Currently, there are 574 federally recognized Native America tribes in the United States, including over 200 in Alaska.
Known as “nations within a nation,” these tribes have formal relationships with the United States and its federal agency, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but there is one glaring issue with their current living situations: many of their members don’t have access to the land that they were forcibly removed from in the past.
The Vice Chairman of one of those tribes, Shannon Wheeler, has been dreaming about returning to his people’s indigenous land for years.
Wheeler finally got his wish, as he and more than 150 of his native people just returned to the place they used to call home in eastern Oregon, completing a cycle of more than 100 years that began in heartbreak and ended with pure, jubilant redemption.
More Than 150 Members of the Nez Perce Tribe Return Home
Famous for their horseback riding and horse breeding skills, the Nez Perce, also known as the Nimiipuu people, have resided and subsisted on lands including the present-day Reservation in north-central Idaho, along with northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington.
The tribe had about 12,000 members in 1805, but their numbers declined to less than 2,000 by the early 1900s.
Today there are more than 3,500 Nez Perce members.
In 1877, their lives were uprooted as they were forced from their 7.5 million-acre homeland to a 750,000-acre reservation in Idaho that did not include many of their most sacred locations.
The tribe was driven from their homes in the Wallowa Valley in Eastern Oregon by the United States Army.
Since then, the Nez Perce have worked to maintain a connection to their ancestral lands, and were able to reclaim part of them last year.
Their return began with the purchase of a 148-acre property in Joseph, known as Am’sáaxpa, or Place of Boulders, in December, but they could not formally perform a blessing ceremony until just now according to a report from the Great Falls Tribune.
A Return to the Mountains and Rivers
The tribe’s new digs are surrounded by the Wallowa Mountains, which include pristine alpine peaks, meadows and wilderness.
Property rights include a house built in 1884 that includes barns, grassland, and space on the Wallowa River where the tribe would camp and catch sockeye salmon.
The tribe’s purchasing of the land has stirred the echoes of members who have long passed.
“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.
“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 area includes the ridge where the famous Chief Joseph once held council.
“A Bittersweet Victory”
After 144 years of the “sorrow and endurance” that came along with the forced removal, Wheeler, who is a descendant of Chief Joseph, called the day bittersweet.
He said the blessing was important for the Nez Perce ancestors to “hear our voices” and “feel our moccasins on the ground again.”
Following a surrender by the tribe in the days of displacement, U.S. officials promised Chief Joseph’s group that they would be allowed to join the rest of their people at the reservation in Idaho, but that turned out to be a lie.
Many of the tribe’s elders thought during that time that they would never see their ancestral lands again — but Wheeler and his fellow tribe members had other ideas.
“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 to the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon.
“And for many of those people, that was the last time that they looked at that land.”
Many tribal members ended up in Kansas and Oklahoma and thought they would never return to the Pacific Northwest, but everything has finally worked out in their favor.
In the blessing ceremony, Wheeler and fellow tribal leaders brought the spirit of their people back to this hallowed ground.
“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.”
According to the group’s treasurer Casey Mitchell, also a descendant of Chief Joseph, the dedication and purchasing of the land meant a lot to him.
“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.”