“The Land Wants Its People Back“
As part of our work to develop the Connections program for Wallowa County we took a look at where we’ve been most connected in the region over the years and that led us to the door of the Nez Perce Wallowa Homeland and Visitor Center earlier this summer. The visitor center is at the corner of Storie and 2nd Streets right across from the Post Office in downtown Wallowa. From here it’s a short walk or ride just a few blocks north to the Homeland grounds. Grants from the Cycle Oregon Fund helped the tribal-led nonprofit acquire the 320 acres of their homeland here as a place for descendants to gather and for others to learn. The Visitor Center is colorful and bright, and highlights the vibrant Nez Perce culture though Executive Angela Bombaci will remind you, “This is not a story about the past”.
Angela is from here and also serves as the Treasurer of the Board of the Wallowa Land Trust based in Enterprise, Oregon. (Cycle Oregon Fund grants from 2008 through 2019 assisted in the Wallowa Land Trust purchase of 1,291 acres of the East Moraine on January 21, 2020) She is deeply connected and committed to the land here as is the entire Nez Perce Homeland community. Their mission is more than just to house historical data, it is to create and steward a physical place to enrich and celebrate Native culture. The Homeland Center is not simply a museum of “what was” but a vibrant hub where Nez Perce people and their non-tribal allies develop what “will be”. “The land wants its people back,” Angela told us on that first visit, and that must include all bands of the Nez Perce people dispersed to three reservations and beyond, far too long ago.
Nez Perce lived in reciprocity with the land here until 1877 when, under pressure from the US Government, Chief Joseph and the walwáama band of Nez Perce were forcibly removed. What followed was a violent and months-long military pursuit of fleeing families. The people of Wallowa were eventually captured and punished for their desire to be free when they were exiled to the Colville Reservation in northern Washington. Today, dispersed tribal members again steward this land, in part by serving as Board Members for the Nez Perce Wallowa Homeland.
Connections intends to share the Nez Perce story through the close, physical interaction that bicycling provides. The Nez Perce migrated in a seasonal, cyclical pattern throughout this region and while their primary modes of transportation were by foot and by water, the bicycle still brings us into close contact with the pathways they once took and the plants, animals and shared views along the way. We are grateful to the Nez Perce Wallowa Homeland staff and volunteers for their time in connecting our routes to special places and points of interest along the way.
Open from sunrise to sunset every day of the year (except for special events), The Homeland is featured in several of our routes and we encourage all visitors to explore the grounds whether on a ride or afterwards. Here you will find a Dance Arbor, Longhouse, and hiking trails up the basalt ridge to a view looking as far away as the East Moraine of Lake Wallowa. The rigorous yet rewarding 4-mile hike here reveals why the Nez Perce call this place tamkaliks meaning “From where you can see the mountains.” While prioritized for tribal people and special events, anyone can camp, (with pit toilets open year round and showers from May-September), on the grounds or rent the century-old three-bedroom farmhouse overlooking the Wallowa River. From the homepage of their site or the front door of the Visitor Center this much is true, ‘ilóoynin’ ‘éetx páaycix (Glad you’re here.)
Just as the people must return to the land here, so must the language. On two of our Connections routes you will see this taking place in real time. In December 2020 the Nez Perce tribe purchased 148 acres just outside of Joseph, Oregon on the boundary of the rodeo grounds and along Airport Road. This land had been privately held as a farm since the forced removal of the walwáama, people of Wallowa, following the reduction of Nez Perce lands from 7.5 million acres including Wallowa to 750,000 acres in Idaho; a direct violation of the Treaty of 1855. The events of 1877 left the Nez Perce a divided people, dispersed across the west. Chief Joseph held council on a ridge here the Nez Perce call am’sáaxpa (Place of Boulders) and in July of 2021 they officially held a blessing ceremony to mark their return. PBS Newshour produced a news story on October 17, 2021 so this is very clearly a story of the present. We invite you to visit the Nez Perce Homeland and connect with the full history and future of the land here.
As you cross the bridge spanning the Wallowa River from Storie Street to the Homeland, we invite you to stop midway and consider the inscription you’ll find on a plaque here, “You are welcome here with the expectation that you will think about the countless generations before and after you who also belong to these lands and waters.”
Nez Perce Wallowa Homeland Visitor Center
209 East Second St., Wallowa, OR 97885
70956 Whiskey Creek Rd., Wallowa, OR 97885