The course of Nez Percé history, from the early 1850s to the late 1870s, included a saga of white America growing and expanding into their territories. The Nez Percé were a peaceful people who were willing to live with white Americans; unfortunately, Americans wanted lands that had been the ancestral homeland of the Nez Percé. Through the Walla-Walla Treaty of 1855, the U.S. government gained more than 6.4 million acres of Indian land and created a 7.5-million-acre reservation for the Nez Percé that was closed to non-Indians.
When gold was discovered on the lands set aside for the Nez Percé in 1860, the government wrote the 1863 Lapwai Treaty often called the Thieves Treaty by the Nez Percé. With the Lapwai Treaty, the U.S. government acquired approximately six million acres of Nez Percé treaty land. The government ordered the Nez Percé to a reservation in Idaho that was only 10 percent the size of the original reservation.
The treaty of 1863 proved to be a divisive element among the Nez Percé. Christian Nez Percé, led by Halalhot'suut ("Lawyer") accepted the new treaty and welcomed the reservation's protection. The Nez Percé who followed the Dreamer religion, led by the administrative chief, Joseph, and the war chief, White Bird, refused to recognize the new boundaries, or to remain on the new reservation.
When the army threatened military action to force the non-treaty Indians onto the reservation, Chief Joseph and his people, under the leadership of the War Chief White Bird, began a legendary 1,700-mile trek to Canada, the Nez Percé War. During that journey, White Birds authority as war chief took precedence over Joseph's, although they often led in tandem.
Chief White Bird was a leader of the Lamátta band of the Nez Percé. He was a Dreamer. Like many of his people, he was a follower of the teachings of Smohalla, the Wanapam shaman and prophet. The Dreamers believed that one day the white man would be driven away forever, and all Indians, both living and dead, would reside together in a paradisiacal world. White Birds name in Niimiipuutímt, the Nez Percé language, was Peo-peo-hix-hiix. The Lamátta band lived along White bird Creek in Idaho. White Bird was one of the Nez Percé who were adamantly opposed to the 1863 treaty.
Classic betrayal, classic resistance
When white settlers and miners flooded the Nez Percés' land and the white government violated their treaties to confiscate their ancestral home, the peaceful Nez Percé were driven to war. In the early summer of 1877, White Bird, arrayed in his war paint, rode through the country, defying the whites and loudly proclaiming that they would not go upon the reservation, that the land belonged to them, and that they would fight anyone who opposed their keeping it.
In June 1877, shortly before the deadline for moving onto the reservation, White Bird's band held a tel-lik-leen ceremony at the Tolo Lake camp, in which the warriors paraded on horseback in a circular movement around the village while individually boasting of their battle prowess and war deeds.
The attack at White Bird Canyon
For numerous years, the Nez Percé people had been good friends with both settlers and the U.S. Army, serving as scouts with army units during several Indian wars. However, on the night of June 16, 1877, Captain David Perry, the commanding officer of a detachment of about 100 soldiers from 1st Cavalrys Companies F and H, and civilian volunteers, prepared to meet the Nez Percé, potentially on the field of battle.
A few miles away, Nez Percé warriors waited patiently for the soldiers. They planned to talk first, but fight if attacked. To show their good intentions, six braves were chosen to carry a white flag. They waited behind a knoll while others positioned themselves, ready to hit Perry's flank if the peace parley failed. As a civilian scout neared the advanced guard, the six flag-carrying Indians rode out from behind the knoll.
The ensuing Battle of White Bird Canyon was a U.S. military fiasco nearly comparable to the Custer Massacre in proportion to the numbers engaged. The Army suffered the deaths of 34 men; on the Indian side, no warriors died and only three were wounded.
Chief Joseph and the Battle of Big Hole
On their flight to freedom, the Nez Percé had gone without shelter for about 30 days. His people's weariness led Chief Joseph to let them rest in the Big Hole Basin. They knew they had crossed into Montana Territory, and believing they were safe from General Oliver Howard's army, White Bird neglected to post sentries around the camp. Unfortunately, a nearby force of about 200 soldiers were marching to their camp under the command of Colonel John Gibbon.
In the early dawn of August 9, 1877, Colonel Gibbon's forces attacked the natives as they slept after six weeks of conflict and flight. Gibbon's attack took the Nez Percé by surprise and threw the camp into confusion. Under heavy fire from Gibbons men, the women and children, caught in their teepees, suffered terribly.
Although the soldiers and civilian volunteers attacked the village while most of the Nez Percé slept, White Bird helped to organize and rally the young warriors to mount a defense and forced the attacks to retreat to a wooded hill nearby. The soldiers dug trenches for protection, and the Nez Percé warriors surrounded their hasty fortifications and held them there. Meanwhile, the older men, women, and children in the camp buried the dead and fled again.
The Battle of the Big Hole lasted fewer than 36 hours, yet casualties were dreadfully high. Approximately 100 Nez Percé men, women, and children died, most in the initial attack on the sleeping camp. The proud leaders were infuriated by the slaughter of scores of children, women, and old men during that surprise onslaught.
The army catches up
White Bird and Joseph led the Nez Percé Indians until October 1877, when a force under General Nelson Miles attacked them at Snake Creek (Bear Paw Battlefield). Following a five-day battle, Joseph and many of the exhausted band accepted a cease-fire, surrendered to Miles, and become prisoners of war.
White Bird refused to surrender, however, and left the night of October 5, successfully slipping through enemy lines with some of the band. Bad weather, the wounded, many children, and uncertainty about the route they followed, slowed the tribesmen, so the journey into Canada consumed many days.
In October 1877, about 90 adults and a large number of children led by White Bird arrived with some 300 head of horses at Sitting Bulls camp in Saskatchewan. White Bird and his family settled in the Pincher Creek, Alberta, area to live out their lives.
The war chief never returned to the United States, preferring to stay in Canada at Pincher Creek. He was murdered on March 6, 1892 by Nez Percé Sam, a man of his own band.
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