to Oklahoma, they’d be showing her other landmarks and sights around the Wallowa Valley.