Still trying to catch up with our first week on the Listening Path.
We were staying in Salmon, Idaho for a couple of nights last week and took one day to drive up to Big Hole, Montana, a very moving site on the Nez Perce trail we’ve been following most of this week.
In an historical nutshell: The original Nez Perce Indian Reservation was created by a treaty in 1855 and included a big chunk of Idaho as well as the Wallowa Mountain region of northeastern Oregon. After gold was discovered, another treaty was drawn up in 1863 to move the Wallowa band over to Idaho and reduce the reservation by 90%. Those who would not sign (including Chief Joseph’s band from the Wallowas)–about 800 people and 1,000 horses–fled on a journey of 1,300 miles pursued by the U.S. Army in 1877. They travelled from Oregon to try to reach their allies the Crows in Montana but got no help there. Then, they decided to join Sitting Bull in Canada. The Army finally caught up with them in Montana just 40 miles from the Canadian border where the now famous Chief Joseph gave his “I will fight no more forever speech.”
The Nez Perce had already had several skirmishes with the Army but after passing safely through the long Bitterroot Valley into Montana they believed they were free. They erected their lodges, gathered food, put their ponies out to graze while children played along the Big Hole River. They danced and sang long into the night. Early the next morning they were attacked in their sleep by Army regulars and a number of volunteers from the Bitterroot Valley, who in some cases had recently sold supplies to the Indians as they passed their communities.
As shots ripped through their tipis many were killed in their sleep. The battle raged right in their camp as Nez Perce warriors rallied, holding off the U.S. soldiers to allow the women and children to run and hide in the willows. Many, many women and children were killed when the Army set fire to the tipis. The Nez Perce had to leave their wounded lying on the ground as they fled.
We found this a very moving site. With the help of survivors tipi poles were erected and show the specific lodges of many who were camped there that night. Members of the Nez Perce tribe gather here on Aug. 6 every year to commemorate and honor the lives of those who died there. When we met with some of the Nez Perce Presbyterians later, one of the women told us she would be there this year.