GRMA Day 13: Historical Interlude: The Nez Perce
Click here for a link to the GPS Tracking Map. Ignore the straight lines that go across the loop. I have no idea why the program does that.
Everywhere you go, every place has a past. And the past offers a chance to reflect and think about who we are and where we came from.
Although today was scheduled as a non-riding day, I logged more than 200 miles on a loop around the Nez Perce (pronounced nez purse) Indian Reservation and along part of the National Park Service Nez Perce Trail. I met some interesting people and talked with them about the importance of culture and history. And, once again, I saw some beautiful scenery, some of which surprised me.
I left Orofino about 8 a.m. continuing along US Highway 12 which follows the Clearwater River. The first contact by Americans with the Nez Perce was actually made right here in the area where I’m staying in 1805 when Lewis and Clark and the starving and bedraggled Corps of Discovery emerged from a perilous passage through the Bitterroot Mountains. Near death, the Americans were in a very real sense rescued by the Nez Perce who, after debating whether to kill the newcomers or not, decided to befriend and feed them. They provided badly needed food and within weeks helped the recovered explorers build dugout canoes which they used to float down the Clearwater River on their way to the Columbia River and the Pacific Coast.
The Nez Perce further helped the explorers on their return trip in 1806, having watched over their horses for a year, by also providing guides to help them find their way back over the Bitterroots. It is not an exageration to say that the Lewis and Clark expedition, which opened the west to white hunters, trappers, and settlers, and secured America’s claim to what is now the Northwestern United States, succeeded only because the Nez Perce provided crucial assistance at a critical time.
In the next 50 years white settlers and fortune seekers flooded the area and conflicts inevitably rose between the Nez Perce and the land hungry whites. In 1855, the US government concluded a treaty with the Nez Perce that granted them about one-half the land they once considered their home. But only eight years later the U.S. renegged on that treaty and forced a second treaty on the Nez Perce which granted them only 10% of the land in the previous agreement. Even today that treaty is referred to as the Theif’s Treaty.
When the Nez Perce refused to be corralled on such a small allotment of land, a war (of sorts) broke out in 1877 as U.S. cavalry forces pursued the fleeing Nez Perce for 600 miles, finally forcing a surrender under Chief Joseph in Montana, just miles from the Canadian border where they would have found sanctuary.
The Nez Perce, whose aid to Lewis and Clark had made white settlement inevitable, were nearly wiped out and the survivors were scattered to various reservations, including Oklahoma.
But the culture was strong and many returned to their Idaho lands when they could, rebuilding as best they could. The result in 2015 is a people on the Nez Perce reservation that is struggling yet succeeding in preserving their culture, their language and their past.
I spoke with two Nez Perce–Kevin and Maurice–at the National Park Visitor Center just west of Lewiston. Maurice told me about the sweat lodge he goes to everyday to pray and to be with other members of the tribe. He also described the process of preserving the language, a language he learned from his grandmother and grandfather before he learned English in school. Having once been told they couldn’t speak their own language, Nez Perce children are now encouraged to learn it. Maurice had just returned from a powwow in Oregon where he danced and sang with friends until he was worn out but he was still willing to spend time helping me understand his people.
Kevin spoke to me of the events of 1877 and the impact it had on the Nez Perce. A motorcycle rider himself, he also suggested that I could combine a trip to one of the first battle sites with a great motorcycle ride on an old crooked road that had been replaced by a faster highway and is now little used except for motorcycle riders like him
The ride across the rich agricultural fields on the Camas Prairie that make up much of the reservation gave me time to think about and reflect on my conversations with Kevin and Maurice. White settlement, given the numbers of Americans eager to move west, was probably inevitable. Yet the treatment of the Nez Perce (and other natives) has to remain a blot on America’s past and should be a reminder to everyone that the land belongs to us all and that we should learn to share it equitably and fairly.
Enough history, for now, but it’s hard for me to stop being an historian.
Tomorrow I head north again into Canada, and, I hope, to cooler temperatures.
More pictures I liked today: