Joe McCormack began catching salmon on the Columbia River in his teens. It was then that he began to connect with his Nez Perce heritage. After serving with the Marine Corps in Vietnam, Joe was hired by the Nez Perce Fisheries to manage and monitor the return of native fish species whose migrations have been impeded by a series of dams. Nez Perce Fisheries was created in the 1980’s after the Nez Perce Tribe won several lawsuits affirming their right to use resources, like fish, on their “usual and accustomed lands”. As co-managers with the US government, tribal employees protect, monitor, raise, and research fish like salmon, steelhead, and lamprey.
Joe is also exercising his rights, delineated in the Treaty of 1855, by freely grazing cattle on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. His Nez Perce heritage and tribal membership allow him to bypass the usual grazing allotment system and other bureaucratic hurdles. Joe reflects that this would not have been possible 30 years ago since the ranching community was resistant to native land use rights, viewing them as unfair special privileges. The opposition was so strong that he would have feared for his life. Now, Joe is able to experiment with different grazing strategies, as the Wallowa community has grown more aware of the historic treaties that provide context for his rights.
Joe has been working for the tribe for 21 years and has no plans for retirement. “This is a great life,” he says. Over these years, Joe has witnessed the return of salmon to many of their native streams, alongside the return of his people to their traditional lands. Though he is only one of two Nez Perce living in the county, each year the tribe holds a powwow that gathers the Nez Perce community together in their homeland. Joe explains that this celebration opens the door for friendship and respect between the local community and the Nez Perce Tribe.
By: Sarah Dunn