AM’SÁAXPA, Wallowa County, Oregon — They were exiled from this place during the Nez Perce War in 1877, driven from their homes and ancestral lands by U.S. soldiers.
But in a triumphal return, tribal leaders Thursday rode back to this sacred place on horseback, in a ceremonial parade.
They celebrated with whoops and song, dressed in their finest white buckskin regalia, eagle feather bonnets, their horses resplendent in beaded finery and bridles jingling with bells.
The return and blessing of the land was a long time in the making, since the purchase of the nearly 150-acre property behind the rodeo grounds, in the town of Joseph in northeast Oregon, closed last December.
The property, called Am’sáaxpa, for Place of Boulders, is a known traditional Nez Perce village site. It is overlooked by a ridge used as a council site by Chief Joseph and includes nearly a mile of Wallowa River frontage.
It is primarily farmland and riparian acreage, and its views of the looming Wallowa Range are pristine.
Elders, riders, runners, drummers, dancers, walkers, youth and veterans began gathering at the local high school about a mile from the property early in the morning. Then at 9 a.m., the procession was on. The horses’ hoofs clattered and the riders held their heads high as they rode down the main streets of town.
As they passed the rodeo grounds, the riders whoops and songs drowned out the cowboy honky-tonk playing on the loudspeakers for the annual Chief Joseph Days, rodeo and festivities. Astonished onlookers waved cowboy hats as the tribal members passed, and recorded with cellphones.
As they arrived at the property a drum circle waiting to greet them was pounding. The riders raised flags, ceremonial staffs, and the songs of their ancestors, as they circled the grounds. Then speakers one by one spoke solemnly of the circle of history being closed.
When their people were forced out of the Wallowa Valley, they believed they never would be allowed to return home again, said Sam Penney, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee.
The treaty of 1863 — called the Thief Treaty and Steal Treaty in Nez Perce country — forced the Nez Perce off 90% of their lands reserved in the treaty of 1855 following the discovery of gold by settlers. The tribe’s reservation was diminished to 750,000 acres.
Chiefs who would not sign the second treaty or leave their lands were hunted by the U.S. Army. While it was called the Nez Perce War, the ensuing violent conflict was not really a war at all — but an extermination campaign.
Beginning in 1877 Army troops and militia chased Nez Perce families who, with livestock and whatever belongings they could gather, fled on foot in a 126-day more than 1,100 mile exodus through four states over the Bitterroot Mountains to Montana. Soldiers killed Nez Perce women, children and elders in battles wherever the Army could catch up as the people tried to escape to Canada.
They were promised that they would be allowed to return to their homeland if they surrendered, but instead survivors were imprisoned in Oklahoma, “the hot place,” as the tribe called it in their language, Penney told the gathered crowd.
While the shooting has long stopped, a different kind of war still goes on, to preserve their way of life as Salmon People. Getting back this piece of property is part of that intergenerational struggle, and a gift not only to the Nez Perce people today, but for generations to come, said vice chairman Shannon Wheeler.
He wore moccasins passed down to him by his uncle, the better to feel the ground so dear to him. He and others said they could feel their ancestors with them as they returned to Am’sáaxpa.
Families brought their littlest children, many dressed in regalia for the occasion. Some were barely walking their first steps, but they got to place them on their people’s own ground.
“A hundred and forty four years ago, there would have been a lot of tears and we can still feel their hurt,” he said. “But today there are tears of joy. We are coming home today. This is where we come from. This is who we are.”
The property was slated for a 30-home development and clubhouse, said the former owner Mark Hettervig of Madras. He said he sold the land to the tribe instead strictly as a business deal, and drove a hard bargain. “But I’m happy for two reasons. I’m happy they are happy and that they have their heritage back,” he said.
To commemorate their return, the tribe raised a traditional tepee longhouse on the crest of the property. The land once more felt the touch of their moccasins, and heard Nez Perce prayers and songs, raised for hours in the longhouse. As songs and drums boomed into the mountains, it could have been any century.
Elder, historian, and descendant of Chief Joseph, Allen Pinkham Sr., told the gathering the Nez Perce people to extend a hand of reconciliation and friendship to work as one with everyone for the sake of the Earth.
The tribe — which has the oldest village site documented in North America — continues to advocate for a way of life the tribe has known for generations uncounted.
“I am related to the people that lived here,” Pinkham said, “and I am glad to be home.”