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The Nez Perce tribe resumes annual powwows after pandemic hiatus

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

The Nez Perce tribe has long been working to reclaim part of its heritage by holding powwows on ancestral land. After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, it recently resumed the annual celebration. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Antonio Sierra reports from northeastern Oregon.

ANTONIO SIERRA, BYLINE: The powwow called the Tamkaliks Celebration is named after the Nez Perce word for where you can see the mountains. But on a hot summer afternoon, most people at the campground don't have their eyes on the Wallowa Mountains.

FRED HILL: But I want to welcome you here to the 30th annual Tamkaliks Celebration here in Wallowa, Ore. We've anticipated this for quite some time.

SIERRA: Soon, dozens of dancers in full tribal regalia flood the center of a small wooden arena, their dance accompanied by drums and song.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

SIERRA: Since 1991, descendants of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce have gathered in rural Wallowa County in the northeastern tip of Oregon for the celebration. The event began as a collaboration between a group of non-Native Wallowa city residents and Taz Conner, a Nez Perce tribal member and U.S. Forest Service employee.

Bobbie Conner is Taz's niece and a tribal historian. She says the intent was to welcome the Nez Perce back home.

BOBBIE CONNER: It wasn't really an agreement to help boost tourism. It wasn't an agreement to help with economic development. It was an agreement that we needed to welcome home to this country - the Wallowa country - the people whose ancestors were sent out of this country in exile in 1877.

SIERRA: The Nez Perce lived in the Wallowa Valley for thousands of years, but their lives were upended in the late 19th century. The Wallowa band was one of more than a dozen groups who lived across the inland Northwest as members of the Nez Perce tribe. After the band refused to sign a treaty that would have removed them from their land, the U.S. government sent the army to force them out. Led by Chief Joseph, tribal members fled more than 1,000 miles from eastern Oregon to western Montana while they repeatedly battled with the army along the way.

Master of ceremonies Fred Hill says tribal members pass on the story both as a way to honor ancestors and educate future generations.

HILL: It's for them to have what our early elders had fought for. You know, they stood their ground, and we're still standing our ground.

SIERRA: After Chief Joseph surrendered, the remaining band members settled on the reduced Nez Perce reservation in Idaho, the Colville Reservation in Washington and the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon. The Wallowa band had no formal presence in the county that bore their name until the Tamkaliks Celebration began more than 30 years ago. It was a hard sell for some tribal members, like Celeste Whitewolf, who recalls her skepticism about working with the non-Native organizers.

CELESTE WHITEWOLF: They're the ones that chased us out. They're the ones that killed our women and children. They're the ones that prevented us from gathering our foods off of the land and hunting and fishing. Why would they want us back here?

SIERRA: Whitewolf says she was won over when she spoke with the white organizers and realized their sincerity about wanting tribal members as neighbors.

WHITEWOLF: So it was a total different community of people who live here now that took our land, but they want us to come home to our land.

SIERRA: Whitewolf now serves on the board of the nonprofit Nez Perce Wallowa Homeland. The group has purchased more than 300 acres in the area so that tribal members can return to their ancestral land year-round.

For NPR News, I'm Antonio Sierra in Wallowa, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Antonio Sierra