SCENE I - August 1877 - As the Nimiipu, or Nez Perce people, cross over Lolo Pass, one of the women begins singing in her native tongue about Jesus and the blood of his salvation. It is a bittersweet song: a farewell to the many relatives left behind in Idaho and a hopeful prayer for a new life in the buffalo country of Montana.
Their long journey began with a dangerous springtime crossing of the swollen Snake River. The people were being forced under military command to comply with a new national policy to place all Indians on reservations, as well as a new 1863 treaty drawn up by the United States to replace the original 1855 treaty with the Nez Perce people. The "steal" treaty wasn't endorsed or signed by chiefs Joseph, Looking Glass, White Bird or Toohoolhoolzote. Nevertheless, they had to abandon their traditional homelands in the Wallowa Mountains and around the Snake and Salmon rivers and move onto the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho, reduced to a fraction of their original territory.
While they were en route to Fort Lapwai, the rising tide of cultural conflict finally spilled over into what would become known as the Nez Perce War. 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 had triggered a conflict nobody wanted.
Since then, they had successfully fought several skirmishes and two battles against General Oliver O. Howard's army at Whitebird Canyon and along the Clearwater River. By now, Howard is many days behind them. Around 800 non-treaty Nez Perce men (including 150 warriors), women and children herding more than 2,000 horses are crossing the Bitterroot Mountains and the Idaho territorial boundary to escape the pursuit of the U.S. Army. Many of the Nimiipu are convinced that their departure from Idaho will end the conflict with the federal government that began two months earlier.
Leaving loved ones behind in Idaho was devastating, but many of them reject the alternative of white domination on the reservation. At least the suyapos (white people) living in the Bitterroot Valley had always been friendly to the tribe. Perhaps now in Montana, they will be free.
They arrive at Iskumtselalik Pah, the place of the buffalo calf, beside the Big Hole River, a familiar encampment from buffalo hunting days. The women cut lodge poles from the nearby forest for tepees. Children's laughter mimics the chatter of songbirds in the river willows. Thousands of horses graze hungrily on the hillside. But some of the warriors are uneasy. Some, like Wottolen, tell of bad dreams -- of a river running red with blood. He believes his weyekin, or guardian spirit, is warning of impending danger. But Looking Glass, head chief during this period, is convinced that, for now at least, peace is theirs. The people need time to rest and renew. So they set up their camp and the celebration begins -- eating, singing, dancing. It lasts long into the night.
The next morning, in the hour before dawn, a different regiment of infantry and volunteers under Colonel John Gibbon sneaks up on the village from across the river. The Nez Perce people are asleep in their tepees. The volunteers start shooting at an old man who is up early to check on his horses. Panic ensues. And the soldiers follow orders: three volleys and advance, three volleys and advance, three volleys and advance...
Big Hole National Battlefield, August 11, 2001
I've driven all night from Idaho to get to this spot southwest of Anaconda, Mont., not far from the Continental Divide. I make it just in time for the pipe ceremony out on the battlefield led by Horace Axtell, the Nez Perce spiritual leader. This ritual is one way the descendents commemorate their many losses. I look around as Horace prays openly in his native tongue and notice that some of the women are crying. The emotional landscape seems as open as the countryside. The battle here was the bloodiest of the entire Nez Perce War. It was a tragic turning point as well.
After people start to disperse, I ask one elder if I can interview her. She says she just can't speak about what happened here. It's too painful. She has tears in her eyes.
I wonder how, after nearly 125 years, emotions can still be so raw. Finally, Marcus Oatman of Kamiah, Idaho, agrees to talk to me. We sit in the bunchgrass facing the river; his friend Clifford Allen of Culdesac, Idaho, joins us.
"It was a massacre," says Oatman, an elder and a descendant of those Nez Perce 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 were ordered to burn the camp.
Allen explains that around 90 Nez Perce were killed, two-thirds of them women and children. Fighting at such a great disadvantage, many prominent warriors died as well. It was a brutal, cowardly act by the military, he says.
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 tepee]. 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.
Oatman begins to choke up.
"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 a newborn baby. I wondered if it was the baby born only days earlier along the Lolo Trail and celebrated as a symbol of the people's salvation and new life.
Marcus Oatman stands and says he has to leave, that he really can't talk any longer about what happened here.
Clifford Allen and I continue walking along the Big Hole River. There were other great warriors killed at Big Hole: Rainbow, Five Wounds, Sarpsis Ilppilp. He tells me his great-grandfather 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. As we go along, he tells me he that he has what some might consider a visionary's gift: he sometimes sees in his mind's eye what his grandfather could not -- the actual battle scenes in all their bloody, gory details. For him, they are a source of constant sorrow. He gazes down into the river that is flowing quietly before us. He shows me how the underwater grasses waving with the current look like the long, black tresses of Indian women's hair. Then he recounts one of the bloody tragedies he's seen....
Bear Paw National Battleground, October 7, 2001
I've been researching and writing about the Nez Perce War for four months now. It's been nearly two months since my visit to Big Hole, site of the bloodiest battle. I also spent time in Yellowstone National Park with tribal elders documenting the tribe's amazing flight through the park's wildest terrain. After Yellowstone, the Nimiipu changed their course and headed for Canada, hoping to escape the federal troops once and for all.
It's been a difficult couple of weeks since September 11. I awoke that morning with a dream of buffalo slain on a vast prairie, and it's getting harder for me even to think, much less write about this Indian war. But here I am at the last battle site of the 1877 conflict -- Bear Paw.
The 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 the treeless and rolling grassy plain near Havre, Mont., in north central Montana that's known as Bear Paw. Traditionally, it was called 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. As at Big Hole, the Nez Perce had stopped to rest and camp at Bear Paw, knowing they were only two days' ride from freedom in Canada, with Howard's army far behind them. Once again, they were surprised, this time assaulted on the open plains by the 7th Cavalry under the command of Colonel Nelson Miles.
Leaning on the arm of a younger relative as she slowly walks along, Arthur-Allman speaks with strong emotion, detailing the conflict here between her Nez Perce ancestors and the Army.
"We still feel it; we always will. The blood remembers what happened here," she says as she stops 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, the horses' hooves pounding. The Nez Perce warriors were on foot. Bullets flew and buzzed overhead. Hungry, cold and bereft of blankets or warm clothing, some people ran for their lives. How could they survive this final challenge to their 1,300-mile flight for freedom that took them through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana? The warriors staunchly defended their families while women and elders tried 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, their bare hands. Other Nez Perce escaped on horseback or foot. The cavalry stampeded the horses; some were shot and killed. The tribe's only glimmer of hope was that freedom was less than 40 miles away.
Marie Arthur-Allman pauses to reflect, then retells the story about her grandfather, Mark Arthur, a boy of 10 during the Bear Paw battle. 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 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, many of them under the leadership of Chief White Bird. The following morning, Chief Joseph surrendered. He was the one chief capable of defending the lives of 400 other Nez Perce who lay in the shelter pits, nearly frozen to death and starving -- those who could not escape the soldiers. Wounded warriors. Mothers and their babies. Old women and men. 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 captive Nimiipu were exiled to Oklahoma Indian Territory. Many died from intolerable conditions. Years later, 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 on the Fourth of July.
A divided people living on three reservations, the Nez Perce people are still fighting for their freedom. Certainly, as Clifford Allen reports, their collective heart is still sick over what happened that long summer so many years ago. Allen spent the days around the Bear Paw commemoration in Canada seeking out 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. She told Allen that some Nez Perce people are still hiding out. They don't want to be found because they are afraid of being ripped from their established homes in Canada and exiled to the reservation in Lapwai. For them, the war has never ended.
Jane Fritz is an independent writer who lives in Clark Fork, Idaho.