October 5, 2009
Alice Campbell Havre Daily News [email protected]
Huddled under layers of brightly colored blankets and heavy jackets, about 50 people, including members of the far-flung Nez Perce Tribe, gathered Saturday at the Bear Paw Battlefield site. They formed a tight circle against a cold blustering wind and under an overcast sky to remember and honor their ancestors who fought for their freedom here on this same date 132 years ago. At this site 16 miles south of Chinook, and about 40 miles from the Canadian border, Col. Nelson Miles and 500 U.S. Army troops caught up with and surrounded some 700 Ne z Pe rc e. The Army had be e n relentlessly pursuing the band for 1,170 miles, determined to force them onto a reservation. Chief Joseph, with fewer than 100 warriors able to still fight, was only two days away from freedom in Canada. The tribe had traveled far from their lands in Oregon, their goal almost within sight, but after a five-day battle and siege with women and children dying from exposure to the cold and brutal winds that whipped across the open plains, Chief Joseph chose to surrender. Saturday, several dozen direct decendents of those who fought here traveled from as far away as Washington and Oregon to preserve memories of the battle with a poignant pipe ceremony, quietly and respectfully listening as members of the Tribe spoke, sharing the oral record of the battle passed down through generations. Events were recalled in both native tongue and in English accompanied at times by song And drumming. All who shared their feelings and stories spoke of the importance of gathering as one tribe and maintaining its continuity. As Ranger Stephanie Martin pointed out, tribal members have returned to the battlefield site as soon as eight days after the battle and every year thereafter. Brooklyn Baptiste, the vice chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe, thanked those in attendance for taking "time out of their lives again to come here" where there is much hurt. Love, compassion and strength also are palpable on the site, he said. "I try to remember what gifts were given by these people." "This is a beautiful thing and a beautiful way," he said. "I'm thankful to be here today with all the rest of you," said Frank Andrews Sr. While the circle bowed their heads in prayer with him. Andrews, 86 and fighting a terminal illness, wondered if Saturday would be his last trip to the battlefield where his grandparents once stood and fought, and where he's been coming for more years than he could remember. Because of declining health, Andrews hadn't been able to travel the last several years and has had to forgo the trip. But having been released from a hospital only a week ago, he said he was determined to make the trip from the Colville Indian Reservation in eastern Washington state to tell what happened here as his grandmother and his mother had related to him, one last time. "This should almost be an international monument on behalf of our people” so that "the whole story would be known," he said. Andrews shared that after Chief Joseph was captured by soldiers when he had entered the Army lines seeking to talk of terms, they "put him where the mules were" with no blanket in the bitter cold and little food. By contrast, a lieutenant captured by the tribe was provided with ample food and blankets despite the tribe's desperate situation. After an emissary for the cavalry reported the good care the Lieutenant was receiving to his commanders, the two prisoners were eventually exchanged. Andrews further recalled that on Oct. 4, Chief Joseph told Chief White Bird that he planned to end the war the next day. He said Chief White Bird didn't trust Miles' word that the tribe would be allowed to return to Oregon, and was able to lead several members of the tribe through the Army's positions and on to Canada, singing a song to guide them in the night. That was the first of several separations of the tribe, Andrews said. His grandparents chose to remain with Chief Joseph. The next day Chief Joseph "went ahead and laid his rifle down," Andrews said, ending the conflict when uttering his famous speech: " ... Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever." The struggle to avoid being placed on a reservation was ended, and the tribe, instead of being able to return to Oregon, was sent to reservation lands in Oklahoma. There "they were treated as prisoners of war," Andrews recalled, adding that more than 100 died from diseases such as malaria. "After eight years of exile," the tribe was allowed to travel to back to Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Some members of the tribe didn't wish to make another journey and remained in Oklahoma, Andrews said, meaning a second separation of the people. Once again, his family traveled with Chief Joseph. In Oregon, near the Snake River, a third separation occurred when some members stayed while others traveled to the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington. Yet again, his family went with Chief Joseph. "We then became recognized as Chief Joseph's Band," he said. Today, Andrews is one of the elders of that band. Though the history books deem the 1,170-mile journey finished, many people who stood to speak during the ceremony said it is far from over and that gatherings to unite the tribe would help the tribe move forward, while preserving the past and the Indian way of life. It's a way of life that Peter Bigstone, a full-blooded Assiniboine Tribe member who lives on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, said needs to be handed down to the younger generations to ensure survival. He and his wife, Renita, brought their granddaughter, Treaunna Siffarm, with them to expose her to the history of the Nez Perce's struggle. They came to "respect a memorial place where our people have suffered and died," he said. "Because we're all related," Renita added. "We want to honor them and look after sites like this," Bigstone said. The bloodlines will become diluted and lifestyles will inevitably change, he said, but children have "got to know their roots first." "We need prayer. We need to come together," said Dolores Plumage, the first woman Native American elected as a Blaine County Commissioner. Despite the solemnity of the occasion and the gravity of the battle's history, "when you leave, you just feel strengthened," she said. Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce came a great distance, she said, but "Indian people have a lot of needs," especially in terms of strengthening tribal numbers and representation.