As billowy powder flocked the countryside, Sassia and I squeezed through the Bitterroot Mountains, winding astride Gibbons Pass, then over the Continental Divide between Idaho and Montana via Chief Joseph Pass. By name, we touched on two of the primary combatants at the Battle of the Big Hole. The frosty haze rendered the foothills as Hostess Snoballs, the coconut-covered, half-round snack cakes, and made the passes feel as if we were driving in the clouds.
After that claustrophobic stretch, the appearance of the Big Hole Valley was like a big cleansing breath. It must have felt similarly for the non-treaty Nez Perce, who had just endured tense passage through the Bitterroot Valley and another mountainous climb and descent. They were led by Chief Looking Glass, whose inclination during the 1877 flight was to take opportunities for his people to rest. They’d gained some distance on the troops commanded by Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, whom they had tagged “Two Days Behind.” They encamped along the North Fork of the Big Hole River, unaware that Col. John Gibbons was on their heels with 161 men from Fort Shaw and 45 civilian volunteers recruited from the Bitterroot Valley settlements.
It’s become almost trite to say that one feels presence at a battlefield, but that’s almost certainly because the energy of what happens at a place persists, and warfare is especially intense. At the Big Hole National Battlefield in 1877, Gibbons and his men ambushed a sleeping village. The attack killed between 60 and 90 Nez Perce, the vast majority women, children, and elderly.
By the time Sassia and I arrived at the battlefield, the clouds were angry and swollen with snowflakes, and a bitter wind swept across the sagebrush prairie. We were accompanied to the Nez Perce encampment and its uncovered tipi poles by ground squirrels who popped out of their mounds and scurried about out of curiosity. The Nez Perce called this area Izhkumzizlakik, the place of ground squirrels, so their presence was apt. We could hear voices in the high but slow-flowing river, which was lined with tall willow and seemed to hold much of the vitality of the place.
The next two battlefields we visited, Camas Meadows and Canyon Creek, also emanated a quiet vehemence. These were the sites of what can better be described as skirmishes. The battle sites were remarkable for us, more because of the passages we took to them. To reach Camas Meadows, we braved a driving snowstorm from outside Spencer, Idaho, the “opal capital of America,” through 42 miles of unpaved, sometimes one-lane road over uneven and unpredictable terrain with nary a soul or structure in sight. We could feel the apprehension with which the Nez Perce made the trek, especially with Gen. Howard’s troops in pursuit. As with most elements along the Trail, the place materializes without warning, a pullout with interpretive signage. The enormity of the empty prairie there filled me with a fear that originated somewhere deep and dark inside of me, and I did not want to venture too far out.
If Camas Meadows was a prelude to Yellowstone, Canyon Creek was an epilogue. We drove back up the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway and detoured to the place in Clarks Fork Canyon where the Nez Perce emerged from their unnerving maneuver at Dead Indian Pass. From the Trump signs to the glacially remnant boulders amassed and strewn as far as the eye could see, it was a foreboding place. We stopped briefly to take one photo, then turned around and backtracked with some haste. We eventually reached a memorial at the Canyon Creek Battlefield that, with its graffiti-tagged plaque and rickety structure, had seen better days.
From Canyon Creek, we went off the Nez Perce Trail to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. It had become obvious in my research that the disastrous outcome for the U.S. at Little Bighorn fueled its determination a year later to hunt down the Nez Perce. I went harboring resentment over the way George Armstrong Custer has been romanticized in American culture as an “Indian killer.” He also had refused command of the 9th Cavalry—home of the all-Black, so-called “Buffalo Soldiers”—because he preferred to lead white troops. The battlefield carried his name until President George H. W. Bush changed it in 1991. “The site of Custer’s Last Stand” is such a ubiquitous descriptor, it almost seems an official subtitle. Although a stirring art installation and other Native memorials and elements have been added, the place feels more like a memorial to fallen white soldiers, especially compared with the other battlefields we visited.
Even the nearby Crow-operated trading post is named for Custer. “As I peruse the trading posts filled with beautiful, beaded jewelry or the delicious smell of fry bread, the connection is lacking,” Sassia wrote of our stop there. “It’s exhausted. It’s fake. It’s survival. The tribes sell themselves to the rest of us because they are tired of running, tired of being pushed, tired of being a spectacle but don’t know how else to be safe from the Anglo shame that is masked as curiosity.” The tribe’s lingering association with the white warrior is unsurprising, given that Crow Scouts guided Custer to the battlegrounds. The Crow played an even more decisive role in the plight of the Nez Perce, who’d been counting on a long-standing agreement to support each other in any conflict against white America. That understanding propelled the Nez Perce eastward, and it wasn’t until they were close to exiting Yellowstone that they learned definitively of the Crows’ refusal to break their peace with the U.S.
The denial of Crow support was a deflating development for the Nez Perce. It also was an illustration of how European settlers and outside powers twisted competing tribal interests into the ultimate conquest of all the continent’s Indigenous peoples. The Lakota and Cheyenne had been pressing territorial claims on the Crow, who sought refuge with the U.S., which caused them to abandon their traditional Nez Perce alliance.
The Nez Perce had been fractured over the Treaty of 1855 along Christian and non-Christian lines. The non-treaty, non-Christian Nimiipuu also were fleeing a U.S. strategy of converting Native Americans into Christian farmers, spreading both agriculture and religion. The primary pursuer of the non-treaty bands was Oliver Otis Howard, known as the “Christian general.” Howard considered himself more of a conciliator, and he had negotiated peace with the Apache. Yet he also went hard after the Nez Perce, who’d otherwise enjoyed a positive relationship with the U.S. since supplying horses to Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery. As an encore, Howard put down the Bannocks, members of whom had been his scouts against the Nez Perce.
Before entering the “Indian Wars,” Howard headed the Freedmen’s Bureau, established after the Civil War to assist freed slaves in the South. He used Bureau funds for the unintended purpose of establishing the school named for him. Today, Howard University is among the best-known of this country’s historically Black colleges and universities. Vice President Kamala Harris is an alum. Yet, in this time of historical reckonings based on race, Gen. Howard’s work with Black freedmen apparently has earned him a permanent pass for his role as a hunter of Native Americans. I asked one of my friends, another prominent Black Howard alum, about this. They said it was not taught during their time at the university; they’d later discovered this part of history independently. Asked if the situation bears discussion, the alum responded, “It sure does.” I’m not holding my breath.
For 16 disquieting days, Sassia and I felt like we were chasing liberty—but whose, was the daily question. It never seemed like it was ours, or that of others obstructed from the American Dream. Not the Nez Perce’s, for sure. We’d even witnessed humans sucking the wild out of wildlife and wild places. We needed some closure for the reopened psychic wounds, which made it imperative to press on to the Bear Paw Battlefield. It would offer a true ending—of the Trail, our trip, and Nez Perce hope. Failed expectations forced the same decision on what remained of the non-treaty bands in 1877. The stop hadn’t been in their original plans, and it wasn’t in ours. Getting there, for us, required eight hours of driving from Billings and eight hours back, and we were tired and probably overstimulated. Those conditions helped us try as best as we could to see that final leg through the eyes of the exhausted Nez Perce, hoping against hope to reach Canada and the embrace of Sitting Bull and the Hunkpapa Lakota.
The skies and land on the way to Bear Paw seemed to stretch on forever. Amid such vastness, it was easy to imagine the endless bounty for which white settlers lusted and Indigenous peoples fought to protect. Sassia and I weren’t forsaken, as the Nez Perce had been, but it was difficult not to feel enveloped by pangs of emptiness and, yes, even threats that accompany being so utterly alone.
That didn’t change when we reached the place where Chief Joseph famously declared, “From where the sun now stands I shall fight no more forever.” Just like at Big Hole, the first major battlefield we visited, at Bear Paw, it was just us, scampering prairie dogs, and flittering red-winged blackbirds, all at peace underneath the eerily humanlike calls of circling killdeer and clouds arrayed like an American flag that actually didn’t make us feel unwelcomed.
A small silver marker in the ground was ringed by coins, rocks, feathers, beads, and several pairs of sunglasses—offerings to Chief Looking Glass, who’d been felled there by a sniper’s round. As he had at Big Hole, Looking Glass stopped at Bear Paw to allow his weary people to rest. And, like at Big Hole, the Nez Perce were intercepted by surprise-attacking U.S. Army units dispatched from beyond Gen. Howard’s posse. Looking Glass’ compassion for his people, which history might judge harshly as if a tactic, was the last lesson Sassia and I took from the Trail. The Nez Perce’s fate at Bear Paw “shouldn’t teach us to never slow down,” Sassia wrote. “It should teach us that we shouldn’t have to fear for our lives, fear for our death, fear for our livelihood. Chief Looking Glass slowed down because he valued life that day at Bear Paw. He valued the life of his elders, his descendants, and listened to the ancestors to rest. Rest has always been an act of resistance and something white supremacy doesn’t value as a human right.”
Staying true to themselves earned the Nez Perce an enormous betrayal. Instead of back to Idaho, as promised at Joseph’s surrender, the Nez Perce were railroaded to Kansas, then exiled to “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma. It took another eight years before they were allowed to return to the Pacific Northwest. Traveling the Nez Perce Trail, for us, was like rewatching a favorite movie in which the hero dies at the end. Sassia and I couldn’t help but take in the remnants of Native courage and ingenuity and root for a different, more deserved outcome.
I often wonder how BIPOC can be subjected to such repeated results, yet at some point expunge any fatalism from our genes, the way white people can carry the audacity of assumed superiority at an atomic level and perpetuate an elevated way of life. I keep thinking back to the night when Sassia and I watched Old Faithful erupt at sunset. People, all of them white, were muttering complaints that the event didn’t take place precisely at the posted, predicted time, as if a ranger were behind some curtain, poised to turn on a valve.
Afterward, we talked with a couple of young photographers, both white guys touring the region, like us. When we told them about tracing the Nez Perce Trail—and what that meant—one of them remarked, “That’s funny, we’ve seen a lot of signs about this massacre and that battle. We’ve been wondering what the heck has been going on.” It’s been going on a long time, I replied. Even if they hadn’t understood the implications, at least they’d seen the signs.