Nez Perce Indians fight to preserve land

Sunday, February 1, 2004

JOSEPH, Ore. -- More than a century after Chief Joseph delivered one of the most heartbreaking surrender speeches in history, the Nez Perce Indians are girding for battle again - this time a legal one.

The tribe is trying to stop construction of 11 upscale homes on a grassy ridge near the tribal cemetery that includes the grave of Chief Joseph's father, Old Chief Joseph.

The grave is on a 5-acre site that serves as the trailhead for a National Historic Trail that follows the route Joseph's band of Nez Perce took in 1877 during their desperate flight from a U.S. Cavalry unit.

That flight ended 1,500 miles away when Chief Joseph surrendered, saying: "I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever."

The Nez Perce and two other Northwest tribes have filed a legal challenge to the proposed housing development with the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners. The tribes argue the whole ridge is a site of cultural significance and a national historic treasure.

The commissioners are scheduled to decide the issue at a hearing on Monday.

Fighting the development, on 62 acres of privately held land, is a top priority for the Nez Perce, said tribal secretary Jake Whiteplume.

"Remembering what our ancestors went through will help keep us going," he said. "That was our homeland. We have that teaching in us today. We still remember."

On his death bed, Old Chief Joseph had told his son "Never forget my dying words. This country holds your father's body," according to Alvin M. Josephy's 1965 history, "The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest."

The Wallowa County planning commission approved a tentative plan for the development in December, but the city of Joseph supports the tribes, arguing that an archaeological study contracted out by the developers was insufficient.

The developers reject Nez Perce assertions that some of their ancestors may be buried at the building site, and point out there is already a seven-acre buffer zone separating the development area and the cemetery.

The developers also say the project would bring in much-needed jobs to this corner of eastern Oregon, hard-hit by the demise of the timber industry.

"This is a simple land-use issue, and to compare this site to the war in 1877, and the atrocities that took place, is not fair to the owners," said Rahn Hostetter, an attorney for developer K&B Limited Family Partnership.

The land was appraised at $1.8 million if it can be subdivided; if not, it is worth about $1 million, Hostetter said.

The subdivision and the cemetery share a ridge overlooking Wallowa Lake, in the shadow of the snow-draped Wallowa Mountains. Nez Perce bands caught sockeye salmon in the six-mile-long lake and hunted in the Wallowa Mountains.

The band had retained the Wallowa Valley as a reservation under an 1855 treaty signed by Old Chief Joseph, but the pact was later re-negotiated by Nez Perce tribal leaders in Idaho without the consent of the Wallowa band. The new treaty of 1863 ceded the entire valley to settlers.

The band was forced to abandon the valley when Gen. Oliver O. Howard threatened to attack. They fled through what is now Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, fighting with Howard's troops along the way. Chief Joseph surrendered at Bear Paw, Mont., just 40 miles short of the Canadian border.

Over the past decade, tourists have discovered the scenic Wallowa Valley, and the city of Joseph - named after the young Chief Joseph - has grown as it has reinvented itself as an artists' colony and retirement destination.

Today, only two Nez Perce live in the Wallowa Valley. One is Joe McCormack, a tall, strapping man sporting a black pony tail and cowboy boots.

McCormack moved to the valley six years ago to work in a native fish restoration effort and as president of the Wallowa Band Nez Perce Trail Interpretive Center Inc.

One of his jobs is buying land for the tribes' use, and he said the tribes might bid for the proposed development if efforts to block the subdivision fail.

"There have been other developments that built over grave sites," McCormack said. "I would rather not see it happen again here."