Oregon is home to not only many different Indian tribes, but also to a number of distinctly different Indian cultures. These were as varied as the Tillamooks and Siletz on the coast, Modocs and Klamaths in the southwestern corner, Teninos and Wascos along the Columbia river and the Paiutes and Bannoks in the deserts of the southeast. The Wallowa mountains in northwestern Oregon has been the ancestral home to the Nez Perce tribe for at least 8000 years.
There are great differences in the cultures of the various tribes. Some lived in places of such abundance that they built their social hierarchy on giving things away. Some struggled to scrape a living from an arid, treeless desert. Some tribes were fishermen, some were slavers, some were horse breeders, some were traders and some were reavers. Each culture was the product of the interaction between the people of the tribe and the land they inhabited.
The peaks and valleys of Wallowa mountains is the heartland of the ancestral lands of the Nez Perce. I have traveled widely in Oregon, a state with an abundance of spectacular scenery. I can say with confidence that the Wallowa region in our northeastern corner has the best scenery that Oregon has to offer.
The Nez Perce tribe is at least as remarkable as their land. They were consummate horse-breeders and famous for their distinctively marked Appaloosa horses. Merriwether Lewis reportedly said in 1806 that they had the largest horse herd on the continent.
When the Lewis and Clark expedition came through in 1805-6 the Nez Perce had a thriving culture and, without their help, the expedition might have starved to death Although they were deeply attached to their land the Nez Perce were also open to new influences. It is not surprising that the first printing press in the northwest was set up in Nez Perce territory in 1836.
In spite of their friendliness towards the whites and their adaptability, they were under continually increasing pressure from encroaching settlers to give up their lands. Unlike some other tribes, their leaders were never persuaded to voluntarily sign away their homelands.
The Nez Perce knew what they had and held onto it for as long as they could. Finally the connection between people and land was broken in 1877 by the US government. Forcibly removed by the US Army, they made a dash for freedom that stands as a masterpiece withdrawal under fire for 1100 miles until they were finally forced to surrender by exhaustion and the weather a little short of the Canadian border. Once removed from the Wallowas, they were not even allowed to purchase private property there for many years.
It has only been in the twenty-first century that the tribe has been able to return to the Wallowa mountains and acquire some property in their ancestral homelands. In addition to the 15,000 acre Precious Lands Wildlife Area in northern Wallowa County, they also participate in the Wallow band Nez Perce Train Interpretive Center in the town of Wallowa Oregon.
The interpretive center is the site of the annual Tamkaliks Celebration and Friendship Feast. This is a celebration and recognition of the enduring Nez Perce presence in Wallowa country. Of all the pow wows and tribal events in Oregon, this is probably the most approachable for outsiders since it is organized explicitly as a bringing together of the tribe and the local community.
The celebration is held annually on the third weekend in July at the Wallowa band Nez Perce Trail Interpretive Center just outside of the town of Wallowa Oregon. It is a three day affair which customarily includes social and competitive dancing, singing, drumming, dance specials, encampment, horse parade, raffle, vendors, namings, memorials, Washat Service and friendship feast. When I attended this year the feast included salmon, elk and buffalo. Next year with be the 25th anniversary of the Tamkaliks Celebration so it might be an especially good time to plan a visit to Wallowa country.
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