The first casualty of the day was an old man named Wetestokaykt, who left his tipi before dawn. On horseback, he rode to check on the tribe’s herd of 2000 horses on the hillside west of their camp, across the Big Hole River. But during the night, U.S. Army troops and civilian volunteers had quietly assembled along the river. Their intention was a surprise attack which would drive the encamped nimi-pu (Nez Perce) to the meadow east of the river, where they would be encircled and captured. Instead, Wetestokayt startled them, a frightened volunteer shot and killed him, and the August 9, 1877 Battle of the Big Hole began.
I visited this National Park Service site last week, and learned the story of this place along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail. Set in the stunningly beautiful Big Hole of southwestern Montana, where mountain ranges rim the horizon in every direction, the sacredness of the ground where the battle took place is palpable. Barren tipi poles stand as stark reminders of the nimi-pu who camped, and died, here. My visit made me ponder what makes a place sacred, touched by the holy, filled with the reality of spirit. Is it history? Is it tragedy? Is it because death happened here?
Massacre might be a better word than battle to describe the day. There were about 800 nimi-pu asleep in their tipis that morning when Lt. James Bradley gave the order to attack. Instructions were to shoot low into the tipis, and then set them on fire. This was a camp of families, and of the 60 to 90 nimi-pu killed, most were women, children, and old people. Nimi-pu warriors, who numbered about 200, defended their people and forced the army to retreat. Some besieged the attackers on the hillside, while others intercepted a late-arriving howitzer and confiscated 2000 rounds of rifle ammunition. Thirty-one soldiers and volunteers died.
Who tells the story? There are eyewitness testimonies, both U.S. and Indian, of what happened that day. Some are brutal, some compassionate. Six years after the battle, the Army erected a six-ton granite memorial to the soldiers and volunteers buried there. In 1928, the Nez Perce Tribe added a second memorial, this one to the warriors. In 1951, a local man took it upon himself to add a third monument, memorializing “the infants, children, women, and old men who were wounded and killed near this battlefield by white soldiers.” These days, a thoughtfully made film shown throughout the day in the Visitor Center includes many voices, many perspectives. One Nez Perce woman in the film says the cries of the women can still be heard at the site.
Amid the smoldering tipis, survivors buried their loved ones. They gathered their belongings and prepared to continue their flight from the Army, which was under orders to place all American Indians on reservations to make way for the westward expansion of the United Stated. These “non-treaty” nimi-pu would travel over 1100 miles before most of them surrendered in north central Montana Territory at Bear Paw Battlefield, on October 5, 1877. There, Young Joseph said to General Miles, “From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”
The land is sacred because it is a burial ground, a cemetery without markers. It is as somber as Arlington National Cemetery, as holy as a churchyard. I recall the same sober feeling at the memorial pool on the site of the World Trade Center in New York City. This week Pope Francis visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, spending nearly all his time there in quiet prayer and reflection. Where people suffer and die at the hands of others, the place becomes especially sacred ground.
The humiliation of the nimi-pu did not end with their surrender. Terms of surrender included a return to their homelands in the Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon, yet this promise, like so many others, was broken. General Miles instead sent more than 400 of the survivors to Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas and then to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). For 8 years these people of the cool northwest mountains and rivers endured the “hot country,” where most of their newborns died and many people suffered from malaria. When permission came to leave Indian Territory, the nimi-pu were given two choices. If they consented to becoming Christian, they could live on the Lapwai Reservation in northern Idaho, a remnant of traditional Nez Perce territory. If they chose to keep their traditional spiritual practice, then they would live on the Colville Reservation in north central Washington, outside the bounds of their traditional homelands. Chief Joseph’s band went to Colville. And despite his international fame and visits with U.S. Presidents, his plea to be permitted to return to his homeland was never granted. He died in 1904, and is buried on the Colville Reservation.
As Moses met God on Mt. Horeb and knew the place on which he was standing to be holy ground, so the native peoples of this continent understand their spiritual connection with their homelands. Lois Red Elk writes, “This has always been my seat, the warm place on her lap.” (“Why I Return to Makoce,” p. 38) For Chief Joseph, and for thousands of other native peoples, removal from their homelands was the final defeat, for it wrenched them away from their sacred places and decimated their spirituality.
“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” (Psalm 24:1) May our every step be gentle, for every square inch is sacred to someone.