The Nez Perce Trail is rugged, and often remote, but 167 horseback riders—both Indian and non-Indian—recently completed the annual 100-mile ride along it. Weather conditions made this year’s journey difficult with major winds, rain, and hail but the historical impact made it all worthwhile.
To understand the significance of this ride, we have to go back 139 years, to 1877. On June 17 a U.S. Army Battallion attacked the main Nez Perce camp at Whitebird in Idaho. The Army was soundly defeated but the tribe knew they couldn’t hold off the entire army so they decided to leave their homeland, traveling first eastward into Montana, then south through Yellowstone and then the hundreds of miles north to the Canadian border. Roughly 800 tribal members, entire families from newborns to elders, made up this group while being ambushed and harassed by the army along the way.
The trek lasted through the summer and fall. They thought they would be safe once they reached Canada and planned to join Chief Sitting Bull. Just 40 miles from the border, thinking they were well ahead of the army, they stopped to rest at a place now known as the Bear Paw. Unfortunately, the army was close behind. Following a battle that lasted five days, the Nez Perce were forced to surrender. It was here that Chief Joseph uttered the words, “From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”
That trail taken by the Nez Perce is the 1,170-mile Nez Perce Trail. Every year since 1965 the Appaloosa Horse Club has held a ride along the trail with each rider aboard an Appaloosa. They travel 100 miles each year, then the following year start where the previous ride ended. They measure the length of the trail at roughly 1,300 miles so it takes 13 years to reach the Bear Paw Battlefield in Montana, where they ended this year.
The Appaloosa horse has long been associated with the Nez Perce Tribe, or Nimiipuu, the name used long before white contact is now returning to use. They were selectively breeding appaloosas when Lewis and Clark passed through in 1805. Although the trail ride is not sponsored by the tribe, but rather the Appaloosa Horse Club, a number of Nimiipuu take part in the ride each year.
Rosa Yearout is one of those riders. She and her husband Jon not only make this ride yearly, they also raise and breed Appaloosa horses. One of their herds they refer to as their “old herd.” The ancestry of this herd dates back to Ollokot, the brother of Chief Joseph. Ollokot was killed during the Bear Paw battle.
Rosa explained that for the Nimiipuu the ride can be very emotional. “You’re thinking of what your ancestors and their horses went through. Every step is a sacred trail. When you’re growing up you don’t realize these things happened because it was hard for the elders to talk about. It took a long time for Nimiipuu to really connect to the old historical sites. It wasn’t till 100 years later, in 1977, that Nimiipuu people gradually went back to the Bear Paw.” Since that time annual memorials have been conducted at the Bear Paw and other battle sites along the trail to recognize what their ancestors had endured and to help with the emotional healing still needed.
Rosa also explained that the rides now are much easier, “not even like they used to be 20 or 30 years ago when you took everything with you on your horse or pack horse. Now your food is cooked for you. Everything is set up.” Friends and relatives drive vehicles from campsite to campsite so the riders are less burdened with camping and cooking gear. It isn’t necessarily easy, especially with this year’s weather conditions, but it does provide a dramatic comparison with 1877 when whole families made this trek with the army close behind and finally ending in the cold and snow at the Bear Paw.
Otis Halfmoon came three evenings to give presentations about the history of the trail and the Nez Perce War. Halfmoon is a Nimiipuu and recently retired from the National Park Service in New Mexico.
It’s still an emotional experience for many and Rosa told of observing a young man and his father in a quiet, solitary location at the Bear Paw Battlefield. “He couldn’t have been more than 10. His father had his arms around the boy describing the incidents that happened. It’s quite a thing for young people to grasp and to be at the site they’ve heard about.”
An empty saddle ceremony was conducted in honor of those who died on the trail. A Pendleton blanket was presented to Nimiipuu elder Jackie Paul Ingliss representing all those who were here in 1877, not only Nimiipuu but other tribes and army as well. A second blanket was given to Pat Bolger representing the trail riders who have passed away in the past year and also in honor of her husband, the Appaloosa Horse Club Coordinator, who recently passed away.