Commissioners in northeastern Oregon’s Wallowa County have approved plans for an upscale subdivision near the grave of Old Chief Joseph, land considered culturally significant to the Nez Perce Indians.
The Nez Perce and two other Northwest tribes had challenged plans for 11 homes on 62 acres near the grave on a site that is also a trailhead of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail.
Chief Joseph, son of Old Chief Joseph, followed the trail in 1877 in a 1,500-mile fighting retreat from the U.S. Calvary that ended with his surrender near the Canadian border and exile of his band from the Wallowa Valley.
In a heartbreaking surrender speech to U.S. Gen. Oliver O. Howard at the other end of the trail, Chief Joseph said: “I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
Tribes had linked the grave and the area of planned development with this tragic chapter in their history, and said they hoped that the land would be made into a park or preserve.
They had also contended that the property, on a grassy ridge at the foot of picturesque Wallowa Lake, held archeological sites and possibly American Indian graves. Nez Perce tribal members once camped on the land, fished sockeye salmon from the lake and hunted in the Wallowa Mountains.
“We are extremely disappointed with the county’s decision,” Anthony D. Johnson, chairman of the Nez Perce tribe, said in a statement. “This decision ignores ... the enormous public interest in protecting the site.”
The county commissioners made their decision Thursday, approving the subdivision with modifications. The tribe said it would appeal to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals within 21 days.
The developer, K & B Limited Family Partnership, will be required to conduct another archeological survey before building, Commissioner Ben Boswell said. Two previous surveys found chips from tool-making but no clear evidence of graves or village sites.
Boswell said county officials were also discussing options for a public buyout of the land to prevent development.