Preserving Land and Memories

I didn’t see the email at first. It was kicked into my junk mail. It came from a friend who still lives in the county. He was writing to spread the word about a timber company preparing to sell land on the East Moraine of Wallowa Lake, and the efforts of the Wallowa Land Trust to raise funds to conserve the land as a community forest. 

My earliest memories take place on the banks of that clear blue lake. Family legends are told of the nearby ranch my great-grandfather once owned, the trees my grandfather felled there, and the crash that convinced my dad to give up the motorcycle. I have my own memories too. No matter where I’ve been or how long I’m gone, the county is the only place that always feels like home.

Image taken  just southeast of Wallowa Lake. 

When I read the email about the efforts to keep the land surrounding the lake public, I was reminded of another day at the lake. 

Holding his tuukas in one hand, Albert Red Star walks through the bunchgrass of the Zumwalt Prairie in Northeastern Oregon. His long black braids drape over his shoulders. He has come looking for camas and bitterroot. He has come to dig in the tradition of his people—Ni-míi-puu. The People. The Nez Perce. 

The Zumwalt Prairie is one of North America’s larges remaining grasslands of its type. The Nature Conservancy acquired the 27,000 acre Zumwalt Prairie in 2000—its single most expansive acquisition in the state of Oregon. Located on the western rim of Hell’s Canyon near the Imnaha and Snake rivers, Zumwalt is home to a variety of plants and wildlife—including ground squirrels, hawks, golden eagles, elk, and bighorn sheep. And according to the Nature Conservancy, it supports the nation’s densest known population of breeding birds of prey. 

It is July 15, 2005 and behind Red Star a group of about 25 to 30 writers from the local summer writer’s conference, Fishtrap, follow him through the dry grasses, asking questions about the yellow and purple plants in bloom. In conjunction with this year’s theme—Roots—they are taking part in the Nez Perce field trip, an afternoon jaunt to the Zumwalt Prairie, Buckhorn Canyon, and the Ponderosa Pine Grove. I am one of them. Red Star is our guide.

Stepping gingerly through the clumped grasses, I try to place each foot in the impressions the tall man ahead creates as his boots flatten the grass. But the long bunchgrass soon springs back scratching my bare legs. Respectfully listening to Red Star, I bend frequently to swipe the grassy fingers away from my ankles. A bee hovering behind my right shoulder makes standing still an impossibility. I flinch and move to keep the grass, bee, and sun from stinging my skin. 

Overlooking my attempts to evade the elements, Red Star demonstrates the tuukas’ usefulness for digging roots. 

The tuukas is a tool used by Native American tribes for digging roots, such as the camas and bitterroot that Red Star is searching for. The tuukas is in the shape of a T and about the size of a small shovel—three feet in length. It has a long, curved, pointed end made of iron that is pushed into the ground with a crossbar, usually bone or antler, which serves as its handle. Red Star tells the group that the tuukas is better suited for digging roots, because of its point and curve it digs bulbs up without damaging them, as a large, flat end shovel might.

As Red Star points out the various plants, he says, “I don’t see any camas or bitterroot that my people gathered here.” He confers with the bus driver and together they decide we’ve stopped at the wrong place. Red Star digs a different root and passes it around.

“You don’t want to dig all the roots in one gathering,” Red Star warns. “My people knew to 
leave some of the bulbs behind so there would be food the following year.” 

Before the white people came, q’uemas was dug by the natives of the Western United States.  The camas bulbs produce a white or blue flower. The plant was once so plentiful that in June of 1806, Meriwether Lewis compared camas fields to a clear-water lake. For the Nez Perce and their hunter-gatherer way of life, the camas root was a staple in their diet—rich in protein, vitamin C and iron. Harvested from early summer to mid-fall, the Nez Perce would spend weeks or months gathering at family-group harvesting spots. 

Camas roots are poisonous unless cooked. Traditionally, the Nez Perce cooked their camas roots in roasting pits. Camas bulbs do not keep well, so if they were not cooked, they were sun-dried and stored for winter use. When cooked, the bulbs are black all the way through, but if they are cooked too long, the Nez Perce strain the juices and mix it with honey to make a cough syrup.    

Before we head back to the bus, one of the writer’s asks Red Star about Joseph, chief of the Nez Perce. Just down the road, on the northern side of Wallowa Lake lies the burial ground of Chief Joseph. We passed it on the way up, but we didn’t stop. Red Star told us of the sacred site, and the offerings that people leave at the tall stone marker. Arrowheads. Beads. Feathers. Notes. Offerings of love and remembrance.

But Chief Joseph did not die here in the land where he was finally laid to rest. Joseph did not even spend his final years in the Wallowa region where he had buried his father, or even in Oregon for that matter. A greed for land and power forced a treaty upon Young Joseph, taking away the land of his ancestors. He resisted it, tried every possible appeal, but in 1885 he was forced onto a reservation in Washington—the Colville Indian Reservation. In 1905, Joseph died there at the age of 60. It wasn’t until 1928, when Joseph’s descendents and members of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce, decided to move his grave to the edge of Wallowa Lake, where they could protect it.   

Someone asks if we can stop at the burial site on the way back. A land use dispute has brought much attention to this burial ground where land owners seek to develop the property adjacent to Chief Joseph’s grave to build a subdivision there. The few Nez Perce left in the area are fighting it, trying to protect the grave site of their famed leader. But short on time, and burning underneath the summer sun, we cannot stop. The troupe files back into the yellow school bus where the vinyl seats stick to the back of our sweat soaked t-shirts. Windows down, dust fills the air as the bus turns toward camp. And I must strain to catch a glimpse of a single red ribbon hanging from a tree next to the tall stone pillar marking Chief Joseph’s grave. 

Would you consider joining me in protecting one of Oregon’s natural treasures? To learn how, visit