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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.