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Club will mark milestone at Nez Perce battlefield


Hundreds of riders will arrive at Bear Paw Battlefield south of Chinook Friday at the end of a milestone event - the Appaloosa Horse Club's three-peat of the 1,300-mile route taken by Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce in their flight toward Canada in 1877.

This is the third time in 39 years that club members, from all over the world, have completed the trail, ridden in 100-mile chunks every year. The riders plan to arrive at the battlefield about 1 p.m.

The Nez Perce National Historic Trail Foundation has scheduled its annual meeting in Chinook, timing it to coincide with the club's arrival Friday.

Paul Wapato of Spokane, Wash., president of the foundation, said registration for the meeting is at the Chinook Motor Inn, and the rest of Friday will be a field trip for the foundation members, ending with a tour of the battlefield.

"Then we'll just kind of sit back and watch these 400 riders and walkers come in. It should be quite a spectacle," he said.

Robert West, the National Park Service ranger at Bear Paw Battlefield, said he met with the riders on the Missouri River at the James Kipp Recreation Area on Sunday. About 275 riders were preparing to take the full 100-mile ride, starting Monday, he said.

There are people on the trail who have been on every ride since 1965, and he expects they will be back when the circuit is completed again in 13 years, West said. More people are expected to join the ride during the week.

The Nez Perce Tribe will hold a commemorative ceremony after the riders arrive, starting at 2 p.m. Friday. West said shuttle buses in Chinook will start taking people to the battlefield Friday for the ceremony, which is free and open to the public.

Because of limited parking at the battlefield, West recommended that people use the shuttle buses.

The ceremonies will include a riderless horse parade, a pipe ceremony and singing. West said they also will include a Nez Perce tradition - ringing a bell to honor the people who fought and died at the battle.

Representatives of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation also have been invited to perform demonstrations of their cultural activities, he added.

The Nez Perce Historic Trail Foundation will join the riders and others involved in the ceremony in a celebratory dinner, then return to Chinook.

The foundation meeting Saturday at the Chinook Motor Inn will include presentations about the trail and the battlefield by local historians Leroy Anderson of Chinook and Jim Magera of Havre. George Kush of Monarch, Alberta, will give a presentation about the Nez Perce who escaped to Canada and what happened to them in the years following the flight from Idaho.

The National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service will update the foundation on issues about the trail and the battlefield during the meeting.

West said negotiations with the state are continuing to allow the Park Service to build a permanent visitors' center and additional parking at Bear Paw Battlefield. The land the battlefield rests on, which is leased by the National Park Service, belongs to the state and private landowners, he said.

The Park Service is investigating several options to take control or ownership of the land to build permanent facilities there, West said.

Wapato said the Historic Trail Foundation tries to keep informed on what's happening with the trail, and the government entities involved are cooperative.

"They may not always try to please us, but they always try to keep us informed," he said. "We consider that one of our functions. We try to ride herd on the government about that trail."

He added that anyone interested in the trail or history in general is welcome to attend the meetings or join the foundation.

The flight of the Nez Perce began after years of negotiations with the U.S. government about where the Nez Perce Tribe would be located. After gold was discovered in Nez Perce territory in 1863, the government took back most of the reservation it had granted the tribe.

Chief Joseph and his father, Joseph the Elder, both refused to leave the tribe's native Wallowa Valley in Oregon.

In 1877, after Gen. Otis Howard threatened a cavalry assault to force the Nez Perce out of the valley, and a small band of Nez Perce raided a settlement and killed several white people, the tribe's leaders began a trek across Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. About 200 warriors and 500 others successfully fought and evaded about 2,000 members of the U.S. Cavalry for three months.

The cavalry surprised the band at Snake Creek in the Bear Paws, about 40 miles from their goal of crossing the border into Canada. After a five-day battle, Chief Joseph, one of the few surviving Nez Perce leaders, surrendered.

"Hear me, chiefs! My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever," Joseph said.

The Nez Perce who surrendered - about 150 escaped to Canada during the battle - were first taken to a reservation in Kansas, then to one in Oklahoma. In 1885 they were returned to the Pacific Northwest, but the tribe was split between locations in Washington and Idaho. Joseph was sent to a reservation in Washington, and died in 1904 at the age of 60, still away from his homeland.


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