Fieldnotes – Nez Perce Memories

Many thanks to the Montana Preservation Alliance for sponsoring “Nez Perce Memories.”

This year was the third time I have attended the Nez Perce ceremony at the Bear’s Paw battlefield. There are many historic battlefields in the western U.S., but, to me, the places that mark the battles along the Nez Perce trail – White Bird Canyon, Clearwater, Big Hole, Camas Meadows, Canyon Creek, Bear’s Paw – are especially moving. Part of the reason is probably that the Nez Perce odyssey, culminating with the surrender of Chief Joseph at Bear’s Paw, mark the end of the Indian wars. And partly because the Nez Perce were forced to travel such an extraordinary distance from their homeland. Along the way, they faced hunger and fatigue, as well as the constant threat of attack. They were rejected by some of their erstwhile allies among neighboring tribes, who feared reprisal if they helped the Nez Perce.

Mostly I find the story of the Nez Perce people moving because they survived forced exile, dispersal and systematic fragmentation, and, against all odds, reconstituted themselves as a tribe with a strong identity and cultural integrity; with an unshakeable sense of their history and of their place in the world.

At the ceremony every October at the Bear’s Paw battlefield, tribal members sit or stand in a loose circle, with women on one side and men on the other. Periodically someone gets up to speak a few words, usually identifying themselves first in terms of their descent from ancestors who fought at the battle, or who lost their lives there.

The ceremony includes a rider on an Appaloosa, leading a riderless horse (symbolizing those who were lost) who circles the group three times. There is a ceremonial pipe and traditional songs, then most people, alone or in small groups, wander the paths that lead through the battlefield, pausing here and there at the small collections of offerings and traditional bundles that mark where their ancestors fell 134 years ago.

Julia Davis Wheeler, whom I profiled in this story, told me: “If you listen hard, you can hear the voices. They know we haven’t forgotten them.”