Mont. - October 5, 2003 was a cloudless, warm day on the northern
fringe of the Bear Paw Mountains, unlike that same date in 1877
when snow blanketed the ground and a bitter wind blew. Nez Perce
children were crying from the cold and lack of food when Chief Joseph
made his famous speech: "From where the sun now stands I shall
fight no more forever." After a trek of 1,300 miles in an attempt
to reach safety in Canada and after numerous battles with army soldiers,
he had to stop just 40 miles from the border in order to save the
youngsters and keep his people together.
year since 1977, Nez Perce people have traveled several hundred
miles from their homes in Washington, Oregon and Idaho to this site
in north central Montana to pay honor and respect to their ancestors
killed here. About 30 died on this battlefield including the renowned
Looking Glass and Josephs brother Ollicut and another 50 or
so were wounded including many women and children.
battlefield is known as the Bear Paw Battlefield about 16 miles
south of Chinook alongside Snake Creek where the Nez Perce had tried
to rest and recover before making the final push to Canada. The
memorial began in midmorning with Assiniboine and Gros Ventre people
from nearby Fort Belknap joining with the Nez Perce and others to
remember and honor those who had died here. Wilford "Scotty"
Scott (Nez Perce) was in charge of the memorial while revered elder
Horace Axtell, known to many as "Uncle" conducted the
traditional ceremonial portion.
were trailered from Lapwai, Idaho for a rider-less horse ceremony.
Two riders circled the area, each leading a rider-less horse. One
was saddled with a womans saddle to honor the women and girls
who died and the other honored the men and boys who died. A number
of people received gifts for what they had done and Edith Earthboy,
Assiniboine, was particularly recognized for her help over the years
with this memorial. Scott told her, "We will never forget,
never forget, what you do for us, the Nez Perce people." Earthboy
had prepared food to be taken to the campsite following the ceremony
"for the spirits of our ancestors to feed all of them."
people spoke of their feelings at this site and of their nearly
overpowering emotions. Most people had ancestors here during the
battle in 1877, some of whom died and were buried here. The memorial
ended with a pipe ceremony and traditional songs and prayers.
Prior to the memorial
at the Bear Paw Battlefield, a small group of about two dozen Nez
Perce gathered at another site a few miles away. In 1877, a priest
had recorded in his journal that he heard shooting but had not immediately
checked on it as he thought hunters were probably shooting. Later,
the bodies of seven Nez Perce were found here.
location is on private ground and as the group approached the coulee
where the bodies had been found, a small herd of antelope were resting
nearby. With the women on one side and the men opposite, Axtell
led a memorial service of songs to honor the seven who had died
here. Its not known precisely where they died so a simple
brown wooden post serves as a common grave marker. Several spoke
of their emotions at visiting this gravesite of their ancestors
as a small flight of geese flew low overhead.