Annual trek commemorates famous battle
survived were split between the tribe's Idaho reservation at Lapwai and the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington state. Many Nez Perce eventually moved to those two reservations, and a few also went to the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon. Still others settled on other tribes' reservations, including Fort Belknap and the Crow Indian Reservation.
Today's Nez Perce are tied to these places by the dead they buried there. The descendants of Joseph, Looking Glass, Ollokot, White Bird, Yellow Wolf and others come together this time every year in Montana.
"It's a time for us to reconnect with the land," said Nakia Williamson-Cloud, 28, one of two riders who led the riderless horses around the circle. "The reason we treat it so sacred is because our people are buried here."
He said the tribe has a similar ceremony at Fort Vancouver every year.
Williamson-Cloud said the visits help remind him of the hardships, but that the purpose is not to cast blame.
"We're more interested in reconciliation with our past and trying to move past this," he said.
That doesn't mean forgetting, said tribal member Robert Taylor, 39.
"All our lives we've learned of Chief Joseph, Yellow Wolf, Looking Glass," and the other warriors, Taylor said. "To be some place where things actually happened, it connects you to this."
He added, "Children need to know why a treaty was written, what roots and berries to gather, when to hunt. In essence, we're here because our elders are still teaching us."
Taylor said the Nez Perce used to come to this area before 1877 to hunt and had ties with Montana tribes like the Flathead tribes.
Geneva Greene-Towner said she grew up hearing stories about the battlefield. Now she brings her children and her grandchildren from Lapwai every year - "so they'll know where they came from and that they are survivors."
Magera said the battlefield is one of the few sites from the Nez Perce War of 1877 that still looks the way it did at the time of the battle, and that people come here from all over the world to see what he called "a paradigm of American Indian experience."
But he said there is another side of the story that should not be forgotten: the U.S. soldiers who fought here. Magera said the soldiers were caught in the political climate of the time, and that unlike other battles like the one at the Big Hole on Aug. 10, 1877, they did not behave brutally here.
"I think that's a side of the story that needs to be told, the humanity of the soldiers," he said. Magera said the soldiers looked the other way while some of the Indians escaped into Canada, and said there is at least one account of soldiers giving water to women and children who were crying for it.
But women and children were killed, said Johnson after the ceremony, as he faced east over the battlefield to watch small groups leaving gifts of tobacco, beads and food along the trail.
Johnson recalled the anger he felt years ago when a friend pointed out the spot where he said three women and a little girl were killed by an artillery shell during the battle. He said the deaths of warriors and soldiers was easier to accept than the others, because that's what warriors and soldiers do.
"For women and children to die, it hurts," he said.
Johnson started to cry and wiped his cheek with his thumb while his 6-year-old daughter played nearby. He recalled the first time his mother took him here.
"When I was her age we came to this site and she cried. All she said was, 'Our people died here.' It'll be the same for my daughter one day when she's older."
It will be different at least in one way, he hopes.
"I want her to be strong enough to not feel anger. ... It's in our nature to be strong warriors, but not in terms of carrying anger," he said.
CHINOOK - The Nez Perce who make the 10-hour trip from Idaho every year to commemorate the struggle at this battlefield north of the Bear Paw Mountains will tell you the weather is typically a fitting reminder of the hardships about 800 of their ancestors faced here on six snowy fall days in 1877.
On Sunday morning warm sunshine and a gentle breeze graced the two riderless horses - one representing the Nez Perce men and boys who were here, the other representing the women and girls - that were led in a circle around a crowd of more than 100 people - mostly Nez Perce, along with a sprinkling of Assiniboine and Gros Ventre American Indians and National Park Service employees - gathered at the Bear Paw Battlefield Sunday morning.
The tribe has repeated this memorial ceremony, which also included a traditional pipe ceremony, honor songs, speeches by tribal leaders and the laying of a memorial wreath, since 1977. The group also visited Fort Walsh, Alberta, on Saturday and, earlier Sunday morning, a site on the Milk River where seven Nez Perce warriors were killed.
Nez Perce tribal chair Anthony Johnson recalled his earlier visits here years ago.
"We shed tears, felt anger and hatred. As time went on I understood the purpose of being here and the word of healing instead of hatred," said Johnson, 33, who brought his young daughter to the battlefield this year. "Maybe the next generation, she won't feel the hatred that I felt as an angry young man."
For the Nez Perce, the battle - where about 40 Nez Perce and 24 U.S. soldiers died - marked the end of a 1,600-mile trek toward safety in Canada, and the beginning of a period of dispersal of the five bands of Nez Perce who made it this far.
Some 430 stayed behind with Chief Joseph, surrendering on Oct. 5; more than 250 others slipped away before and after the battle and made it into Canada, said local history teacher Jim Magera, a seasonal park ranger at the battlefield who has studied the Nez Perce since 1955.
Some stayed in Canada, while others eventually returned to the United States. Another band refused to fight early on in the war but were taken prisoner and sent to Fort Vancouver, Wash. Joseph's band was sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to languish until 1885, when the 287 who