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Washington State's Wenatchi Indians Ask for Return of Land - 2003-07-02


The Wenatchi Band of Colville Indians in Washington state is asking Congress to transfer thousands of hectares of land back to tribal control. This follows similar requests by the Klamath and Coos tribes in neighboring Oregon for large parcels they claim were unfairly taken away by the government decades ago.

A few years ago, the great grandsons of the last chief of the Wenatchi made a pledge. Matthew Dick and his brothers assured their dying mother that they would try to get the reservation the government promised to give to the Wenatchi tribe, but never delivered.

"When we was young our mother used to bring us down here four or five times a year and take us all over the Wenatchee Valley," said Mr. Dick. "Like this place here. She'd point out places that we used to do this here, do that here."

Indians harvested wild carrots and camas roots in the broad mountain meadow where Matthew Dick and his brother William now pace.

This land is now owned by the state of Washington and private individuals. But Matthew Dick recalls stories about a time, long ago, when 3000 Indians would gather to trade and race horses in this dazzling, flower-strewn meadow. Two more recent historical events stick in the retired tribal council member's mind: the year 1855, when the Wenatchi chief joined the Yakama peace treaty between a dozen tribes and the U.S. government and in return was promised a 9000-hectare reservation near here… and 1894, when an unscrupulous government agent arranged the sale of that tribal homeland to make way for the railroad.

"Our historian I guess came up with the word of 'fraud.' That's what it was, outright fraud, because they lied about everything," he said.

The last Indians left the valley before Mr. Dick was born. But this sixty-year-old Wenatchi says he would move back "in a minute" if he could.

"Because this is what our home is. And it's where our identity is," he said.

But the Wenatchi traditional lands are now home to numerous apple orchards and a booming mountain resort town with many Bavarian touches.

The faint aroma of sauerkraut hangs in the air in downtown Leavenworth. Merchants pipe polka music into the town square as tourists stream in and out of shops and restaurants. Matthew Dick says they have nothing to worry about, the tribe will seek no private land as it presses its claim for the return of about 9,000 hectares.

"We've got a feeling of how that feels to have your land taken out from underneath you without you having any kind of say so about it," he said. "We would never do that to any of the people around the Wenatchee Valley."

Instead, tribal members have approached Congress seeking the transfer of national forest and fish hatchery land in and around the valley. Non-Indians have lots of questions about the proposal, many of which the tribe is not prepared to answer.

"Questions about how they would use the land," said David O'Neil, who lives on property that abuts the national forest. "There's a lot of concerns that I hear about casinos and smokeshops and some of my favorite hiking places. You know, would we be able to go out and use that land too and share it?"

The Colville tribe says simply it will manage the property to benefit its displaced constituents. Despite the unanswered questions, Mr. O'Neil is prepared to support the land transfer, as is part-time teacher Milt Anderson of Leavenworth.

"It looks like it's something that's been swept under somebody's carpet for a 150 or so years here," he explained. "It's about time, I'd say, somebody got a handle on it and made what's been wrong, right."

The two men came to an informational meeting where the Colville Tribe presented its case in a highly produced video.

No one from the Leavenworth area at that meeting spoke against the proposed transfer. In fact, the only organized opposition comes from another tribe. When the Wenatchis left their ancestral lands, some including Matthew Dick's mother, went east to the Colville reservation. Others went south and joined the Yakama Nation. Yakama tribal council member Jerry Meninick says if any land is transferred back to the Indians, it should go to the Yakamas, not the Colvilles.

"The Colville Tribe has no authority to be even be discussing the Wenatchapam fisheries or the lands around there," said Mr. Meninick. "The Wenatchi Band is part of the Yakama treaty. We have the fathers of treaty signers that are buried there."

The uncertainties and conflicting claims are causing Washington's congressional delegation to take its time evaluating the Colville Tribe's proposal. In Oregon, the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians have had better luck. Republican Senator Gordon Smith has introduced legislation in Congress with the backing of the timber industry to transfer 25,000 hectares of National Forest to the landless Coos tribe.

In southeastern Oregon, the Klamath Tribes are seeking nearly 300,000 hectares of National Forest to re-create a reservation that was taken away during the Eisenhower administration [early 1950s]. The Klamath are negotiating directly with Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

Matthew Dick and his brothers say they're prepared to be patient. They'll need to be because none of the land requests are moving quickly.

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