Landscape Of History: The Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) National Historic Tra

Uploaded by usdaForestService on 01.02.2012

>> NARRATOR: There is a landscape that begins in the deep canyons and fertile valleys of Oregon
and rolls like a ribbon through Idaho until it reaches the high plains of north central Montana.
Embedded in the fabric of this land and the people who live here is the memory
of one of our nation's most enduring stories. It is an epic story of hope, despair, and
ultimately loss of a homeland. Even though it happened long ago, this story remains as
current as today's headlines. This is the Nez Perce National Historic Trail,
and as you travel the landscape, this journey grows more significant with time. For thousands
of generations the people who call themselves "Nimiipuu" used this trail across the mountains
to visit friends and relatives on the plains; to trade and to hunt the buffalo.
They learned to follow the trail in the days of foot travel, long before horses.
According to legend, Grizzly bears found a brave, lost boy and showed him the path through the mountains and how to
survive in this rugged country. Then in 1877, the path became a trail of sadness.
In that year 750 Nez Perce men, women and children made a heroic yet futile flight seeking freedom
and peace far from their homeland. But this trail is not just about yesterday's journeys.
Today's and tomorrow's travelers may also find meaning here. The Nez Perce National
Historic Trail is a landscape of history that carries understanding to those who travel it.
The Nez Perce Tribe's native homeland extended across a plateau country
of ancient volcanic rock, deep canyons and mighty rivers between the Cascade and Rocky Mountains.
Separate Nez Perce bands once lived from Oregon's Wallowa Valley, up and down the Snake River Canyon,
to the Clearwater Valley in Idaho. Their lands spread north and south along the Bitterroot
Range, encompassing the rugged Lochsa and Selway drainages and the extensive Salmon
River country. It was, and still is, a beautiful and abundant land, rich in
wildlife, productive forests and lush meadows. Nez Perce ancestors thrived here for thousands of generations.
The story of the Nez Perce conflict began with the arrival of white men in the early
1800s. The Nez Perce aided explorers Lewis and Clark, and they traded with early fur trappers.
Christian missionaries lived among them. Early settlers knew and respected the
Nez Perce as skillful horse breeders, hunters and warriors. For fifty years the Nez Perce
and their new neighbors lived together, side by side. By 1855, increasing
numbers of settlers looking for land and prosperity expanded into Nez Perce country. That year Washington
Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens established a Nez Perce Reservation of nearly 12,000 square miles,
preserving much of the tribe's native homeland. Just five years later, prospectors encroaching
on Nez Perce land discovered gold, and the U.S. government demanded new treaty talks.
In 1863 new negotiations led to a tenfold reduction in land for the Nez Perce.
Several bands whose traditional lands were not included in the reservation refused to sign the treaty.
They became known as the "Non-treaty" Nez Perce. Now divided, the Nez Perce Tribe
became increasingly vulnerable to pressure from homesteaders and the U.S. Government. For over a decade,
the non-treaty bands refused to leave their lands. But tensions mounted with growing numbers
of settlers, and in 1877 the Army ordered the non-treaty Nez Perce to move on to the
reduced reservation near Lapwai, Idaho. Of the 750 Nez Perce, most were
women, children, or elderly. They took with them their 2000 horses and all their belongings.
In the months before their departure, relations had grown tense between Nez Perce and neighboring settlers.
Some settlers badly mistreated and even killed some Nez Perce. On the journey to the reservation,
several young angry warriors sought justice for these unprosecuted murders and killed
a number of settlers they believed were responsible. This set the stage for further bloodshed.
Army troops and civilian volunteers led by General Oliver Otis Howard first confronted
the Nez Perce at White Bird Canyon. Fighting broke out, and the troops retreated with heavy
casualties. This was the first of nearly 20 battles and skirmishes. Even though many
Americans were sympathetic to the Nez Perce, the policy of Manifest Destiny, the taming of the "wild west"
and expansion of American commerce and civilization was still of prime importance
in 1877. The rights of the non-treaty Nez Perce were largely ignored.
From the Whitebird Battlefield, the Nez Perce fled northwest to the Salmon River, then east toward the
Clearwater River. General Howard's troops attacked again, with little success.
After the Clearwater battle, the Nez Perce camped at Weippe Prairie where leaders met to decide
what to do next. The leaders included, among many others, Joseph, Whitebird, Toohoolhoolzote,
Hahtalekin, Husishusis Kute, and Looking Glass. >> CHIEF JOSEPH: "What are we fighting for?
Is it for our lives? No. It is for this land where the bones of our fathers lie buried. I do not want to
take my women among strangers. I do not want to die in a strange land." Chief Joseph.
>>NARRATOR: Chief Looking Glass had only recently joined the fleeing bands when his Clearwater River camp
was destroyed by troops. Because of his knowledge of buffalo country, the chiefs agreed to follow
Looking Glass from Idaho to Montana in search of allies. As they pursued the fleeing bands
onto the Weippe Prairie, General Howard's troops intercepted Chief Redheart's band returning
home from a buffalo hunt. Victims of bad timing, Redheart's band were captured and taken as
prisoners of war to Fort Vancouver, Washington. They remained there until April of 1878.
The fleeing Nez Perce followed the winding Lolo Trail up the Lochsa River and over the Bitterroot
Mountains. The Lolo Trail was a well-known hunters' trail, but considered tortuous with
dense forests, steep canyons and a 7000-foot summit. Across this rugged terrain the Nez
Perce deftly outdistanced the pursuing army. Hoping to stop the Nez Perce at the east end
of the Lolo trail, Army and volunteer forces hastily built a blockade near Lolo Creek in Montana.
The Nez Perce easily outflanked the blockade, and the location became known as
Fort Fizzle for the failed attempt. Traveling about twelve miles per day,
the Nez Perce moved south through Montana's Bitterroot Valley to avoid Missoula and other settlements.
They traded for supplies with wary settlers along the way. The Nez Perce crossed the Continental
Divide at what is now called Gibbon's Pass and dropped into the Big Hole Valley. Believing
the army was far away, they stopped to rest and gather tipi poles along the North Fork
of the Big Hole River. Here, at the Big Hole National Battlefield, the National Park Service
tells how the 7th Infantry, under the command of Colonel John Gibbon, surprised the resting
tribe on the morning of August 9th. Gibbon described the attack. >> GIBBON: "Suddenly a single shot
rang out in the clear morning air, followed quickly by several others, and the whole line
pushed forward through the brush. A heavy fire was at once opened along the whole line
of tepees, the startled Indians rushing from them in every direction, and for a few moments
no shots were returned. Few of us will forget the wail of mingled grief, rage and horror
which rose from the camp when the Indians returned to it and recognized their slaughtered warriors,
women and children." >> RED WOLF: "The women, all scared when the soldiers charged the camp,
ran into the water, the brush. Any place where they could hide themselves and children. Many
were killed as they ran. They had no guns." Red Wolf, Nez Perce Warrior.
>> NARRATOR: Nearly 90 Nez Perce, including many women and children, were killed at the battle of Big Hole.
Twenty-nine soldiers and citizen volunteers also lost their lives. Nez Perce leaders suddenly realized
the deadly reality of the conflict. Now led by Chief Lean Elk who knew these
trails well, the Nez Perce rapidly, and often violently, fled pursuing troops. Wounded men,
women and children were dying along the trail. Some, too weary to continue, chose to stay behind.
The Nez Perce crossed back into Idaho at Bannock Pass. At Camas Meadows they delayed the pursuing army
by raiding and scattering cavalry mules. The Nez Perce crossed Targhee Pass and escaped
into Yellowstone National Park pursued closely by the army. Inside the five-year old National
Park they captured several tourists. A few vengeful young warriors killed three. Leaders
Lean Elk and Yellow Wolf intervened and the remaining tourists were given horses and food
and released. General Howard was sure he had the fleeing Nez Perce trapped in the rugged
Yellowstone country. He posted troops at every exit. The Nez Perce moved east into the Absaroka
Mountains where a blockade of new troops from the 7th Cavalry waited to intercept them.
But the Nez Perce baffled the army and escaped by choosing an arduous route through steep terrain.
The Nez Perce traveled down the rugged Clark's Fork River canyon and on to the plains
where they sought assistance from the Crow Tribe. Under pressure from military and Indian
agents, the Crow refused to help their former friends and sided with the army instead.
Now intent on reaching the Canadian border, the Nez Perce turned north and followed the Clark's
Fork River back into Montana. The cavalry again caught the Nez Perce at Canyon Creek,
but failed once more to halt their march. After a pitched battle the Nez Perce bands
slipped away into the Buffalo Country. They spread out over the prairies to find game
and water and continued their march north. Cow Island crossing was a supply depot and
the most upstream point of steamboat navigation on the Missouri River in the fall. Pausing
only briefly, Nez Perce warriers managed to take food and supplies from outnumbered and
outgunned depot attendants. The fall weather turned bitterly cold. The Nez Perce
had been constantly on the march for over four months covering more than 1100 miles. They were exhausted
and starving. Assuming the army was far behind, Chief Lookinglass resumed leadership
and slowed the pace to protect the weary people. They selected a camp on Snake Creek at the base
of the Bear Paw Mountains, more for comfort than for defense. These miscalculations proved
fateful. On September 30, Colonel Nelson Miles led 400 soldiers in a surprise
attack on the Nez Perce camp. A brutal siege lasted six days, with heavy casualties on both sides.
During the battle, Chief Whitebird and nearly 200 Nez Perce managed to escape to the safety
of the Canadian border. Most other Nez Perce leaders were killed. On October 5th, to protect
his wounded, freezing and starving people, Chief Joseph agreed to end the fighting.
The Nez Perce National Historic Trail ends at the Bear Paw Battle Site, but the tragic story
does not. The 431 Nez Perce survivors who had been told they would return to Idaho were
taken instead down the Missouri River by flatboat to an unexpected exile, first at Ft. Leavenworth,
Kansas, then Indian Territory, Oklahoma. There they were joined by other Nez Perce captured
trying to return home from Canada to Idaho. Conditions in exile were extremely poor.
Of nearly 500 Nez Perce sent to Oklahoma, only 301 survived. Many
military officers and citizens throughout the country pleaded to have the Nez Perce returned to their reservation.
In spite of these efforts, the Nez Perce remained in exile for eight years. Finally in 1885
the survivors were sent back to the Northwest. Chief Joseph and half the surviving Nez Perce
were re-settled on the Colville Reservation in Washington State; the rest were returned
to the reservation in Idaho. Chief Joseph was never permitted to live again at his
ancestral home in the Wallowa Valley.
More than a century has passed.
Nez Perce decendents of both treatyand non-treaty bands still live on or near traditional homelands and perpetuate
the culture of their proud and once unified tribe. Much of the country once home to the Nez Perce
has been parceled out in farms, ranches, and communities: but a significant portion is
managed as public lands, by federal agencies like the Forest Service, National Park Service,
Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The 1170
mile Nez Perce, or Nimiipuu, National Historic Trail was established by Congress in 1986 to insure
that the trail and significant sites will be preserved and appreciated by generations to come.
The US Forest Service is responsible for managing the Nez Perce National Historic Trail. With
this responsibility comes a commitment to preserve this important heritage. Many trail
segments that wind through public land are amazingly undisturbed and have changed little.
The Nez Perce conflict touched many lives in 1877. It affected most directly those who
fought to enforce the government's will and those who fought for their homeland. It still
affects those who travel the trail today, more than a century later. To descendents
of both treaty and non-treaty bands of Nez Perce this trail and its history are sacred.
The trail speaks in many voices. The important battlefields have been preserved and interpreted.
The trail continues to define all of us as people. The trail largely belongs to the future.
The Nez Perce flight for freedom, played out over vast distances and varied terrain, can
only be imagined today as one travels the trail. But the desire for homeland, that abiding
sense of peace and harmony one feels when surrounded by familiar landscapes, is as real
today as it was for the Nez Perce over one hundred years ago.
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