Native American tribes land buybacks start a commercial approach to social justice

In part two of a two-part series, Special Correspondent Kira Kay reports on the Nez Perce tribe and its efforts to regain control of part of the 7.5 million acres of land granted to it by the U.S. government in the mid 19th century. Reclaiming that land, which was almost all taken after the tribe was violently driven away, has meant taking a more commercial approach to social justice.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    We continue our two-part report tonight on the growing movement among Native Americans to reclaim land that once belonged to them.

    Tomorrow, the U.S. Department of the interior is set to begin a series of consultations with native american tribes on how to return more land to tribal management – or even ownership.

    But much of ancestral Native American land is in private hands — causing tribes to take a more commercial approach to social justice.

    NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Kira Kay has the second part of our report.

  • Powwow Announcer:

    Ladies and gentlemen good evening from Kamiah, Idaho.

  • Kira Kay:

    The Chief LookingglassPowwow is the cultural and social event of the year for The Nez Perce Tribe. It is first and foremost an intense dance competition, held on the grass of the community center on the Tribe's Idaho reservation. Last year's powwow was cancelled because of COVID-19, so this is also a bittersweet reunion, with families camping together for the weekend.

  • Powwow Announcer:

    Here we go, Junior Girls Traditional.

  • Kira Kay:

    Dancers of all ages compete in various categories. Your rhythm and footwork are important… so is your personal flair, including the design of your regalia.

  • Karen Umtuch:

    These are elk teeth; imitation. But the real ones, only two comes with every animal. So if you have this many on there, your husband would have to be a very, very good hunter!

  •  Powwow Announcer:

    You have nobody to blame but yourself if you are out of shape, because you had a whole year to get into shape!

  • Kira Kay:

    Amidst the lighthearted banter and the impressive athleticism, there is also a nod to the tribe's tragic history: its war with the US army and expulsion from its homeland.

  • Powwow MC:

    We recognize our ancestors and the struggle and sacrifice that they went through. And it was during that time in 1877 that our people were driven out of this valley.

  • Kira Kay:

    The Nez Perce fought, and fled, across 1800 miles of some of the most difficult terrain on the continent. Old women and newborn babies were killed. The bloody pursuit ended in surrender and confinement for the survivors.

  • Shannon Wheeler:

    Where Oregon, Idaho, and Washington now sit, I like to call that — they're a part of the United Kingdom of the Nez Perce! And, and so each of those states have portions that lie within our territory.

  • Kira Kay:

    We met Tribal Vice-Chair Shannon Wheeler in the Wallowa Valley of Northeast Oregon. He's been coming here all his life, as a visitor.

  • Shannon Wheeler:

    The first thing you notice of course is Wa-walmuks, the mountains here. The second thing I noticed was the water when I'd come over here as a kid.

  • Kira Kay:

    But you would come and stay in a hotel on your land.

  • Shannon Wheeler:

    Yes, yes. Or a tent. Yeah.

  • Kira Kay:

    It remains a sacred and special place for the tribe.

  • Shannon Wheeler:

    Our people are buried all over here and there have been many inadvertent discoveries and their remains not handled correctly.

  • Kira Kay:

    The Nez Perce had lived on this land for 16,000 years. The US government granted them rights to 7.5 million acres, including the Wallowa valley, in an 1855 treaty made in exchange for access to trade routes to the pacific.

  • Shannon Wheeler:

    We agreed to live in peace. We agreed to do the things that we promised within the treaty and our people upheld those things.

  • Kira Kay:

    And the US. had accepted that

  • Shannon Wheeler:

    Yes

  • Kira Kay:

    And then changed their mind?

  • Shannon Wheeler:

    After gold was discovered. And so it took like 14 years, and then the United States army, well we're going to forcibly remove you now.

  • Kira Kay:

    Their land was reduced to a reservation only 5 percent of the size of the Tribe's original territory. Much of their sacred spots and rich farmland excluded. At the heart of the lost territory sits Am'saaxpa, or land of the boulders, where the most famous of The Nez Perce leaders, Chief Joseph, held his council. Today the nearby town of Joseph, Oregon has become an artsy tourist destination, celebrating Chief Joseph but with little hint of the ethnic cleansing that led to the creation of towns like this.

    Am'saaxpa became the Hayes family farm. But the last of the Hayes family died in 2014. And then, last year, a Tribal official got word: the property was for sale. Another bidder wanted to put a housing development on the land. but The Nez Perce pulled together 3.3 million dollars to buy it themselves.

    Coast to coast, other tribes are also buying back their lost land when it hits the market. In Maine, the Passamaquoddy saw a real estate listing and, with the support of an environmental consortium, bought back Pine Island.

  • Dwayne Tomah:

    What an honor to be above our land!

  • Kira Kay:

    They had been given it in thanks for their assistance to the colonists during the Revolutionary War, but lost it when Maine became a state in 1820.

    Near California's Big Sur, the Esselen Tribe bought the 1,200 acre Adler ranch, again with the help of a nature conservancy. An Esselen representative likened it to getting back the Tribe's Sistine Chapel.

    And just a few hours north, The Yurok tribe has spent 10 years slowly buying back more than 70 thousand of the half a million acres once taken.

    Back at the Idaho powwow, Nez Perce tribe members see their purchase as a reassertion of their identity.

  • Lucii Simpson:

    The government has had control over us, the army has had control over us, the Christian Churches have had control over us. And now we are getting back some of the power that we had in the past.

  • Stella Sammaripa:

    It does bring that healing and it also brings a responsibility for us to take care of that land again. I can't wait to go camp on that land, you know, just to set up a teepee, set up a tent!

  • Kira Kay:

    And this past July, a moment 144 years in the making: The Nez Perce returned on horseback to the land they now again own, for a blessing ceremony.

  • Shannon Wheeler:

    Those same bloodlines that had to leave are still alive. And that's what this ceremony was for, to be able to let those emotions out, so that our people could walk from this day forward with a better heart.

  • Kira Kay:

    Behind this good news though is the lingering question of whether paying for land rewards historical wrongs. The owner of this land though, he called it a business transaction.

  • Shannon Wheeler:

    Yeah. He was definitely all about business, uh, uh, and he benefited from it.

  • Kira Kay:

    There are people who might watch this and say, "Problem solved. They'll just pay for it." Are you worried that you're setting a bad precedent?

  • Shannon Wheeler:

    If we set a precedence of this is the way that we have to do it, then that's what we're having to do. Uh, as, at some point in time in the future, we would hope that the federal government would see that well, we, what we did was wrong.… The, the, this tribe and these people need to be compensated for that. We have to fight for every ounce that we get and if we have to pay for some of it, then that's what we have to do.

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