Big Hole National Battlefield

Looking down onto Big Hole National Battlefield from the site of the howitzer. Museum and informational center visible middle left.

When I visited my brother in Montana, he suggested we visit the Big Hole National Battlefield. He had seen it from a distance multiple times, knew it was the scene of an Indian battlefield, and knew I am into all things American Indian. He had not stopped to take a closer look, though. I had not heard of Big Hole and was definitely on board.

But let me back up and tell the story from the beginning. We are in a pandemic! And I am a traveler! And I had not yet traveled in 2020. Therefore, going as far away from my Oregon home as Montana was a big, exciting deal. The highway departments did not let me forget it was a pandemic, however.

“Stand 6 FT apart.”
“COVID-19 is still spreading. Wear a mask.”
“Multnomah Falls parking lot closed.”
After 9 hours of driving, the sign on the left was the one I was excited to see: Welcome to Montana.

It was late when I got in, and I had missed Tanner’s wife, who had just left to serve our country on the front lines as an emergency room nurse on an overnight shift. (Big Love) The kids were there, and a little bit shy but even more curious, as I met my nephew and niece for the first time. Tanner called his neighbor/buddy to pick up buns for our BBQ on the way home, and once the buns were delivered he stayed and his kids showed up too. The grown ups immediately got down to some serious blabbing, while the kids made a smarter choice.

Nephew gets ready to swing (see the ball, right in front of the red shirt?), while his sister and neighborhood friends, and dogs play along. Dogs are named Rizzo, Wrigley, and Ryno. Cubs fan, anyone? Boring adults stayed indoors to drink and talk.

After my trip to Jordan last Fall, Tanner kept mentioning the aged wine I brought back. It was over a decade old when I bought it from the Haddad brothers, and even older now because I have been saving it to share with Tanner, when I ever got to hang out with him. All three of us decided it was delicious, and polished off the entire bottle, while telling lots of stories, many of them with the theme of Tanner finding out last year that he was related to the Trulove family.

Tanner, me, Tanner’s bff, and some really awesome Jordanian port.

The kids all stayed the night at neighbor’s house, so when Tanner and I got up the next morning, we realized we could slip away quietly before the kids knew what was happening. Off we went, south into the high mountain passes and valleys of Western Montana. The landscapes are stunningly beautiful. No wonder so many movies are filmed in Montana.

A Montana landscape I shot while Tanner was driving.
It’s predictable: fence, field, trees, mountains. But spectacular every time.

We finally arrived at Big Hole National Battlefield and saw more signs, cars, and attendees than expected. We were met at the entrance by a Park Ranger who asked us if we were there for the commemoration. “What commem–?” Tanner started to say, then looked at me and explained with a wink that he is such an outstanding host that he had planned this all out ahead of time. During our entire visit, a large gathering of Nez Perce people were honoring their ancestors who camped and fought on this site.

Members of the Nez Perce tribe came from far away to gather together (family groups socially distanced) and honor the memories of their ancestors.
Drummers and singers sit in a circle (distanced from the audience), behind guests of honor, while speakers took their turn at the mic. An attendant disinfected the microphone between each speaker.
A common theme I heard in the museum, as well as from the speakers, was the importance of forgiveness and collaboration with white descendants in order to have healing.

A ceremony was underway right then because that day was exactly 143 years since military scouts spied on a Nez Perce camp and prepared to slaughter them.

The Nez Perce call themselves Niimíipuu, which means The People. French Canadian fur trappers and traders called them nez percé, meaning “pierced nose,” but that was a poor name, since nose piercing was never practiced by the tribe. The Nez Perce tribe was one of the largest American Indian tribes in North America before European settlers and gold miners and trappers made their way into the West. Their territory encompassed 13 million acres and their people ranged across what is today Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and Canada. The Nez Perce were there and met explorers Lewis & Clark in 1805. Seventy years later they had lost all but 750,000 acres to Europeans.

My elementary and high school education lacked nearly all of the important Indian historical events, but in the 4th grade in Glide, Oregon, we did watch a movie about Chief Young Joseph called I Will Fight No More Forever. It was written for television in 1975 and told the story of how Nez Perce Chief Joseph refused to sign a treaty and live on a reservation, as instructed by the U.S. Government. Joseph took his people – including the elderly, and children – and made an attempted escape of 1,170 miles to reach the Canada border and safety. The story stuck with me ever since. If the only Indian story I ever learned in school stuck with me from that moment on, imagine how much Indian history would be better understood if more kids got more Indian stories in school today?

The visitors center overlooks the battle site.
Nez Perce on horses explore the site of the camp that was ambushed.

August 8, 1877, over 800 Nez Perce camped at Big Hole and pastured their 2000 horses, unaware that they were being followed by the U.S. Army. The morning of August 9, a Nez Perce man was shot, alerting the camp, and the battle began. Soldiers had surrounded the camp and shot men, women, and children as they fled in terror. The Indians fought well, and even captured their howitzer after it had only fired twice. They dismantled it and rolled the barrel down the hill. From 60 to 90 Indians were killed, more injured. Of the military and civilian volunteers, 31 were killed and 38 injured.

Hundreds of Indians survived this battle and continued to flee toward Canada. September 29 was the last of multiple battles at Bear Paw. General Miles told Chief Joseph he could return with his people to their homeland, so he surrendered. Instead, 400 Nez Perce were captured and sent to Oklahoma. Of the original group that fled in June 1877, only 250 people made it safely to Canada.

Visitors were encouraged to distance between family groups, and were kept far back from the speakers. Everyone wore a mask, including non-Indian visitors, and the Park Rangers. In the background you can see the field where the horses of the fleeing Indians were pastured in 1877.
I think this little dude’s mask was on his forehead.
Tanner and I listened to these men drumming and singing.
Young people were dispatched to deliver sack lunches to all the participants.

Inside the visitor’s center, Park Rangers made sure only a limited number of people were inside at a time, and we watched a short film explaining the site’s history to people scattered 6 feet apart inside the theatre. There were artifacts from the battle itself, and information boards explaining some of the history there.

Tanner checks out beadwork after the film was over.
Beadwork on display at the museum.
The sign says, “Congratulations! You have successfully navigated our sign garden today!” I was pleased that the Visitor’s Center was being so careful to post signs and attendants to keep us all as safe as possible. The threat of COVID-19 is visceral in Indian Country, striking Native Americans 3.5 times higher than white Americans, and affecting more young Natives than the average population.

After listening to the commemoration before and after visiting the museum and visitor’s center, Tanner and I then headed to the valley below and walked some of the trails of the historic site. The first trail we followed took us through the valley and across Trail Creek, then up the hill to the area where the military and civilians entrenched themselves once they realized the Nez Perce were putting up a serious fight. We walked to the site where the mountain howitzer was placed when it fired upon the camp.

The site where Indians captured the howitzer.
12-pound Mountain Howitzer, aimed at the Indian camp along the creek below.
There is also a monument to the fallen soldiers and voluntary fighting civilians who died in the battle.

It was a sobering and educational visit and it meant a lot to me to be present during the commemoration ceremony. After several hours at the site, Tanner and I hopped into his truck and went in search of some lunch. Stay tuned for our adventures in a ghost town during the second half of the day.

8 thoughts on “Big Hole National Battlefield

    1. I agree that it is important history. I didn’t realize Joseph fought multiple battles before his people were captured only 40 miles from reaching safety at the Canada border. But I’m glad to know the story better now. I had not heard of Angie Debo, but I checked the link and looked up a little more about her. She grew up in Oklahoma and focused much of her scholarship on Oklahoma history, which is so important for so many Indian tribes. The U.S. govt tended to dump all captured tribes into Oklahoma, no matter who they were or where they were captured. I’ll bet Debo has some valuable insight and I will remember her name next time I do some digging.

      Hey! Speaking of books, I bought my own personal hardbound copy of The Stray, because of your post with the brilliant illustrations. I read almost the entire thing in one sunny afternoon in the backyard. It’s so enjoyable. I wish I had been able to read it to Tara while they were growing up. Thank you for that experience. 🙂

  1. Beautiful country, certainly. I’m glad the trip was so synchronistic for you. I will say, I can never understand man’s cruelty to other men and their willingness to eradicate them. Every time I read about these things, I become ill by it. The larger photo of you and your brother can leave not a shred of denial that you are related. My goodness those smiles are identical.

    1. I am sorry to be the one to bring these painful stories into your life. I do worry about you and your extraordinary empathy when I post. When I took that Indians class this Spring, we learned about massacre after massacre after massacre of Indians, and the class spent a lot of time reeling in shock. It was rough. And we got through it, and many expressed how we wished we had known this from childhood; how we wished every American knew these stories. Because despite the ugliness, it’s even uglier to me that the stories are hidden, and instead we believe this grand tale about the so-called heroes that tamed the continent. So – as you’ve probably noticed – I’ve been telling the painful Indian stories in my blog as they come up in my own life. Doing my small part.

      I don’t want to hurt you, or anyone. So please know that I’ll keep telling these stories, and maybe you can skip them if it’s going to be too much. I think for everyone who is able to read it though, I am doing a service that is beneficial more than harmful. I hope so anyway. *sigh*

      1. You are absolutely correct. They DO need to be told over and over. They need to be told to younger and younger people until we all get what we are doing to each other and the planet. I’m almost embarrassed to be white. But we are not the only people that commit such atrocities. Genocides are being carried out all over the globe and even in the sea, on land animals and everywhere you look. We are a violent lot and it’s sad. You keep bringing this to the attention of those more callous. They need to know.

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