Joseph, then 37, spent much of his life trying to return the band to the Wallowas, but he finally died on the Colville reservation, having returned only once to his father's grave near Wallowa Lake. By then, it had been looted. The skull, it is said, rested in a local dentist's office.
"I'm a history teacher. I'm very aware of . . . what's happened here. I just feel like it's the right thing to do," Crenshaw says of the land hand-over and the proposed interpretive center. "There are some wounds that run real deep, and I feel like if we could heal those wounds, it would be real good."
Added Don Greene, a retired business executive who has also joined the move to bring back the Nez Perce: "The history is the treatment of the indigenous people is pretty consistent by our government across the continent.
"I felt that if we could develop an atmosphere of welcoming, rather than exclusion, we would all be the better for it."
The moves have not been without controversy. A woman who runs a local surveying business wrote a letter to the the Chieftain, protesting the community's annual Chief Joseph Days celebration: "Indians have a history of being pagan, warlike and often vicious," she declared. "It is time to face facts. Do you truly want your young people selling tickets for, promoting and participating in the witchcraft rituals of Indian worship?"
At the Ranger Rider saloon in nearby Enterprise one night last week, Elizabeth Grote leaned on a pool cue and looked skeptical. "I don't mind 'em coming here," she said, "but I don't see why we should have to give any land back."
Under the agreement that transferred the land to the tribe, the money will come from the Bonneville Power Administration's $252-million-a-year budget for repairing fish and wildlife impacted by its enormous hydropower dams. No Nez Perce can move onto the land, and no development can be undertaken, but the land will be open to hunting, fishing and other uses. The Nez Perce will manage the land, which will be open to the public, and the tribe is now preparing a plan to govern its use.
Bowen Blair, vice president of the Trust for Public Land, said the idea began when a number of conservation groups talked of acquiring the ranchland as an important link in preserving a wide swath of wilderness near the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area that is home to thousands of elk, black bear, cougar, bighorn sheep, steelhead and the endangered redband trout.
Yet converting private ranchland into public wilderness would have been a political impossibility in the conservative Wallowas. That's when Blair thought of the Nez Perce, who already had a good relationship with the county commissioners through years of working together on salmon recovery. The fact that it would mean going home for the Nez Perce lit a fire under the idea.
"The history of the Nez Perce turned this from a great project into an incredible project. Frankly, the sense of justice of this property going back to the Nez Perce gave it an advantage that most wildlife projects would not possess," Blair said.
Pinkham, who formerly headed the Nez Perce tribe's natural resources department, credits the growing muscle of native tribes with government agencies struggling with declining natural resources.
"People today are scrambling to reframe their views of the natural world," he said. "When the tribe comes to the table, we bring our attorneys and our biologists and our experts, but we also bring our spirit. And I think a lot of people are starting to use that point of view to reframe their own views of nature. For us, it's become a new avenue to protect our way of life and protect and rebuild our communities."
For most of the elders gathered on the meadow this week to name the new land, politics played a back door to memory, and the memories were sweet ones. One elderly woman, Priscilla Craig, recalled how her family came down from the reservation and rode the Wallowa on horseback all summer long in her youth; she struggled between the dreams and memories welling up inside her, trying to tell the difference. "There's a stairway that goes up the mountain, I remember something about that, but I can't remember what it is," she said. "But I see this ground, and to think, maybe I ran around on this ground. Maybe my little tracks are here somewhere."
Agnes Andrews Davis, daughter of the last named chief of the Chief Joseph band on the Colville reservation, recalled the years when her father provided a home for Chief Joseph's two wives, by then elderly women.
"I heard a lot about this place from the old ladies, and I used to wonder as a little girl, 'How come she's so lonesome for someplace else?' Seemed like she doesn't like it where we're at," Davis said. "Then I went to Wallowa Lake, and when I went there and looked at that lake, I realized why that old lady would sit there and cry."
In the relentless rain that drenched the afternoon, a parade of umbrellas tracked out along the meadow, over the edge of the bluff to where you could look down into the soft green folds of the canyon. Husbands and wives walked side-by-side in silence; a mother ushered her two young children ahead of her; some walked alone.
"I brought my kids here, and I told them, 'We're gonna go get our land, we're gonna go get our land back,' " said Annette Penney, who drove from Kamiah, Idaho, for her first view of the valley. "I can't say I feel angry about what happened. Kinda sad that we lost a lot of people a long time ago. But I think now they're here rejoicing with us," she said. "I feel blessed."