Land was home to Methow ancestors
The scent of burning sage carried on the breeze Friday afternoon (June 24) as Methow descendant Ernie Brooks blessed the land at Wagner Ranch, where dozens of people gathered to celebrate the return of 328 acres of land to the indigenous people who have from time immemorial called it home.
The land at Wagner Ranch, which has been renamed x̌ʷnámx̌ʷnam, or Hummingbird, was purchased by the Methow Conservancy last fall. On May 19, the Conservancy signed a deed transferring ownership of the land to the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, 12 bands the include Methow descendants. Just over a month later, Methow descendants and the Confederated Tribes hosted members of the Conservancy and community at a ceremony formally recognizing the transfer.
“It’s kind of an emotional feeling, knowing that our elders that once were here before are here with us today,” said Andrew Joseph Jr., chairman of the Colville Business Council. The business council is the governing body of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
Located just north of Winthrop and to the east of the Chewuch River, the land at Hummingbird boasts open fields, river access and multiple buildings, offering a promising future for conservation and cultural gatherings. At Friday’s gathering, attendees took in the ceremony from white Adirondack chairs set up beside a pond lush with yellow flag iris and rose bushes.
The ceremony opened with traditional prayer and song, followed by remarks from Winthrop Mayor Sally Ranzau and members of the Confederated Tribes and Conservancy. After the presentation of gifts and the blessing of the land, guests shared a salmon bake lunch.
Sarah Brooks, executive director of the Methow Conservancy, said the land-back movement has been a gradual process, with small portions of land being returned over time. The return of Hummingbird to the Confederated Tribes is by far the organization’s most meaningful project yet — but that kind of partnership has taken time.
“We have not always had our eyes open to the potential for returning land and for partnership,” Brooks said. “And several years ago in our strategic planning process, we recognized that we were probably missing something important in our role.”
The Confederated Tribes originally approached the Conservancy six years ago seeking land acquisition expertise, with the hope of securing Hummingbird. Before a purchase could be made, the property was bought by the Western Rivers Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust. When it went back on the market last June, the Methow Conservancy jumped at the opportunity to purchase it.
After a conversation with Methow descendants, the Methow Conservancy launched a massive fundraising effort, raising $3.6 million in roughly three months, Brooks said.
“We took a really deep breath,” Brooks said. “We’ve never raised that much money in that short amount of time.”
Brooks said before opening the campaign to public donations, the Conservancy reached out to specific community members it had built relationships with over time. One crucial part of fundraising was inviting these donors out to the property to tell the story of the land.
“Everyone really resonated with the idea that we’d be giving land back,” Brooks said. “That was the driving factor for the money we raised.”
Brooks said it was important to the Methow Conservancy to give the gift without any restrictions, like a conservation easement or parameters around land use. Nevertheless, the Methow people have stewarded the land in the Methow Valley for generations. Now in the care of Methow descendants once again, Brooks said the property is rich with opportunities for conservation.
Not only is the land home to many native plants, it also sits along 1.6 contiguous miles of relatively untouched river, making it a promising site for salmon spawning and fish habitat restoration. The hills across Eastside Chewuch Road also serve as a wildlife corridor.
Hummingbird will be conserved under the guidance of Methow descendants through Confederate Tribes ownership, according to a May 19 joint press release. Joseph said as caretakers of the land, the Confederated Tribes intend to protect it as much as possible.
Before being displaced by colonizers, the Methow people lived off the land, harvesting medicines and foods like bitterroots, sarvis berry and salmon, Joseph said. He hopes a return to the land will bring with it a renewed ability to gather those traditional foods and medicines, improving the health of members of the tribal community.
“This place is probably the closest thing to heaven back in the day because it provided everything that our people needed,” Joseph said. “The cure is getting back to the way we used to live.”
But the land and water hold significance beyond the resources they provide. Joseph said they also have strong cultural significance. He hopes this new site can serve as a meeting place for retreats, youth culture camps and traditional gatherings like winter dances, naming ceremonies and first harvest ceremonies.
These cultural opportunities will be especially important for Methow youth who may never have participated in ceremonies or had a place like Hummingbird to do personal and spiritual reflection, Joseph said.
Joseph said he thinks of the earth as spinning top; as it slows down, it starts to wobble.
“The world is wobbling now, and in order to get it back in sync our younger generation’s going to have to learn about … their spiritual upbringing and really caring about the land and the water,” he said.
Friday’s land-back ceremony was a time for community members from all sides to express their sincere gratitude. Brooks said she was grateful for the patience that the Confederated Tribes and Methow descendants have extended to the Methow Conservancy during such a learning process.
Joseph expressed a similar appreciation.
“To me, it’s such a gift,” he said. “It touches our hearts so much, it’s really priceless.”
Brooks said the Methow Conservancy is open to future partnerships. In her remarks at the ceremony, she admitted it felt strange to be thanked by the Confederated Tribes for what she felt was simply doing the right thing. And yet in this case, “you’re welcome” seemed the perfect response.
“You’re welcome on this land, you’re welcome in this valley, you’re welcome in this community,” Brooks said.