American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Long March (Nez Percé)

The Long March of the Nez Percé, or the flight of the Nez Percé, took place between June and October of 1877. Approximately 600 members of the Nez Percé tribe, seeking to escape the United States Army, traveled 1,600 miles in their attempt to reach Canada and freedom. The Nez Percé involved in the Long March came from the nontreaty factions of the tribe, those who opposed the 1863 treaty that revised the Walla Walla Treaty of 1855 and who did not accept the new reservation boundaries set out in the 1863 treaty. The principal leaders of the non-treaty Nez Percé were Chief Joseph, Whitebird, Looking Glass, Lean Elk, Husis-Kute, and Toohoolhoolzote.

While most versions of the Long March begin with the Battle of Whitebird Canyon, the trek of nontreaty people started in late May as they moved to the Nez Percé Reservation to meet the demands of the U.S. government. On June 13, 1877, a group of young men raided white homes along the Salmon River, creating fear and confusion for Nez Percé and Anglo-Americans alike. Knowing that this action meant war, Chief Joseph and his brother Ollokot led the people to Whitebird Canyon, a more defensible position. As white settlers panicked, the Army moved to confront the nontreaty Nez Percé there. Using their forces effectively, the Nez Percé defeated Army units sent in pursuit, inflicting heavy casualties. After the battle of Whitebird Canyon, Army units attacked the peaceful camp of Looking Glass and his people. Although Looking Glass and his people had not taken part in the earlier conflict, the Army believed that they were aiding the other non-treaty bands and counted them among the non-treaty people. After Whitebird Canyon, several engagements occurred between the Army and Nez Percé warriors as they attempted to retreat to the Weippe Prairie, located in present-day northeastern Idaho.

As soon as the Nez Percé arrived at the Weippe Prairie, they convened to discuss plans and a strategy for eluding the Army. Looking Glass, whose band had joined those fleeing the Army, argued that the best strategy lay in crossing the Bitterroot Mountains over the Lolo Trail. He maintained that crossing the mountains would stop Army pursuit and that the Nez Percé could join with their friends, the Crows. Most of the other leaders agreed with Looking Glass, and Joseph deferred to him since he was a more experienced war leader. It is important to note that no one leader was responsible for all the nontreaty Nez Percé during the Long March. Leaders like Joseph, Looking Glass, Lean Elk, and others shared and conferred in decision making during the trek. For Anglo-Americans, Chief Joseph became the central figure of their historical imagination, thereby condensing and simplifying the narrative of the Long March into one person while negating the role of many different leaders and people among the nontreaty bands.

With Looking Glass leading the way, nontreaty people traversed the Lolo Trail. Near present-day Missoula, Montana, they encountered a small force of volunteers who decided not to engage the Nez Percé. After the encounter, believing that they had eluded the Army, the nontreaty bands traveled south to the Big Hole Valley, where they decided to rest, recuperate, and procure food. This area was familiar to many of the Nez Percé because they traveled here on their way to hunt buffalo on the plains of Wyoming and Montana. Feeling secure and celebrating their escape from the Army, they failed to place guards around the camp. Just before dawn on August 9, 1877, Army troops surprised the Nez Percé at their Big Hole Valley encampment. The troops moved quickly into the camp, firing indiscriminately at men, women, and children. As hand-to-hand combat raged through the camp, women, children, and the elderly escaped; the warriors regrouped and forced the troops out of the camp, eventually surrounding and pinning the soldiers down. Between sixty and ninety Nez Percé lost their lives during the battle (Josephy, 1971, 571). Most of the dead were women and children. Joseph and Ollokot both lost wives, and many in the camp lost their lodges and personal possessions.

On the night of August 10, 1877, while Nez Percé warriors kept the soldiers pinned down, the survivors of the battle escaped from the Big Hole Valley. According to Clifford Trafzer, Looking Glass lost much of his support as principal leader of the nontreaty bands after Big Hole. As the people traveled south and east toward the Yellowstone country, Lean Elk assumed much of the leadership role. Hoping to find refuge with their friends, the Crows, the Nez Percé faced bitter disappointment when their friends rejected their pleas for help because they did not want to anger the U.S. government.

With no friends and little hope of support, the nontreaty bands met in council and decided that the only option left open to them was to attempt an escape to Canada. The Nez Percé knew of the Sioux uprising and the subsequent escape of Sitting Bull and many Lakota to Canada. Lean Elk led the non-treaty bands, but he relinquished leadership to Looking Glass once the Nez Percé turned north toward Canada. As the Nez Percé began their escape, Looking Glass and others, not knowing that units under the command of Colonel Nelson Miles were about to cut off their escape route, encouraged the people to slow down and rest before their final push to Canada. Most of the people agreed, since almost all of them suffered from exhaustion, illness, hunger, or wounds.

Only forty miles from the Canadian border, the Nez Percé decided to camp at Snake Creek, located between the Bearpaw and Little Rocky Mountains. Before they started the last segment of the journey, Colonel Miles's force attacked the camp on September 30, 1877, and caught the Nez Percé by surprise. Once again, hand-to-hand combat occurred within the camp, with women and children fending off soldiers with digging sticks and knives. When the initial attack ended, twenty-two Nez Percé were dead, including Toohoolhoolzote, the leading tooat (shaman) of the Nez Percé, and Ollokot, Joseph's brother (Josephy, 1971, 600).

After the initial attack, both sides settled in for a protracted siege. The remaining nontreaty people dug shallow trenches and suffered from the cold and snow. On October 1, Miles proposed a truce and Joseph agreed to talk. At the meeting, Miles demanded that the Nez Percé surrender unconditionally and give up their weapons. As the talks ended, Miles captured and held Joseph prisoner. The Nez Percé retaliated by capturing one of Miles's officers. Joseph and the officer were both eventually released. On October 5, Joseph, the sole surviving leader, prepared to surrender. Joseph based his decision on the plight of the people, who were suffering greatly from the cold, hunger, and injuries sustained in the fight.

Believing that they were offering a conditional surrender, Joseph met Miles and Howard between the two lines. In exchange for their arms, Joseph and the other Nez Percé believed that they would be returned to the Nez Percé reservation in Idaho and that there would be no punishment for warriors who had fought in the war. After the surrender some people, including Whitebird, managed to escape the army and make their way to Sitting Bull's camp in Canada. The remaining 400 Nez Percé survivors were quickly sent to Fort Keogh (Montana), then on to Fort Leavenworth (Kansas). Eventually the Nez Percé were sent to the Indian Territory, where the U.S. government first placed them on the Quapaw Agency and then settled them on a piece of land on the newly created Ponca Agency. During the year and a half after their surrender, many people died from disease, malnutrition, and depression. The survivors of the Long March remained on the Ponca Agency until 1885, when the U.S. government allowed some Nez Percé to return to the Nez Percé Reservation in Idaho. The government forced another group of the exiles, led by Chief Joseph, onto the Colville Reservation in northeastern Washington. Of the 400 survivors after the surrender at Bear Paw, nearly half died during their captivity in the Indian Territory, or, as the Nez Percé called it, Eekish Pah ("the hot place").

Robert R. McCoy

Further Reading
Joseph, Nez Percé Chief. 1984. Chief Joseph's Own Story. Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press.; Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. 1971. The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest. Abridged ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; McCoy, Robert R. 2004. Chief Joseph, Yellow Wolf, and the Creation of Nez Perce History in the Pacific Northwest. New York: Routledge Press.; McWhorter, Lucullus V. 1940. Yellow Wolf: His Own Story. Caldwell, ID: Caxton.; Nerburn, Kent. 2005. Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce: The Untold Story of an American Tragedy. New York: Harper.; Slickpoo, Allen P., Sr. 1973. Noon Nee-Me-Poo (We, the Nez Perces): Culture and History of the Nez Perces, Vol. One. Lapwai, ID: Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho.; Trafzer, Clifford E., and Richard Scheuerman. 1986. Renegade Tribe: The Palouse Indians and the Invasion of the Inland Pacific Northwest. Pullman: Washington State University Press.

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