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Nez Perce honor ancestors at Big Hole Battlefield memorial

BIG HOLE NATIONAL BATTLEFIELD, Mont. – The morning dawned bright and clear after storms threatened the night before, and people began gathering at the Big Hole National Battlefield site a few hours later. It was a morning to continue the healing process with a ceremony in memory of that other morning, 129 years earlier.

On Aug. 9, 1877, troops under the command of Col. John Gibbon and some volunteers began firing into the tipis in a surprise attack that began well before daylight while Nez Perce families were still asleep. With limited firearms available, the warriors fought back, taking guns and ammunition from soldiers who died to provide weapons to those who didn’t have guns. Nez Perce warriors were able to drive the troops back to a stand of pines overlooking the camp site, eventually surrounding and containing them while their families gathered together what they could and continued their trek to what they hoped would be freedom.

But it was too late for many. Upward of 60 people died, perhaps as many as 90. The majority were women, children and elders. Among the dead was the wife of Weyatanatoo Latpat, who had given birth to a baby the night before. She and her sister, Tissaikpee, were found shot to death in their tipi and the baby’s head smashed.

Wilford “Scotty” Scott, Nez Perce, led the memorial on this August 2006 morning. “We’re always honored to be here, to honor our ancestors; that’s why we’re here today. But it’s always hard for our people when you hear the stories of what happened here. Today our people suffer the memories our ancestors suffered. Let them know we have not forgotten them,” he asked.

He explained that they travel to many memorials at 17 sites to pay honor to those who made the long pilgrimage in 1877 and their subsequent travels to Kansas and Oklahoma before being allowed to return to the Northwest. The first memorial was held in 1977 at the Bear Paw Battle site. The Big Hole Battlefield has had memorials each August since 1990.

Scott introduced Edith Earth Boy from Fort Belknap. It was she and her husband who began the memorials in 1977 after visiting the Bear Paw site, realizing the unrest that existed from what they experienced and the need to put the spirits to rest.

“This honor song is sung in every one of those places,” Scott said as the song began. “This is a very old song, handed down from many generations. It will carry our prayers to the heavens. We know they are smiling down.”

Scott said there would be two ceremonies, a horse ceremony and, later, a pipe ceremony. Before that, he asked if any women would like to take the microphone and speak. “The greatest honor to those sitting in the circle is to have the women speak to us,” he said. “We are all here to pay respect and be a part of the healing journey.”

Carla Gonzalez came all the way from Santa Fe, N.M., with her husband. “The songs help to bring healing,” she commented. “I always feel the spirit of the people who were here when I attend these memorials.”

Elaine Powaukee said, “The feeling here is so overwhelming, you can feel it in your heart – both the joy and the pain,” and added that she hoped her daughter, currently a college student, would continue this. Her daughter, Marsan Lawyer, also spoke, commenting how she had ancestors that were wounded there and how much the site and memorials meant to her.

Bessie Black Eagle, Miss Looking Glass, was another teenager who spoke, thanking those who had traveled so far to be here. Etta Axtell said, “We travel as a family, come as a unit, just like our ancestors did. But how we travel is a lot easier than it was for them.”

Two riders approached on horseback. Each rider was leading a horse with an empty saddle, representing those who had died here, the women as well as the men. Three times the riders circled the crowd. Scott asked the crowd assembled to offer their thoughts and prayers, “and let the song carry the words to your ancestors. Your spirits are smiling down and saying qe’ciyew’yew’, thank you, for the song; qe’ciyew’yew’ for being here; qe’ciyew’yew’ for remembering us.”

Horace Axtell, known as “Uncle” among many of the Nez Perce, conducted the pipe ceremony. All men who wanted to share the pipe were invited to join the circle as well as any women veterans who served in the military. Axtell briefly told how the ancestors in 1877 thought they could relax for a bit at this site, not knowing that the telegraph had alerted troops from another military base. “Our ancestors had to fight back and they did. We can’t erase the past. We need healing as we remember incidents that took place here – right here,” he said. “As we smoke the pipe together and hear the song.”

A number of men and some women took part in the pipe ceremony. Isaac Pinkham, 12, was presented with an eagle feather for his role in keeping the fire during the pipe ceremony.