A few hundred Nez Perce Indians called this Valley home for thousands of years. They called themselves Nimipu (“the people”) and identified with this place, their families, their band and its headmen (Young Joseph, Old Joseph, Wal-lam-wat-kain, and on and on) more than any larger tribal group.
European horses and diseases got here before Europeans did, and then the fur traders, who probably had seen a couple of Indians in buffalo country with dentalia they had picked up at Celilo through their nostrums, and put the Nez Perce name on them. This all before 1805 and Lewis and Clark. The fur men, migrants themselves, many from France and Scotland, trapped, traded, traveled and married with Indians. They had posts in Spokane and made it to the Pacific just five or six years after the Corps of Discovery.
Historian Grace Bartlett says there were a couple of Frenchmen living in the Wallowa Valley with Indian wives when the first settlers came in — that was all the way up to 1871, when all manner of people were rattling around what some call Salmon Country — the lands from the British Columbian coast to the Northern California coast, and from salt water to the Rockies.
Settlers came after fur men, missionaries, surveyors, treaty makers, and gold seekers. It’s a long complicated story — thousands of years long and the length of rivers and mountain ranges, and the Nez Perce National Historical Park collects the pieces and tells the story in places across four states — Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Montana. They’re headquartered in Spalding, Idaho (ironically, named after the early missionaries to the Nez Perce) and are celebrating 50 years of work. One of the ways they are celebrating is with a show of “gift art,” the beaded bags, cradleboards, flutes, and moccasins Indians made and still make for children, sisters, and friends. And, fortunately for us here in Wallowa County, the first showing of this work is at the Josephy Center on Main Street in the town of Joseph (named, of course, after the last Indian headman who lived here).
It came on May 30 and will be up until the June 28. On the opening day we celebrated with Indian singers and drummers and artists and interpreters telling us stories. Happily, May would have marked the 100th birthday of Alvin M. Josephy Jr. the man who told the Nez Perce story in exquisite detail, told it with the background of horses, diseases, fur traders, “discoverers,” missionaries, treaty makers, gold strikes, the Civil War, etc., told it, as much as he could, through the eyes and voices of the people themselves. On May 31, we celebrated his centenary.
There were still three survivors of the War of 1877 alive when Alvin began his work, and he spoke with them. When the Nez Perce returned to the Northwest in 1884 from the place they still call the “hot country” (Leavenworth; Indian Territory), the young men and those closest to Joseph were sent to Colville, in Washington — there was still much fear of Indians in Idaho and Oregon. Alvin went to hear the stories in Colville too. And in 1965 he published The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest, still — 50 years later — the acknowledged starting point for book learning about the tribe and culture.
The drummers stayed and played for the Josephy party. Gordy High Eagle, one of the drummers, had been a “camper” at the Josephy house in the earliest days of the Chief Joseph Summer Seminar, then known as the Day Camp. Indian kids came for several summers, and always stayed at the Josephys’. Another camper, Albert Barros, is now on the tribal council in Idaho. He brought a proclamation from the Tribe honoring Alvin. Betty Josephy, Alvin’s wife, was honored too — Albert called her “mom.”
Bobbie Conner, who is now the director of the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute on the Umatilla Reservation and is of Cayuse and Nez Perce descent, spoke movingly of listening as a child as Alvin talked with her grandfather. She also spoke movingly of this Wallowa land, thanked those of us who live here for loving it and taking care of it, reminded us why her people tried so hard to hold onto it.
Which reminded me that Alvin once told me that the Nez Perce claim to the country still had some merit. Now, in the library of books he left us, and in the writings of Grace Bartlett, the local historian who put together a day-by-day account of the last days of Indians here, I consider this. In 1873, President Grant came to the same conclusion, that the Treaty of 1863 was invalid. He rescinded the treaty, and determined that the Nez Perce should have half of the Wallowa Country. His agents went so far as to assess the improvements on the land in anticipation of paying off the settlers (some $68,000).
It didn’t happen of course. Some settlers were dug in, there were Indian haters in nearby Union, and there was fear of Indians engendered by the Modoc troubles. Finally, fears rose to fever with Custer’s debacle in 1876, and the Nez Perce War followed in 1877.
That is a too-short history story. To learn more, one could follow the Nez Perce National Historical Park sites along the trail that took the Joseph Band and other non-treaties almost to Canada, where Sitting Bull is supposed to have waited for them.
Rich Wandschneider is director of the Alvin M. and Betty Josephy Library of Western History and Culture, in Joseph.