CHINOOK, Mont. - October 5, 2003 was a cloudless, warm day on the northern fringe of the Bear Paw Mountains, unlike that same date in 1877 when snow blanketed the ground and a bitter wind blew. Nez Perce children were crying from the cold and lack of food when Chief Joseph made his famous speech: "From where the sun now stands I shall fight no more forever." After a trek of 1,300 miles in an attempt to reach safety in Canada and after numerous battles with army soldiers, he had to stop just 40 miles from the border in order to save the youngsters and keep his people together.
Every year since 1977, Nez Perce people have traveled several hundred miles from their homes in Washington, Oregon and Idaho to this site in north central Montana to pay honor and respect to their ancestors killed here. About 30 died on this battlefield including the renowned Looking Glass and Joseph's brother Ollicut and another 50 or so were wounded including many women and children.
The battlefield is known as the Bear Paw Battlefield about 16 miles south of Chinook alongside Snake Creek where the Nez Perce had tried to rest and recover before making the final push to Canada. The memorial began in mid-morning with Assiniboine and Gros Ventre people from nearby Fort Belknap joining with the Nez Perce and others to remember and honor those who had died here. Wilford "Scotty" Scott (Nez Perce) was in charge of the memorial while revered elder Horace Axtell, known to many as "Uncle" conducted the traditional ceremonial portion.
Horses were tailored from Lapwai, Idaho for a rider-less horse ceremony. Two riders circled the area, each leading a rider-less horse. One was saddled with a woman's saddle to honor the women and girls who died and the other honored the men and boys who died. A number of people received gifts for what they had done and Edith Earthboy, Assiniboine, was particularly recognized for her help over the years with this memorial. Scott told her, "We will never forget, never forget, what you do for us, the Nez Perce people." Earthboy had prepared food to be taken to the campsite following the ceremony "for the spirits of our ancestors to feed all of them."
Many people spoke of their feelings at this site and of their nearly overpowering emotions. Most people had ancestors here during the battle in 1877, some of whom died and were buried here. The memorial ended with a pipe ceremony and traditional songs and prayers.
Prior to the memorial at the Bear Paw Battlefield, a small group of about two dozen Nez Perce gathered at another site a few miles away. In 1877, a priest had recorded in his journal that he heard shooting but had not immediately checked on it as he thought hunters were probably shooting. Later, the bodies of seven Nez Perce were found here.
The location is on private ground and as the group approached the coulee where the bodies had been found, a small herd of antelope were resting nearby. With the women on one side and the men opposite, Axtell led a memorial service of songs to honor the seven who had died here. It's not known precisely where they died so a simple brown wooden post serves as a common grave marker. Several spoke of their emotions at visiting this gravesite of their ancestors as a small flight of geese flew low overhead.