By Tim Leeds
Special events are planned next week to commemorate the 124th anniversary of the Nez Perce surrender at Bear Paw Battlefield.
Arthur Currence, site manager for the battlefield, is starting the commemoration with a memorial and tour on Sunday at 2 p.m. The battlefield is 16 miles south of Chinook.
The major event begins Oct. 6 in conjunction with the Chief Joseph Memorial Veterans' Pow-Wow at Fort Belknap. Nez Perce at the powwow will hold sacred and traditional ceremonies and a commemoration on Oct. 6 about 8 a.m.
Currence said his memorial Sunday will be fairly low-key. He will give a tour, telling stories about the tribe's flight from Idaho through Montana to the Bear Paws and the battle itself, emphasizing the record as told by Nez Perce and the soldiers at the battle.
Geri Rutherford, who organizes the powwow, expects 400 to 500 people from across the United States and Canada to attend the event.
"The main thing is focus on what happened to them so many years ago," she said. The powwow also honors all veterans, and this year will have prayers and a moment of silence for the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Rutherford said the powwow participants are holding a blanket dance, with all of the money from the dance going to relief funds for the terrorist victims.
"At a time like this, everybody's united, pulling together," she said.
Rutherford said her father, Jim Earth Boy, started the powwow about 35 years ago. The commemoration is coordinated by the Nez Perce Tribal Veterans of Lapwaii, Idaho, and the Fort Belknap Chief Joseph Memorial Committee.
The Blaine County Library, which has a display about the battlefield and an audiovisual display titled "40 miles to Freedom" that Currence highly recommends, will be open 1 to 5 p.m. Monday through Oct. 5.
The grand entry for the powwow on Oct. 5 is at 7 p.m. at Fort Belknap's Red Whip Center. The grand entries on Oct. 6 are at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Rutherford said there will be many activities at the powwow, with $5,000 total to be awarded in different age categories in the different traditional dance events. A fun run is planned for Oct. 6, starting at the Red Whip Center.
The activities focus on the flight of the Nez Perce in 1877, when the members of the tribe who had not followed federal orders to move to a reservation fled across the Bitterroot Mountains, pursued by Gen. Oliver Howard. The group surprised Howard with both their fighting ability and ability to evade him, Currence said.
The tribe decided to escape to Canada after a fierce battle on Aug. 9, Currence said, and started to move north.
On Sept. 30, 1877, the tribe was surprised by Col. Nelson A. Miles, who had traveled from southwest Montana to intercept them.
"They surprised him with their fierce resistance," Currence said.
After a five-day siege, Chief Joseph surrendered to the Army. Currence said Joseph was not the top leader of the tribe at the beginning of its flight, but the other leaders died during the battles or fled, leaving him in charge by the time of the surrender.
About 150 Nez Perce escaped under the cover of darkness on the night of Sept. 30, and fled to Canada. They were joined by 30 to 50 more who escaped on Oct. 5, before Joseph surrendered.
The death toll at the battle included 23 soldiers killed and 45 wounded, and the Nez Perce losses are estimated at 30 killed and 50 wounded.
Currence said the battle is considered the last major conflict in the area, although other battles did occur. The next major campaign was against Geronimo in the Southwest in the 1880s.