by Pia Hansen
Several generations of Nez Perce American Indians have settled around their elders to listen to stories about their forefathers, and the roles they played in the Nez Perce War back in 1877. They've heard about children clinging to the backs of their mothers as they headed out on horseback. They've heard about attacks by the U.S. Army and the bravery and smarts that continued to buy their ancestors a little more time, a little more headway, until they finally surrendered after spending three-and-a-half months on the run.
Now, a brand new book titled Nez Perce Summer, 1877: The U.S. Army and the Nee-Me-Poo Crisis, by historian Jerome A. Greene, promises the most detailed account yet of the Nez Perce's fight to remain off the reservation -- the raw truth, as he sees it.
"This is a book, I hope, that is written for anybody who is interested in this story. Some authors tend to rely on previous books when they write, but I don't base my conclusions on other people's books," says Greene from his office in Denver, Colo., where he has worked as a historian for the National Park Service since 1973. "I conducted research all over the country. From Moscow and Pullman to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and the Army War College in Pennsylvania."
On Friday, Greene will present his book and give a talk at the Museum of North Idaho in Coeur d'Alene.
For non-historians, Nez Perce Summer may look slightly intimidating, with its more than 500 pages, including maps, historical photos and illustrations, but Greene says there is no reason for readers to be afraid; he just likes to do a thorough job.
"This is a study of the Nez Perce War; it is not a study of the Nez Perce Indians per se. I strictly focus on the 1877 events, so this is not a complete guide to their culture or anything like that," says Greene. "It's documented because I feel it's important that it is, so people can find the sources I used. It moves through all the events preceding the war and what happened, and then follows the track of the Indians, to Montana back to Idaho and into Wyoming and back to Montana."
What happened in 1877 is legend among Native Americans. The Nez Perce were living on a seven million-acre reservation until 1863, when it was reduced by the government to about 10 percent of its original size. When the deal was struck, five Nez Perce chiefs -- including Looking Glass and the older Chief Joseph -- refused to give away their land and their independence by signing the new treaty. Their refusal soon led to the dissolution of the Nez Perce Federation, with one group staying on the reservation within the new boundaries, and another faction refusing to move onto the smaller reservation.
"Those were the non-treaty Nez Perce. They owned homes and land outside the reservation and they wouldn't move," says Greene. "Actually, the government had worked out a way of initially including their land, but because of political pressure this didn't go through."
As the years passed, the government continued to pressure the non-treaty Nez Perce to move onto the reservation, as white settlers continued to encroach on their land.
"The Nez Perce actually had a long history of friendship with the government, but they didn't want to go on the reservation. Then the Army became involved, trying to corral them and punish them for the outbreak, and the Nez Perce decided to leave their homelands for good," says Greene. "They took off over the Lolo Trail into Montana where they hoped to live peacefully with the Crow Indians they knew there. But some of the Crows were actually scouts for the army, and while they were in the Yellowstone Park area, a number of engagements were fought."
As they fought, the Nez Perce also traveled nearly 1,700 miles through some of the most rugged and difficult terrain on the entire continent. In the end, the younger Chief Joseph surrendered to the Army at the Bear Paw Mountains near Chinook, Mont. That's where he's quoted saying, "From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."
Of the estimated 800 women, children and men who headed out on the trail toward freedom in Canada, only about 150 made it that far. Between 100 and 150 were killed during the war or on the grueling journey, and another 100 Nez Perce died in exile in Indian Territory after the surrender.
"The battle at Bear Paw was the biggest engagement in the war. It lasted from September 30 to October 5, 1877," says Greene.
Incidentally, of all the sites described in Greene's book, Bear Paw is his favorite.
"It's in pristine condition, it's a very evocative site," he says, a sentiment he shares with the many Nez Perce who travel to that battleground to be near their dead ancestors.
Greene says he has always been fascinated by the so-called Indian wars, and as a historian at the Parks Department he sometimes comes across a commissioned study that matches his interest.
"I've done other books on the Indian wars, so I had some background going into this and I knew where to go to find information," says Greene. "The study lasted 20 months altogether, from February '94 to September of '95." He has worked on many other Parks Service sites, including former president Jimmy Carter's home and missile defense sites in Utah. Currently, Greene is working on a furnishing plan for the old hospital building at Fort Davis, Texas. The idea is to bring the old hospital building back to what it looked like in the 1880s, then open it to the public.
"I'm a military collector, and I use my collection to look at and get inspiration from," says Greene.
So how is this book different from other books about the Nez Perce war?
"I think it's different because of the level of detail, which means there is greater knowledge available about the war itself and about all the engagements and how they occurred," says Greene. "The battle at Bear Paw takes over 50 pages to get through, but that gets to the raw truth, and that's what I was looking for."
Jerome A. Greene presents his book at a talk
and book signing at North Idaho Museum, 115 Northwest Blvd., Coeur d'Alene, on Friday,
June 8, at noon. Call: (208) 664-3448.
Greene will also be in Coulee Dam, at City Hall,
on Thursday, June 7, at 7 pm.