A Legacy of Native Lands—Land&People

In October 1996, The Trust for Public Land acquired a 10,000-acre former cattle ranch in the remote Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon and conveyed it to the Nez Perce Tribe. During an emotional dedication ceremony, Nez Perce elder Horace Axtell stood in a gentle rain overlooking Joseph Canyon and named the newly acquired ranch Hetes’wits Wetes, or “precious lands.”

Precious indeed. Wallowa in the Nez Perce language means “land of the winding waters,” and Hetes’wits Wetes lies near three magnificent rivers: the Snake, the Salmon, and the Grande Ronde. And this is Chief Joseph country, indelibly associated with a great Native American leader. Joseph’s father is buried south of the ranch, at the foot of Wallowa Lake, and Nez Perce elders say that Joseph was born nearby, perhaps on the property itself. Chief Joseph and his band lived peacefully in these river valleys and mountains until 1877, when they—with their horses and whatever possessions they could hurriedly gather—were forced by the United States Army across the freezing spring torrents of the Snake River, leaving behind Oregon and their Wallowa homeland.

The Trust for Public Land spent years negotiating and funding the acquisition of this property so that the Nez Perce could return to the Wallowas for the first time since 1877. Without the tribe’s leadership, credibility, and authority, and TPL’s creativity, patience, and willingness to undertake substantial financial risk, this land might never have been restored to its proper owners.

The project gave rise in 1999 to TPL’s Tribal & Native Lands Program, founded to help tribal governments acquire and protect their ancient homelands. TPL had conserved lands with and for Native Americans prior to the project. But working closely with the Nez Perce on Hetes’wits Wetes and gaining an understanding of Native history helped us realize that there was much more TPL could contribute throughout Indian Country. In the years since, TPL’s Tribal & Native Lands Program has worked with more than 70 tribes to protect 200,000 acres valued at $150 million.

Now this work is entering a new phase with the emergence of the Indian Country Conservancy (ICC) as a fully independent organization spun off from TPL. Led by Charles F. Sams III, a Native American who has been director of TPL’s program, the new conservancy will be able to attract funding available only to independent Native American organizations. Also, as a smaller organization it will have the flexibility to tackle projects that TPL’s program cannot take on. TPL will continue to conserve land for and with tribal governments and hopes to partner with ICC when a project would benefit from TPL’s size and resources.

TPL has a long history of incubating and nurturing good conservation ideas that eventually take flight as independent organizations, including the Center for Creative Land Recycling, spun off in 1999, and California ReLeaf, an urban forestry group founded out of TPL’s Western Regional Office in 1989. In the 1980s, TPL helped launch and train many local land trusts. Based on such experiences, we feel confident that the Indian Country Conservancy will become an important partner for TPL in its efforts to protect land for Native people nationwide.

A History of Land Loss

Surely there is a need for the two organizations to work together toward this goal. The history of Native lands in this country since European settlement is a painful one. Native communities and Indian nations are land-based. By 1886, however, tribes had been forced to cede more than 2 billion acres to the United States, retaining 140 million acres by treaty, mostly as reservations. Less than 50 years later, despite treaty guarantees, tribes had lost two-thirds of their already reduced land base and were left with only 48 million acres, almost half of which were desert or semidesert. Non-Natives now own the majority of land within many Indian reservations in the West, including the Nez Perce Reservation.

Losing their lands has had a profound impact on Native people. Many tribal leaders believe it is the most significant factor in the economic, cultural, health, social, and spiritual challenges facing Native Americans today.

Restoring these lands is deeply important to the tribes involved. It can also be important in ways that transcend the project itself. The return of the Nez Perce to Hetes’wits Wetes, for example, struck a chord throughout the world. Front-page articles about the event appeared in dozens of major U.S. newspapers and in media from as far away as the Philippines, Thailand, and Russia. People were reminded of the injustices suffered by Native people when their lands were taken from them. Many may have seen the reuniting of the Nez Perce with their land as a small but symbolic step toward healing relationships—whether between people or between humans and the earth.

Such healing does not occur overnight. In celebration of the Nez Perce return from exile, the school board in Enterprise, Oregon, a community close to the project site, voted to banish the offensive name “the Savages” from their high-school teams and to change the team mascot, an ugly caricature of a Native American. A public backlash ensued, angry town meetings were held under police supervision, school board members were recalled, and eventually the student body voted to retain the Savages name but change the mascot. But nine years later, in 2005, the school’s students voted again, this time to change their team name to the Outlaws.

Returning ancestral lands to Native people has power: Power to educate about historical injustices that still affect us all, whether Native or non-Native. Power to inform non-Natives about how Native people live today, on or off reservation. Power to teach why a landscape is important—not just for its beauty but also for its history, culture, and ability to sustain and transform lives.

On this web page you will find photographs of some of the many Native leaders we have worked with during the first decade of TPL’s Tribal & Native Lands Program. The launch of the Indian Country Conservancy should make the next decade even more rewarding for all of us who benefit from the protection of Native lands.

Former TPL senior vice president Bowen Blair founded TPL’s Tribal & Native Lands Program. In his more than two decades at TPL, he served as a project manager, state office director, regional director, and national director of projects. He is now the conservation director of the Indian Country Conservancy. TPL thanks photographer Nancy Kittle for the use of her images of TPL’s Native conservation partners.

Native Conservation Leader Gallery

InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness, California
Priscilla Hunter

The nation’s first intertribal wilderness was established in 1997 on 3,845 acres of redwood forestland along the northern California coast. This land holds great cultural significance for local tribes, which in the mid-1980s helped stop clear-cut logging of coastal old-growth redwood forests and formed the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, a nonprofit land conservation organization comprising ten federally recognized tribes with direct ties to the Sinkyone region.

From the mid-1800s through the early 1900s, Sinkyone people were massacred and driven from their land, with some survivors joining neighboring tribes. The InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness preserves a small portion of the original Sinkyone Indian territory. TPL, along with the Pacific Forest Trust, the California Coastal Conservancy, and others, assisted the council in reestablishing Indian control of the land and in executing easements that ensure permanent conservation of its sensitive cultural and ecological resources.

Priscilla Hunter—a member of the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians—spearheaded the effort to create the council and has served as chairperson since its inception. “The council is really focused on developing and implementing very positive initiatives that benefit the land and our communities,” she says.

Quinault Indian Nation Ancient Forest, Washington
Pearl Capoeman-Baller

In Washington State, an 1873 survey deprived the Quinault Indians of 12,000 acres that ended up in the surveyor’s family—a common way land was stolen from Indians in that time. Forested in massive old-growth cedars, this remote property was finally repatriated to the Quinault Indian Nation in 1988. Strapped for cash and needing to harvest timber on parts of the land, the Quinault sought federal logging permits, which were denied due to the presence of endangered species.

Quinault leader Pearl Capoeman-Baller had heard about the Tribal & Native Lands Program and sought its help. TPL helped craft a solution under which the federal government would purchase a conservation easement over a portion of the property, protecting habitat for marbled murrelets and northern spotted owls. Proceeds from the purchase would go to the Quinault Nation, which would retain its land. Thanks to Capoeman-Baller’s leadership, the nation agreed to the plan, and federal funds for the easement were secured.

Later the Quinault Nation engaged TPL to create a “greenprint” of its lands, mapping them for conservation, cultural values, fisheries, timber, and other uses. This unique tool allows the nation to prioritize and facilitate land acquisition for a range of purposes, from economic development to salmon restoration to preserving cedars for traditional canoe construction.

Wao Kele o Puna, Hawai’i
Palikapu Dedman

In 1893, after American and foreign businessmen aided by the U.S. military illegally overthrew the Kingdom of Hawai’i, all government and crown lands were seized by the new provisional government. Their ownership was transferred to the United States in the controversial annexation of 1898, and in 1959 to the newly formed state of Hawai’i. In this process, Native tenants lost their claim to those lands, and until 2006 no Native Hawaiian entity held title to these “ceded” lands, which Native Hawaiians rightfully own.

Included in this massive transfer of land and wealth was a 26,000-acre rainforest called Wao Kele o Puna, which today is the last large intact lowland rainforest in the state. Even after the forest was traded into private ownership, generations of Native Hawaiians continued to practice traditional hunting, gathering, and religious customs there.

In 1982, after the landowner received state approval for a geothermal development on the site, the Pele Defense Fund, led by its president, Palikapu Dedman, organized intense community and Native Hawaiian opposition that eventually halted the project. In 2001, Palikapu Dedman contacted TPL for assistance in acquiring the property for cultural and conservation purposes. After five years of work, TPL conveyed the land to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, marking the first large reacquisition of ceded land by an organization representing Native Hawaiians.

Lyle Point, Washington
Johnny Jackson and Wilbur Slockish

At the confluence of the Columbia and Klickitat Rivers in the eastern Columbia Gorge is a point of land known by the Native Columbia River people as Nanainmi Waki ‘Uulktt: “the place where the wind blows in two directions.” Native people have lived and fished here for thousands of years. They also buried their dead here, and the land is considered sacred.

In 1992, the approval of a 33-lot subdivision at Lyle Point threatened to cut off access to the tribal fishing site. Under the leadership of tribal elders Johnny Jackson and Wilbur Slockish, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation and Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation sued to stop the subdivision, and environmental groups held a series of protests that included a nine-month encampment on the site.

Protecting the site was crucial to the well-being of the tribes’ ancestors and living members. Throughout the litigation and protests, TPL negotiated with the landowners while discussing with tribal members how to protect and steward the site. As plans for housing moved forward, TPL elected to acquire the property to save it from development. Finally, in 2007—15 years after development was first approved for Lyle Point—TPL transferred the remainder of the land to the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation.