A century after the US Army forcibly removed them from the Wallowa Valley in eastern Oregon, the Nez Perce people have returned to their homelands.

Over 150 members of the Nez Perce Nation returned to the Valley last week, the first time they have returned since their forced removal in 1877.

The Nez Perce were driven out of their almost 3 million hectare homeland in 1877, an act that violated the established 1855 Treaty of Walla Walla which existed between the United States Government and sovereign nations; Cayuse, Nez Perce, Umatilla, Walla Walla and Yakama.

The Nez Perce were driven from the Wallowa Valley, moving to an Idaho reservation which was just 303,000 hectares.

The return to homelands is the culmination of continued connection to Country, and advocacy from the Nation.

In December 2020, they reclaimed a portion of their land. The Nez Perce Nation purchased approximately 60 hectares of their homelands in Joseph, also known as Place of Boulders. The land was privately owned and operated as a ranch, sitting on the outskirts of the city’s rodeo grounds.

Due to COVID-19 Nez Perce were only able to perform a blessing ceremony for the land on Thursday.

Vice-Chairman Shannon Wheeler told Statesman Journal that Nez Perce hoped their Ancestors felt “tears of joy” to see “our people coming back to the land we belong to”.

“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.”

Wheeler explained that the blessing ceremony would ensure that Nez Perce Ancestors would hear their voices and feel their moccasins “on the ground again”.

The blessing ceremony saw over 150 Nez Perce peoples gather, with a dozen on horseback sporting traditional regalia.

Cultural resource director Nakia Williamson-Cloud said those leading ceremony on horseback reflected the Ancestors who left their homelands on horseback.

“We’re here, we’re the survivors … We’re doing what our Ancestors couldn’t.”

Tribal leaders addressed the ceremony and drummers performed the set of seven songs in line with blessing ceremony tradition.

Wheeler is a direct descendant of Chief Joseph, one of the Nez Perce leaders who fought against their removal. Wheeler believes his return to homeland after 144 years of separation is a bittersweet victory.

Nez Perce treasurer Casey Mitchell, also a descendant of Chief Joseph, said the purchase of the land and the blessing ceremony is reflective of Nez Perce having the power to reclaim their homelands.

“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.”

The purchase of the land also sees Nez Perce reclaim access to a 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.”

Wheeler and Williamson-Cloud were able to return in December, shortly after the land was purchased. Accompanying them were former secretary Rachel Edwards, executive leader Quincy Ellenwood, 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.”

By Rachael Knowles