Reconnecting to the land, culture and each other

Annual gatherings in northeast Oregon are working to bring people together, heal historical trauma and reconnect Indigenous people with their ancestral homelands.

By Kelsey Kuhnhausen January 6

The story below is a part of the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts’ 2022 “State of the Land” report. You can find the full report here.

In the Wallowa Valley, an annual traditional gathering event in collaboration with Wallowa Land Trust, tribal members, The Nature Conservancy and Nez Perce Wallowa Homeland (NPWH) is working to bring people together, heal historical trauma and reconnect Indigenous people with their ancestral homelands.

Born out of a series of listening sessions with tribal members at three different reservations in Oregon, Washington and Idaho, the first gathering took place in 2019 on two privately owned lands in Wallowa County.

“Our goal in visiting the Nez Perce Tribe, Colville Confederated Tribes and Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation was to listen deeply and understand how our conservation work intersects with the needs of tribal members. What we heard over and over again was this theme of displacement and land loss,” said Kathleen Ackley, Executive Director of Wallowa Land Trust.

“Internally we began to question the role we play as a land trust in this loss of access to lands, tradition and culture for Indigenous families in our region. How did our colonial conservation culture exacerbate this problem and how could we change that?”

What resulted was a weekend retreat hosted by the land trust for 17 traditional gatherers from four different reservations, followed by a community potluck. Touched deeply by the event, tribal members, landowners and community members pushed to see it become an annual tradition.

Wallowa Land Trust teamed up with The Nature Conservancy in 2021 to increase the size and scope of the event to meet the growing interest. Attendance nearly quintupled in 2021, with more than 75 tribal members gathering First Foods and medicines over the course of three days. Not only did the number of tribal members increase, but the number of landowners participating increased as well, welcoming gatherers to more than 36,000 acres of land.

“This experience has influenced how we think about land access and our work as a land trust. Now in our third year, we’ve learned a lot and we are humbled by how enthusiastic the participation has been,” said Ackley.

Going forward, they expect that the event will continue to be tribal and community driven. They’ve even brought on a project manager to build on the collaborative effort.

“One of the key takeaways that we heard after the 2021 gathering was a desire for more Indigenous leadership,” said Sarah Kleinhanzl, Communications and Outreach Coordinator for Wallowa Land Trust. “So hiring an Indigenous gatherer to be the Project Manager for the 2022 event was the clear path forward.”