It’s early August and I’ve driven all night from Idaho to get to this historic place south of Missoula called the Big Hole. I have nearly missed the pipe ceremony out on the battlefield led by Horace Axtell, a Nez Perce spiritual leader. The circle of men seated on the ground, Indian and non-Indian, are all contemporary warriors—veterans of the military. The women and guests sit in a semi-circle behind them.
As the men pass the pipe, the smoke rises in visual prayer to honor those Nez Perce, or as they call themselves—the “Nimiipuu”—who died or were wounded here 125 years ago. This ritual is one way descendents of those who fought here to preserve the tribe’s way of life formally recall the severe losses that occurred during the 1877 Nez Perce War.
I look around as Axtell, the chosen leader of tribal ceremonies, prays openly in his native language and notice that some of the women are crying. The emotional landscape seems as open as the countryside. It’s not surprising.
The battle that took place here on Aug. 9 and 10, 1877, was the bloodiest of the entire four-month long conflict. Most of the Nez Perce casualties were women and children—family members and close relatives. In a close-knit society made up of bands of several extended families, such losses are deeply personal, the grief overwhelming. Surviving Nez Perce warriors said they never heard such death wails. In the words of one woman who survived the battle: “They had not done wrong to be so killed.”
Big Hole was a tragic turning point in the Nimiipuu struggle to maintain their way of life, says National Park Service military historian Jerome Greene. At a basic level, it’s a human story about honor and the fight for liberty. The Nimiipuu overcame adversity against all odds to maintain their cultural beliefs, their very identity. “It’s an epic story of betrayal and tenaciousness, and one that needs to be brought to the attention of the American people,” says Greene.
The 1877 Nez Perce flight from reservation life took them through Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming. But the most significant battles of the 1877 war were fought in Montana near Wisdom, Laurel and Chinook. The modest state highway signs that mark the historic Nee-mee-poo Trail belie the tragedy of a people who suffered and died along this route at the hands of the U.S. Army. A people once strong and united were divided and scattered at the end of the 1877 war, then banished to reservations in three states—Oregon, Washington and Idaho—as well as Canada.
The Nez Perce today are still a divided people and still at odds with the dominant society. It is one reason why descendents of those who fled and fought in 1877 come together to remember what happened 125 years ago—to mark the chain of events that altered their way of life forever.
From the beginning, the Nez Perce were hospitable to the “suyapos,” or white people, who continually invaded their territory. Their first encounter was in 1805 with none other than Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark whose lives and expedition they rescued.
Eventually settlers followed the Corps of Discovery, edging into traditional Nez Perce territory, which was protected by an 1855 treaty with the United States. The settlers kept coming and cattle barons and gold miners followed. A land grab was soon underway.
The cultural conflicts and political pressure became too great for the federal government to ignore and the result was a new federal policy to place all Indians on reservations. A new 1863 treaty was drawn up by the United States to replace the original 1855 treaty with the Nez Perce creating a reservation in Idaho that was a fraction of their original homeland.
But there was one significant problem: What became known as the “Steal Treaty” of 1863 was not signed by leaders of several Nimiipuu bands—notably Chiefs Joseph, Looking Glass, White Bird and Toohoolhoolzote.
These non-treaty Nimiipuu bands continued to live outside the new reservation boundaries until May of 1877 when they were forced under the U.S. military command of Gen. Oliver O. Howard to comply with the new treaty or else. Nearly 800 non-treaty Nimiipuu men (including 150 warriors), women and children were forced to abandon their traditional homelands in Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains and around the Snake and Salmon Rivers and move onto the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho.
While they were en route to the reservation at Fort Lapwai, the rising tide of cultural conflict finally spilled over. Three angry young warriors took revenge on rancorous settlers for the murder of one of their fathers. These three men would be called “Red Coats,” not only because they wore red blanket coats, but because their bloody deed triggered a conflict nobody wanted.
Overnight their journey became a flight to freedom and a fight for survival. Beginning at White Bird Canyon near the Salmon River in Idaho, the Nimiipuu successfully fought several skirmishes and battles against the pursuing U.S. Army, embarrassing the military command of Gen. Howard.
Believing that their departure from Idaho would end the conflict with the federal government, the Nimiipuu crossed the Bitterroot Mountains and the Idaho territorial boundary at Lolo Pass and Lost Trail Pass. Leaving relatives behind in Idaho was not only devastating, it was the beginning of the fracturing of the Nimiipuu’s cohesion as a tribal group. Weighing the consequences, many of them rejected the alternative of white domination on the reservation. What happened next changed the course of Nez Perce history forever. On Aug. 8, they stopped to rest and camp at a traditional buffalo hunting camp—Iskumtselalik Pah, “the place of the buffalo calf,” a grassy, open country where the Big Hole River meanders beneath mountain peaks.
It was a beautiful and warm summer day. The women cut lodge poles from the nearby forest and set up dozens of clustered teepees near the river. Men hunted for game. Children’s laughter mimicked the songbirds in the river willows as they ran and played. Thousands of horses grazed hungrily on the hillside.
Still, some of the warriors were worried. One, named Wottolen, told of bad dreams—of a river running red with blood. He believed his “weyekin,” or guardian spirit, was warning of impending danger. But Looking Glass, head chief during this period, said the people needed time to rest and renew. They had been on the run a long time.
The next morning in the hour before dawn, with the Nez Perce people still asleep in their teepees, a regiment of infantry and volunteers under Colonel John Gibbon opened fire on the village from across the river. Attacking sleeping villages was a common military tactic at the time. Three volleys and advance, three volleys and advance, three volleys and advance.
“It was a massacre,” says Marcus Oatman of Kamiah, Idaho, an elder and a descendant of those Nimiipuu who survived the battle at Big Hole. “My grandma says them guns were just hitting the tent and the tent poles were just shattering. Raining down on her.”
People scattered to hide in the willows along the riverbank or underwater. The soldiers then set fire to the village.
Of the some 90 Nez Perce killed, two-thirds of them were women and children. Oatman recounts his grandmother’s story, about how one of the Red Coats, Wahlitits, was killed defending the village. “He got his rifle and went out (of his teepee). His pregnant wife was there behind him. He got killed. She picked up the rifle and shot the soldier that killed her husband.” Another soldier killed her.
As he continues telling me his grandmother’s stories, he begins to choke up. It appears that even after 125 years, the emotions are still raw.
“I’ve been here a lot of times,” he says. “It was pretty powerful the first time I came here. It seemed like you could feel the dead people all around you…It’s kind of crushing, you know.”
He continues his lament: “Old women, women and children. Even little babies, shooting and tromping their heads. I always think about that. I couldn’t do that.”
Traditionally, for a Nez Perce to kill a woman would be the basest of acts, a sign of incredible weakness. But to kill a child, especially a baby, that was not even imaginable. Ironically and sadly, the first victims of the Big Hole attack were a new mother and her newborn baby.
We’re sitting in the bunchgrass talking. Everyone else has left the circle except for Clifford Allen, another elder from Idaho. Oatman is visibly upset and rises to leave. He says that he really can’t talk any longer about what happened here at Big Hole. I shake his hand and say I’m sorry. What else can I say?
Historian Greene says the Big Hole battle was treated in the media in 1877 as retribution for the murders the Nez Perce Red Coats committed back in Idaho’s Salmon River country. “The Army, as an instrument of federal policy, was viewed as being successful in that regard in striking that sleeping village,” says Greene. A carryover from the Civil War, the tactic was designed to emotionally disarm the Nez Perce. “The idea was to hit the man’s family and his resources, as well as his military institution. The purpose was to end the war and hopefully save lives.”
But to Clifford Allen the idea of attacking a sleeping village only connotes military cowardice. He tells of his great-grandfather, a warrior who fought here and was wounded. They called him Husis Owyeen, Wounded Head, during the war. He later escaped to Canada and eventually returned to Idaho and the Nez Perce Reservation. He was renamed Shot-in-the-Eye, See Lu Paau Yeen. Allen now carries that name.
Allen and I rise and begin walking along the Big Hole River. He tells me he has what some might consider a visionary’s gift.
Sometimes he sees in his mind’s eye what his grandfather could not—the actual battle scenes in full, bloody detail. For him they are a source of constant sorrow. He gazes down into the river that is flowing quietly before us. He shows me then how the underwater grasses waving with the current look like the long, black tresses of Indian women’s hair. Then I listen as he relays one of the images he can’t keep from his mind.
The first week of October last year, on a clear blue, crisp day I travel for the first time north of Great Falls and east past Havre to the site of the last battle of the 1877 conflict: Bear Paw. I’ve researched and written about the Nez Perce War for four months. Besides visiting White Bird Canyon and Big Hole—the site of the bloodiest battle—I also spend time in Yellowstone National Park with tribal elders documenting the tribe’s amazing flight through the park’s wildest terrain.
After Yellowstone, the Nimiipuu changed their course and headed for Canada, hoping to escape the federal troops once and for all. They soon wound up at Bear Paw.
Bear Paw’s mile-long, battlefield trail is not easy for any elder to walk. But Marie Arthur-Allman, a petite, wiry, gray-haired, 89-year-old Nez Perce is undaunted. She has traveled hundreds of miles from Pendleton, Ore., to see firsthand this treeless and rolling grassy plain south of Chinook.
Traditionally, it was known as C’aynnim ‘Alikinwaaspa, “the place of the manure fire,” due to the abundance of buffalo chips available for fuel.
For the past 125 years, however, it has simply been known as a sorrowful place. The Nimiipuu were so close to freedom, having already come 1,300 miles to Bear Paw, which sits only 40 miles from the Canadian border.
When they arrived on Sept. 29 they were exhausted and destitute. They had fled the Big Hole without most of their possessions. Many had no blankets and the nights were getting much colder. The sky threatened snow and they were already freezing cold. There was little food available and they were getting weak with hunger. Some were starving. The crying of the babies and little children was beginning to unravel the people’s resolve to continue on.
As at Big Hole, Chief Looking Glass decided that the people had to stop to rest even though they were only two days’ ride from Canada. Time and time again they had eluded Gen. Howard’s army and like at Big Hole, they believed Howard to be far behind them.
But tragically, once again, they were surprised. This time on the open plains by another military detachment—the 7th Cavalry—infamous from Custer’s “Last Stand” the summer before and armed with new recruits riding for revenge under the command of Col. Nelson Miles.
Here with me at Bear Paw, walking along the battlefield trail while leaning on the arm of a younger relative, Arthur-Allman speaks with strong emotion. She details the conflict here between her Nimiipuu ancestors and the Army.
“The shed blood cries out from the earth. We still feel it today. The blood remembers what happened here,” she says stopping for a few silent moments near the marked campsites of the White Bird band. “My relatives fought for their lives. Too many died.”
The Army came swiftly with the pounding of horses’ hooves. The Nez Perce warriors were on foot. Bullets flew and buzzed overhead. In their desperate condition, some of the people ran for their lives. How would they ever survive this final challenge to the 1,300-mile flight for freedom that took them through Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming?
Those who held their ground staunchly defended their families while trying to shelter themselves from the military onslaught and the cold by digging pits into the frozen ground with whatever tools they had—root digging sticks, knives, pans and their bare hands. The cavalry stampeded the horses; many were shot and killed. Some Nez Perce escaped on horseback or foot.
Arthur-Allman pauses to reflect and then retells the story about her grandfather, Mark Arthur, a boy of 10 during the Bear Paw battle, who was a tender of the horses. The sadness in her eyes changes into the steely color of familial pride. The siege was in its sixth day. Dozens of people on both sides had been killed, dozens more were wounded. The boy’s mother sent him running north. He wanted to stay and fight to protect her, but she shouted him away.
In the end, the boy escaped on foot through the veil of a blinding snowstorm and under the cover of darkness. Eventually members of Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa Lakota band found him and brought him back to their camp for shelter. Under normal circumstances, the Lakota would be enemies to the Nez Perce, but because of their mutual disgust for white dominance, and in the aftermath of Custer’s Battle at Little Bighorn, being the enemies of the 7th Cavalry superseded such traditions.
Mark Arthur was among 150 or so Nez Perce who escaped to Canada that October night, most of them under the leadership of Chief White Bird. The rest stayed with Chief Joseph, who the following morning surrendered his rifle to protect the wounded, and the women and children. He was the only other chief still alive to defend 400 other Nimiipuu who lay in the shelter pits, nearly frozen to death and starving. Joseph’s words still echo the deep desperation that was felt from losing so many of his people: “My heart is sad and sick…I will fight no more forever.”
The Nimiipu captives in U.S. Army custody were exiled to Oklahoma Indian Territory. Many died from intolerable conditions. Years later, only those who professed Christianity were allowed to return to the Idaho reservation. Others, like Joseph, who maintained traditional beliefs, were exiled to the Colville Reservation in Washington. Some of those who escaped to Canada returned home to Oregon to live on the Umatilla Reservation. Mark Arthur stayed with the Lakota people for 14 years. He was reunited with his mother in Lapwai on the Fourth of July.
As a great, great-grandmother, Marie Arthur-Allman says the burden of trauma continues to be carried in the hearts of the Nez Perce people, generation after generation. “If the (United States) government would apologize, it would relieve us from our grief, from our disappointments, and give us a lift,” she says. “Some (of the Nez Perce) are bitter and sad and they don’t care to better themselves. I think if they (the United States) would apologize, it would help us, especially help the younger ones. This is our native land. We tried to live the life we knew. The ancestors’ strong prayer is still with us to survive and carry on.”
Certainly, the Nimiipuu collective heart is still sick over what happened that long summer 125 years ago. A divided people living on three reservations, the Nez Perce people are still fighting for their freedom, for unity.
Last summer, after the Bear Paw commemoration, Clifford Allen, the elder I first met at Big Hole and a descendant of one of the warriors who escaped to Canada, went looking for his relatives who never returned to the United States. He found an 80-year-old woman in a nursing home in British Columbia whose grandfather was his great-grandfather. In tears, she told her relative that some Nimiipuu are still hiding out. They’re afraid to be found because they might be ripped from their established homes in Canada and exiled to the reservation in Lapwai. For them, the war has never ended.
Annual commemorations of the 1877 Nez Perce War formally end at Bear Paw on Oct. 5, the anniversary of Chief Joseph’s surrender.
Around the same time, the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine peoples of the Fort Belknap Reservation have honored the Nez Perce people with a memorial powwow and generous hospitality there since 1977. On that 100th anniversary of the war, some 900 Nimiipuu from all over the West traveled here to honor their dead.
Gerald Stiff Arm, a Gros Ventre leader from Fort Belknap honored the visiting Nez Perce last year with these words: “The journey your ancestors made is symbolic of the journey that each of us make.
When we look back, we claim the pain of our past and we also renew our understanding of the challenges. We are always told by the elders to look forward, to hold our head high. To give thanks to the Creator for the most precious gift—life.”
At Bear Paw, after all the speeches and thanks are given, a pipe ceremony is held similar to that at Big Hole. A special ritual also takes place that involves several Nez Perce riders on horseback.
Horace Axtell usually leads the group attired in white buckskins and an eagle-feather war bonnet. Horses are saddled in traditional ceremonial garb and the other riders, dressed in the regalia of 1877, include a younger man to represent the warriors, a woman and a youth. The youth leads a riderless horse that is saddled with blankets. Some of the blankets are giveaways for friends and powwow hosts at Fort Belknap. The special relationship that the Nez Perce have with the horse is honored with this ceremony. The riderless horse symbolizes all the Nimiipuu ancestors who suffered or died during the 1877 war.
Last year, Axtell spoke directly to his people for several minutes in his native language. At times, he choked up with emotion and could barely speak. His great grandfather was among the warriors killed here defending the women and children. Later, he addressed the rest of us in English.
“We all understand what happened here with our people,” he said. “We know the reason why they were here and why they lost their lives—it was for us now. A lot of (cultural and spiritual) things have disappeared but we are bringing it back, trying to make ourselves as powerful as our people once were. As the years go by we get stronger.”
As the ceremony progresses, the riders and their horses ride silently in single file circling the people gathered here three times—a number of wholeness.
One of the many people gathered, Kay Kidder, a member of the Looking Glass band, came here from Idaho. She said it’s hard to express in words all that she feels in a place like this. There is sadness, but there is a hopeful determination as well. She said that the commemoration has connected her to the heart of her people. It has helped her understand who she is, clarified her identity as Nimiipuu. “We are going to stand our ground in this great country. We’re going to protect our land, our memories, our people, and our children so that we thrive for a very long time.”
This year the Nez Perce and other people gathered here at Bear Paw to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the 1877 Nez Perce War are greeted during the ceremony with a downpour of rain that masks their tears. Everyone endures the inclement weather and no one leaves the sacred circle. Axtell and the other elders who have traveled so far to join their relations at Bear Paw are especially pleased that for the first time more than 20 Nez Perce youth have joined the commemoration. It’s a good feeling, he says, to see them here. It’s a hopeful sign for the future of his people.