the film
Commentaries and editorials

Nez Perce Tribe won't Build Casino and
won't Take Water Rights in Dam Deal

by Rebecca J. Miles, Commentary
Wallowa County Chieftain, May 3, 2007

This May is the 130th anniversary of the forced removal of Nez Perce people from the Wallowa Valley. Nez Perce descendants today live and work across several Indian reservations and around the world. It is odd that, at this moment in history, there are rumors of the Nez Perce Tribe's 'intentions' in Northeast Oregon, and little recognition of the positive work of the tribe in this special homeland.

Please question rumors that portray the tribe in a hateful way and people who spread such rumors. The tribe has no intention whatsoever of building a casino in Wallowa County; none whatsoever to alter anyone's water rights; none whatsoever to 'evict' anyone from any land. Rumors so mean-spirited are generally ignored, rather than responded to; these comments are an exception.

The irony - and consider it a painful irony - is that it is our ancestors who were 'evicted' from this land, and that it is we who have come to accept the world as it is and are working to be neighbors regardless the past.

People ask, because of a recent court case, about 'tribal sovereignty' and 'sovereign immunity.' These are fundamental aspects of what it means to be a separate, self-ruling government. Indian tribes are not clubs or casual organizations; they are political governments. No one can sue the U.S. without its consent, nor a state without its consent. The same is true of Indian tribes. One way to grasp this is to consider that the Nez Perce Tribe, as a sovereign government, entered into a treaty with the U.S. in 1855, four years before the State of Oregon existed. It should not be surprising that the tribe is treated by federal and state governments and by courts today as a sovereign government possessing the attributes of other governments. These are not 'special rights' 'given' to tribes. Indian treaties are contracts that gave the United States the land that comprises this country today, and in turn retained political rights and powers that continue today.

In the meantime, please recognize the actual work of the tribe in Northeast Oregon:

The tribe's Department of Fisheries Resource Management contributes over $2.4 million annually to Wallowa County's economy through multiple restoration projects. It provides 18 family-wage jobs and six part-time jobs. It is not working to introduce endangered fish species to the area; it is precisely working to remove species from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and rebuild these runs through recovery efforts, providing harvest opportunities for Indian and non-Indian fishermen alike.

The tribe has done this together with the State of Oregon on the Imnaha River, opening a Chinook fishery in 2001 for all fishermen for the first time in 20 years. The tribe hopes the future Northeast Oregon Hatchery on the Lostine will assist in rebuilding fish populations as well.

The tribe worked cooperatively with public and private county partners to propose comprehensive rehabilitation of the Wallowa Lake Dam, through federal legislation championed by Senator Gordon Smith. This legislation appears unlikely to pass, but if it did, the tribe would obtain no control of water rights through it, and if sockeye were reintroduced to Wallowa Lake, they would not be listed as 'endangered' under the ESA.

The tribe has bought the unoccupied former 'carriage house' in Joseph as office space for its fisheries employees who formerly leased space in Enterprise.

The tribe owns and manages over 16,000 acres adjacent to Joseph Creek. Through county-tribe agreement, the tribe voluntarily makes payments in lieu of taxes on this land, pays for state fire suppression, collaborates with neighbors on noxious weed suppression and provides public access in areas where none existed prior to its ownership.

The tribe and its employees, both on and off-duty, participate in the culture of the county. Tribal employee volunteers have assisted with Enterprise Summerfest and Winterfest parades, with Joseph Days and Imnaha Canyon Days parades, with the Tamkaliks gathering in Wallowa, and with the Nez Perce Art show at Wallowa Lake. Tribal representatives serve on the County's Natural Resources Advisory Committee and the Grande Ronde Model Watershed Board. Tribal employees have provided public educational information through a college environmental studies course, through public meetings, radio interviews and newspaper statements, and through local school classroom presentations.

On the 130th anniversary of one of the saddest moments in Nez Perce history, please consider looking for accuracy in what you hear about the Nez Perce Tribe, and consider acknowledging the tribe's financial and social contributions to Wallowa County.

We ask no more, but hope for no less from you. Thank you.

Rebecca J. Miles is the Chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, governing body of the Nez Perce Tribe, headquartered in Lapwai, Idaho.
Nez Perce Tribe won't Build Casino and won't Take Water Rights in Dam Deal
Wallowa County Chieftain, May 3, 2007

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