“Kakoná híisemtuks hiwséetu wéet’u máwa héeneku’ tuuqélenu.”
From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.
With these words, spoken on October 5, 1877, Chief Joseph, (hínmatóowyalahq’it), whose name translates to “the Sound of Thunder Coming Up Over the Land from the Water,” of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce, ended what became known as the Nez Perce War.
The first official battle of the war occurred nearly four months before, on the morning of June 17, 1877, near the mouth of White Bird Canyon, when 90 U.S. Army cavalry mounted a surprise attack on Chief White Bird’s village in the Salmon River Mountains. The U.S. army attack was in response to several young warriors who avenged past murders of relatives by killing several white settlers in their land (Joseph’s entire band was in essence voluntarily following Army orders at the time and was enroute to the reservation at Lapwai). The fighting ended quickly, and, afterwards, 34 soldiers lay dead, with only three Nez Perce warriors mildly wounded. The U.S. Army was both embarrassed and enraged, and the Nez Perce found themselves swept into a fight that they had initially sought to avoid.
LEAVING THE HOMELAND
Over the next four months, somewhere between 750 and 800 Nez Perce desperately fled for their lives, leaving their home in Oregon and traveling predominantly along ancient ancestral pathways east towards buffalo country, an area they thought offered sanctuary. They took with them all of their belongings and somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 head of horses. Less than one-third of the band was an active fighting force, only around 250 warriors. The balance comprised women, children, the sick and the elderly. And yet, this group of niimíipuu (translating loosely as “us people” or “the real people”), as they called themselves, embarked upon a journey away from their homeland that took them on a circuitous route across what are now four states (Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana). Their route took them through rugged mountain terrain, across raging rivers and over high mountain passes, as they eluded numerous military commands totaling more than 2,000 U.S. Army soldiers, civilian volunteers and scouts from other Indian tribes. They fought valiantly in more than 20 military engagements, some of which are still studied today for their battle strategy and tactics.
And while Chief Joseph was known to the niimíipuu as the “Guardian of the People,” his position as a great orator awarded him the distinction of being branded “The Red Napolean” for a military prowess he neither deserved, nor wanted. In truth, much of the fighting was led by other chiefs, including Chief White Bird (payóopayoox.ayx.ayx.), Toolhoolhoolzote, Chief Looking Glass-Wrapped in the Wind (’elelímyeté qenin’) and Ollokut (Chief Joseph’s younger brother and the leader of the young men).
On August 9, 1877, having eluded capture for two months and thinking they were safe in Montana after successfully crossing out of Idaho over Lolo Pass, the Nez Perce encampment along the Big Hole River was attacked. Two young warriors, Lone Bird and Wahlitits, had told of dreams warning of death if they stayed, but Chief Looking Glass felt they were safe from harm and, after passing into Montana traveling up the Bitterroot Valley peacefully buying provisions from local settlers, even Chief Joseph stated: “We understood that there was to be no further war. We intended to go peaceable to the buffalo country and leave the question of returning to our country to be settled afterwards.”
But the tensions that had begun months before were not to be resolved so easily and more than 70 years of peaceful relations between whites and the Nez Perce (the Nez Perce had aided the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805, sparing their lives and providing food, supplies and guides), ended in the summer of 1877 when General Oliver Otis Howard ordered Joseph and his people to the reservation at Lapwai, giving them 30 days to move their families and livestock, or be moved by the U.S. Army, by force.
SEEDS OF WAR
The tension was slow to build but steady in form. Fueled by the westward movement of a country in the throws of Manifest Destiny, and later, dizzy with the currency of the gold rush, it rose to a fever pitch after gold was discovered in Idaho in 1860—the progression of which is visibly highlighted in federal treaties and maps illustrating concentric circles of a shrinking Nez Perce territory. The Treaty of 1855, signed by over 60 Nez Perce chiefs, provided for 7.5 million acres of clearly designated Nez Perce territory—a substantial reduction from the estimated 14 million acres of aboriginal homeland, but viewed as a way to keep peace between the niimíipuu and the increasing numbers of white settlers and trappers. Five years later, encroaching prospectors struck gold in Idaho, and the federal government responded with the Treaty of 1863, which further reduced the Nez Perce landmass to 756,958 acres. The trouble with the 1863 Treaty was that many chiefs refused to sign it and angrily left the council gathering in disgust.
It was these bands that became known as the “non-treaty” Nez Perce after their refusal to sign (those who signed were known as the “treaty” bands). And it was the non-treaty bands that were engaged in a desperate flight to freedom when Colonel John Gibbon and his 7th Infantry charged them near the North Fork of the Big Hole River in Montana on August 9, 1877. They had been gathering camas (an edible root) the day before and were asleep in their tepees when the troops charged. The fighting lasted two days and at least 90 Nez Perce were killed, most of them women and children.
More battles followed and by the time the Nez Perce flight ended on October 5 at the Battle of Bear Paw, they had traveled nearly 1,500 miles from the Wallowa Valley in northeastern Oregon over treacherous mountain terrain through Idaho and Yellowstone and north into Montana, evading capture by two U.S. Army generals and numerous infantry and cavalry units. At the time of the surrender, they were just 40 miles from reaching the Canadian border where they hoped to seek asylum with Chief Sitting Bull, who had fled there after the Battle of Little Bighorn. Yet, even as Joseph was submitting his rifle to General Howard and Colonel Miles, marking the official end to the military portion of the Nez Perce War, White Bird was leading nearly 300 Nez Perce to safety in Canada.
A LIVING HISTORY
But the war was far from over. The Nez Perce, who, despite promises given during the surrender by General Howard and Colonel Miles that they could return to their homeland, were marched 265 miles to the Tongue River Cantonement in southeast Montana Territory. From there the approximately 420 Nez Perce prisoners of war (over 80 percent of whom were women and children) continued to Fort Buford, then the Dakota Territory before finally being loaded onto freight cars for the trip to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Conditions were appalling, with many Nez Perce dying, or worse, taking their own lives in despair. Virtually no infants born in Indian country survived, and Joseph would spend the rest of his days advocating on behalf of his people and looking for a way home.
In 1885, the 268 remaining survivors from the years in Indian Territory boarded a train for the trip home to Idaho. Only half made it there; the rest, including Joseph and the members of his band, were taken to the Colville Indian Reservation in northern Washington. Chief Joseph was never allowed to return to his homeland to live. He died on September 21, 1904, at Nespelem on the Colville Reservation.
The trail the Nez Perce traced during the events of 1877 has since been commemorated as part of the National Trail System enacted by Congress. In addition, the burial site of Chief Joseph and many other historical and sacred sites have been memorialized as part of the Nez Perce National Historical Park, which was established in 1965 to: “facilitate protection and provide interpretation of sites in the Nez Perce Country … that have exceptional value in commemorating the history of the Nation.” The park was expanded in 1992 and now comprises 38 component sites that extend across four states—crossing borders and creating a network of cooperating sites whose landowners might be state or federal agencies, Forest Service, private landowners, county and tribal; thus effectively opening the dialogue of peaceful coexistence that the Nez Perce leaders were perhaps striving to achieve leading up to the events of 1877. In recent years, many sites have been adjusted, in close consultation with tribal elders, to interpret history from the perspective of the Nez Perce people.
“It’s not the view, here, from the St. Louis arch looking West,” states Scott B. Eckberg, Idaho unit manager for the Nez Perce National Historical Park (NPNHP), “It is the view from the Nez Perce homeland looking out over thousands of years.” Eckberg continues by adding that it is no accident that the NPNHP headquarters are but three miles from Nez Perce tribal headquarters in Lapwai. “You’re here in the heart of Nez Perce country,” says Eckberg. “Rather than thinking of this as a place where you come to settle and exploit resources, we are encouraging visitors to understand the Nez Perce view, which is to look at the resources as a part of the experience of who you are, who your people are.”
“The Nez Perce National Historic Trail is important for a reason,” declares Josiah Pinkham-Black Eagle (tipyeléhne cimúux.cimux.), ethnographer for the Nez Perce tribe. “When the average American sees it, they see it from a historical perspective, yet, when the Nez Perce look at it, it is seen as a living trail, a vein to follow that protects a lifestyle which allowed us to endure for years and years in this place.”
To the Nez Perce, it is a trail that represents the future almost more than it does the past. It is a piece of the Nez Perce story, but it is not the only piece. Even though much of the story is shrouded in pain and trauma, death and anguish, empty words and broken promises, the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, and the National Park that accompanies it, has become a touchstone and a symbol of resilience to many.
STORY OF THE LAND
“To us, it is sacred ground, all along its length,” answers Nakia Williamson-Cloud (‘ipelíikt hil’amkaw’áat), Director of Natural Resources, Nez Perce Tribe, when asked about it at Nez Perce tribal headquarters earlier this year. “The ground you are walking on is made up of generations and generations of the people that came before. It is a story that speaks to our long relationship with the land. Our beliefs and our values are not something that we imposed on the land, but something that the land imposed on us. Our way of life was something that we interpreted from the land itself. (toomalwit) Our law. It’s not written on a page in a book, it’s written on the land.”
It is an impressive and formidable landscape sandwiched between the Cascade and Rocky Mountains and defined by wide open spaces and knife ridge valleys cut by rivers and wedged between massifs of towering rock, volcanic lava and clinging sage. High plains are interspersed with mighty river valleys and forests of towering pine. The Nez Perce aboriginal lands harbor incredibly rich, fertile ground beneath the rolling hills of the Palouse, an unusually rich prairie billowing out from the eastern edge of Washington into the Idaho Panhandle, as well as primordial salmon spawning beds once teeming with fish. It is rugged country, shocking in its dramatic beauty, yet productive to those who knew its secrets.
It is a land the Nez Perce knew well. Their culture represents a way of life that had developed over generations of interacting with it, the story of which is inscribed within their history and written into their language, passed down with words from family to family. And it is a land they felt compelled to protect.
“When we talk about the land, the resources (salmon, deer, elk, roots, berries), culture, language, spirituality,” Williamson-Cloud continues, “we are not talking about different things, we are talking about the same thing. They are one thing. The land is a defining feature to Nez Perce people. So the War of 1877 wasn’t just a fight over real estate. It was a fight over trying to preserve that connection that we have between life and land. It wasn’t trying to protect or fight for legal ownership of the land because the idea of owning land wasn’t developed. It was about being part of the land, and it goes back to our origin stories and how we view ourselves within that order.”
The origin stories are important.
Niimíipuu oral history, the stories of the people, records their presence in Nez Perce country since time immemorial. Place names reference events thousands of years old, and ancient petroglyphs and archeological records indicate that peoples have occupied the region for at least the last 11,000 years, which predates the great pyramids of Egypt. That represents countless generations following the same trails and pathways, carrying the stories of their people across eons of time.
Thomas Gregory (tátlo), language coordinator for the Nez Perce Tribe, cites the language, and specifically the oral tradition of storytelling, as an essential connection to understanding how to live more closely with the land. “Our language contains the knowledge of our survival and our being, so it is the language that will bring you back to our culture,” says Tátlo. “The words are living. The names are living, and the names tie you to the land. So when you pass on and they tell you your name, they will understand and recognize that concept because that name has been passed down as a piece of the land and the people.”
Bessie Walker, assistant language coordinator and a Nez Perce tribal member with direct lineage to Chief Looking Glass, adds that “if you can speak the language, then your ancestors can hear you, and you are connecting to something that is deeper than yourself.”
“It is our belief and our connection to this land that carries us and will continue to carry us as long as we adhere to those teachings,” says Williamson-Cloud when speaking about the connection to events of the past. “When we’re successful here at the tribe is when we are able to be a voice for those things that are so important to us, when we are able to be a voice for the land and the resources and all the things we depend upon; because they are all the things that, also, depend upon us.”
“The tribe endeavors to protect a sensitive relationship with the land,” reflects Pinkham-Black Eagle, who adds that the events in 1877 were about protecting that as much as possible. To the Nez Perce, salmon recovery is important. Wolf recovery is important. Re-vegetation at the Hanford Reach Nuclear Site is important. The work in controlling noxious weeds at the Nez Perce Bio-Control Center is important. It’s vital, all of it. And Pinkham-Black Eagle believes that speaking the language is an essential component of that because it ties the Nez Perce people to the wisdom of their ancestors.
“Languages are dropping off the map, and people aren’t concerned about it. Once an indigenous language goes in any part of the world, the biodiversity is not far behind,” states Pinkham-Black Eagle. “Once it is gone, there is nobody there to step up and fight for those plant stocks. It’s not just the language; it’s the cultural practices and the rituals behind it. And that’s why my speaking Nez Perce here in Idaho is important to somebody living in Los Angeles.”
Williamson-Cloud agrees, adding that the current approach to resource management views human existence as being separate from the natural resources, which creates a dangerously adversarial relationship with the landscapes in which we live. “That concept (natural resources), has no word and no precedence in our experience,” states Williamson-Cloud. “We see ourselves as being a part of these resources, so ‘managing the resources’ is like saying we are managing ourselves as people. To me, the resources, the land, is who I am. It’s simply what I am and what I value.”
“A citizen of the USA might stand in front of a mountain and see the incredible mineral gain they could gather from it,” adds Pinkham-Black Eagle, “but a Nez Perce sees that mountain as, not only a living entity, but as a part of themselves and an extension of themselves.”
The Nez Perce story is about language and the weaving of story: both the telling of them and the listening. To the niimíipuu, all of it—the language, the story, the very heart of things—is so intricately interwoven with the land that it becomes indistinguishable from the landscape itself.
It endures, standing like the invisible bond that a parent feels to a child, even after they have been raised and moved on. As long as you are living, you are still a parent, always a parent or the child of a parent. Honoring that relationship and that bond is something that is carried forward until your last breath—and that is how the Nez Perce view the land, especially the landscape into which they were born. From the verdant valleys of meandering rivers along the Wallowa to the rocky escarpment of Hells Canyon as it tumbles into the Snake and the clear running waters and mighty rivers once teeming with migrating salmon and steelhead within Idaho’s interior, that bond was so strong to the Nez Perce that they were, and still are, willing to fight for it.
“If you love something that much and are charged for the protection of something that is that precious and sacred to you,”
says Williamson-Cloud, “you will lay down your life for it.”
Tell General Howard that I know his heart.
What he told me before I have in my heart.
I am tired of fighting.
Our chiefs are killed.
Looking Glass (Flint Necklace) is dead.
Toohoolhoolzote is dead.
The old men are all dead.
It is the young men who now say yes or no.
He who led the young warriors
(Ollokut) is also dead.
It is cold and we have no blankets.
The little children are freezing to death.
My people – some of them have run away to the mountains and have no blankets, no food.
No one knows where they are —
perhaps they are freezing to death.
I want to have time to look for my children
and see how many of them I can find.
Maybe I shall find them among the dead.
Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired
and my heart is sick and sad.
From where the sun now stands
I will fight no more forever.
~Chief Joseph’s surrender speech as reportedly transcribed by C.E.S. Wood to General Howard and Colonel Miles late on the afternoon of October 5, 1877.