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Whitebird Battle Remembered: Nez Perce Hold Annual Memorial

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WHITEBIRD, IDAHO—It was June 17, 1877. Attempts to negotiate a reservation in the Wallowa Valley of Oregon had failed and the Nimiipuu, as the Nez Perce refer to themselves, were ordered to move to the reservation at Lapwai. A few warriors out of frustration and many years of injustice, avenged the murder of the father of one of the warriors. Tribal leaders recognized the army would likely respond so changed their route and rather than continuing to Lapwai, turned south and made camp at Lahmotta, near the present town of Whitebird.

At daybreak, the army of 106 mounted soldiers and 11 volunteers rode into the canyon leading to the Indian encampment. Scouts watched the army approach and a peace party of six Nimiipuu men carrying a white flag rode to meet them, hoping to avoid a battle. One of the volunteers opened fire and the Nimiipuu responded. What might have been a peaceful settlement turned into the first battle of the Nez Perce War. A war that would include many battles as the Nimiipuu traveled into Montana, through Yellowstone in Wyoming, and then nearly to the Canadian border trying to avoid the army and reach what they hoped would be safety in Canada.

This first battle was a rout as 34 soldiers died and only two or three Nimiipuu were injured and none were killed. But it signaled the beginning of a war that was to last until October 5 when Chief Joseph formally surrendered.

Every year the tribe remembers the battles and suffering and holds memorial services to help the healing continue. Horace Axtell and Wilfred Scott, both tribal members, have led these memorials for many years. The group which assembled at the Whitebird battle site this year was not large but emotions ran deep. Several voices broke as tribal members took the microphone to tell stories passed down to them of that summer and the losses and hardships to their ancestors.

Julia Davis-Wheeler, a member of the tribal executive committee, said, “Each of us had relatives that were in it (war of 1877). When you hear the story about how it began here and how our warriors pushed them back and were able to protect our women and children; that was unbelievable. We’re here today to pay our respects to our ancestors that mean much to us in our hearts. We may be small in number but we’re big in heart.”

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Jesse Paul talked of his grandfather who was a young boy of seven and crossed the Snake River from the Wallowa country of Oregon in 1877. Jesse’s great-grandfather, Seven Days Whipping, was a warrior with Joseph and fought all through the war until he was captured in Bear Paw and sent down to Oklahoma territory. “My grandfather had five brothers and sisters and several were killed at the Big Hole and the rest died in Oklahoma.”

Furmore Craig Sr. was one of many who talked of their ancestors who fought in the war, “What they went through to survive for us to be here to come back to this day. They, in that other world, know that we’re here this day. They know what we’re doing this day. We come here with good hearts, good minds. In our own way and in our own hearts we remember their names and what went on here.”

Wilfred Scott talked of the importance of horses to the tribe and how the warriors would make three circles of the camp before leaving for a battle. Then on their return they would again circle the camp but now some of the horses might be riderless, signifying those who had died. Four horses and riders were present at this memorial service and they again made three trips around the group in memory of the war of 1877.

Each rider shared stories passed down about the war. Betsy Black Eagle told of her great-great-grandmother and how she had ridden her horse out through the battlefield after the battle and seeing the soldiers lying around and how she kept saying ‘this war shouldn’t have come. Our people didn’t want this to happen but it did.’ Betsy added, “I’m proud to be a Nez Perce and proud to be here with everyone today.”

Scott encouraged all the veterans and others invited to close up the circle. Horace Axtell, whose grandparents were members of the Joseph and Whitebird bands, then conducted a pipe ceremony with three pipes each making three rounds of the circle and each person was given the opportunity to express their thoughts or stories.

The memorial ended with a drum song.