Main Street: Becoming history

Rich Wandschneider

I went to the land-use hearing on the Marr Property at the foot of the Lake last Tuesday, and it reminded me of packed courthouses at other land-use hearings over the years.

It must be over 20 years ago that there was a proposal to build condominiums on top of the terminal moraine in the area across the highway directly north of the Lake. You couldn't get a seat in the courthouse. A parade of ranchers and farmers, young and old, newcomers and old-timers strode to the podium to talk about the piece of ground surrounding the Lake. How it had always been there and shouldn't be changed. How we really didn't want or need passenger jet airports and the economy that goes along with condos.

That proposal was swallowed into Wallowa County history like a long ago proposal for a colossal statue of Chief Joseph to straddle one of our rivers - I can't remember which one. The Joseph Colossus had some Indian as well as white proponents, and an internationally known sculptor lined up to do it. According to Steve Evans in his fine book "The Voice of the Old Wolf," the Great Depression had as much to do as anything with the failure of the idea.

There was another proposal for a giant statue of Chief Joseph. This one was part of a development that would have had houses and a statue of the Chief horseback at the moraine's crest. It would have been visible from Eggleson Corner, half-way between Enterprise and Joseph. That proposal also met a courthouse throng of new and old, young and ancient, agriculture and Indian.

I think that was the time that the notion of a "National Geological Park" was brought up by a professor at Whitman College. He said that the moraines should be spared further development because they are the finest example of terminal and lateral "moraine" in the country.

The resolution of that hearing allowed for a few additional houses on the moraine, but the development and the statue were not approved. Sometimes I think about that as I'm driving towards Joseph and the sun shines on the moraine where that statue was going to perch.

Maybe there was a crowd like that in Enterprise at the turn of the last century, when Young Joseph made his last trip to the county and last plea for a small piece of his homeland. However big the crowd was, it didn't give him any land or an invitation home. And it seems ironic that we have a statue of him in Enterprise now, and that there have been efforts by some to put one on the moraine, when a hundred years ago local citizens didn't want his real self here at all.

At the most recent hearing they talked a lot about archeology, a subject I know little about (I do know that there is one royal legal, scientific, cultural brouhaha going on over Kennewick man across the river in Washington). History is easier for me to get a handle on. And the two hearings mentioned above are history. There are written records of them, and living memories of them. That old Joseph Colossus is in books. It's an historical idea. And the story of Old Joseph's reburial is history. There are stories in the Chieftain archives that you can go and read anytime you want. And you can ask Dan Deboie Sr., because he was there in 1926 when that event took place. There are pictures of it in the museum. The horse and travois that brought the bones up from McAlexander's field near Wallowa. There's a man at Alpine House who knew the horse that pulled that travois. The horse's owner was from Prairie Creek, and although I've written his name down a couple of times, I can't find it right off.

There are pictures too of another reburial ceremony that was held later, after an all-Indian CC Crew from Mission came over and built that wall around the grave site and put a reservoir up on the hill that fed the drinking fountain that is still there. There were lights around the wall too. You can find evidence of that if you look.

Vern Russell knew some history about this end of the Lake. He told me that they dug up Indian graves when they built Wahluna Terrace (the ranch style homes above the Lake on it's north end). Vern said there were other graves there as well, mostly, as I recall, on the Wahluna side of the highway. I guess the graves part of that is more archeology, but building Wahluna Terrace and digging up the graves is history.

The Wahluna development had a racial covenant in it as I recall. African Americans were to be excluded - probably Indians too - from owning or building there. If Wahluna had not been built 60 years ago, it might not have been built at all. It certainly would not have those racial covenants attached.

When I set out to write this piece after going to the Marr hearing, I thought that I would contrast changing notions of property use, about not letting "profit" or "development" or "private property rights" and other legalisms trump the idea that land can be sacred. I wondered if the hearings were about jockeying for a higher price, and I thought about following ownership and money trails and making a pitch for "reasonable profit."

In the end, although all of these things are worth considering, I think that controversy over this piece of property is about history. And it is about each of us, in the time allotted us on this good earth, trying to do the right thing in honoring those who have gone before us and telling those to come where we've been.

History is about our mistakes, and about our triumphs. In this hundredth year of the anniversary of Young Chief Joseph's death in exile - an event that is already bringing national attention to the Nez Perce Story - all of us, those directly involved and those standing on the sidelines as the good citizens of Wallowa stood on the sidelines for Joseph a hundred years ago, are writing and becoming history.

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