Ollokot was a Nez Percé war chief of the Wallowa band, living in the Wallowa valley of Oregon. He was the son of Tuekakas, also known as Old Joseph, and a Nez Percé woman named Arenoth. The exact year of Ollokot's birth is unknown, but he was probably born in the 1840s. Ollokot was from a large family with two older brothers, Sousouquee and Joseph, and several sisters. His name as a young boy was Tewetakis.
While his brother, Joseph, was learning to be a peacemaker, Ollokot was learning to be a buffalo hunter and warrior. He also developed an interest in his people’s dealings with the Americans. In 1855, he attended, with his father and brother Joseph, the Walla-Walla treaty conference, where his father signed the Walla Walla Treaty. In 1863 Ollokot also attended the Lapwai Treaty conference with his father and brother; this time his father did not sign.
Like his father and brother, Ollokot followed the “Dreamer” teachings of the Wanapam shaman and prophet, Smohalla. In essence, Smohalla advocated passive resistance to the forces of modernization and cultural disintegration. As Ollokot grew and came into his own, however, he became recognized among his people as a strong warrior and political leader, and greatly admired among the young warriors of his band.
Becoming war chief
Following their father's death in 1871, Joseph became the administrative chief and Ollokot became a war chief. He shared the leadership of the people with Joseph. Ollokot married Tamalwinonmi (heavy rain breaking branches, or cloudburst). They produced one child, a girl named after her mother, but was called Sarah (later, Sarah Connor).
Brigadier General Oliver Howard, commander of the Military Department of the Columbia at Portland, Oregon, authorized a meeting with the Nez Percé at Fort Lapwai, in July 1876. As a preamble to moving all the non-reservation Indians on to the Lapwai Indian Reservation in Idaho, the secretary of the interior set up a commission to buy Joseph's land. Old Joseph's two sons, Joseph and Ollokot, represented the non-treaty group. They remembered their father's caution: "Never sign a treaty selling your home. Your father and your mother are buried here. This country holds your father's bones. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother." Joseph and Ollokot restated their claim to the Wallowa valley and called for the removal of white settlers from there.
Ollokot played an important role in the peace initiative that took place at Fort Walla Walla with General Howard in April 1877. As war chief, he accompanied Joseph in his meetings and negotiations with the whites and consulted with him about the safety of their band and what was being said. On April 20, 1877, several Nez Percé met with Howard at Fort Walla Walla. Ollokot attempted to convince the general of the people's right to remain at Wallowa. "This is where we were born and raised," he said. "It is our native country. It is impossible for us to leave." Against Ollokot's protests, Howard replied only that the people must move to the Lapwai Indian Reservation in Idaho.
In May, Howard met with Agent Monteith, a representative of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and representatives of the non-treaty Nez Percé at Fort Lapwai. About 50 Nez Percé appeared, but Joseph and Ollokot requested that the proceedings be delayed until White Bird and his people arrived. Howard was adamant that the council begin, and he warned the Nez Percé that, while he was prepared to listen to them, that they were to obey the orders of the Government of the United States. Attempting to further intimidate the Nez Percé, Howard positioned the cavalry at Lewiston and near the junction of the Grande Ronde River with the Snake River, in an exaggerated state of alert.
Returning to their home areas from the Fort Lapwai council — under the constant surveillance of Captain Stephen Whipple and two companies of the 1st Cavalry — Joseph, Ollokot, White Bird, and the leaders of other bands readied their people to move onto the reservation.
As the Nez Percé was an association of independent bands, rather than a homogenous nation, each summer the Nez Perce leaders of the various bands met in council at Tolo lake to discuss policy and make decisions on common safety and security, trade, and treaties. They also took the opportunity to perform their “Dreamer” rituals. The yearly gathering also served as a general social gathering.
Some time during the first week of June, the people began to converge at the sacred grounds of Tepahlewam (Split Rocks, or Deep Cuts) on Camas Prairie near Tolo Lake, about six miles west of Grangeville. They included the five recognized non-treaty Indian band. Present were the Wallowas, Lamtamas, Alpowais, Pikunans, Husis Kute and the Palouses, or 191 men. Of those, only half were warriors; the rest were either youngsters or old men. There also were approximately 400 women and children in all the bands, so that the total non-treaty Nez Percé population at Tolo Lake was slightly fewer than 600.
Ollokot was highly regarded in military matters. With extensive military training and experience, he provided skilled counsel during the subsequent struggle. The combined band of non-treaty Indians had such other war leaders as White Bird, Chuslum Moxmox (Yellow Bull), Looking Glass, Toohoolhoolzote, Koolkool Snehee (Red Owl), Wahchumyus (Rainbow), and Pahkatos Owyeen (Five Wounds).
An unfortunate raid
While Joseph and Ollokot were away from the Nez Percé assembly at Tolo Lake, young warriors, members of White Bird's band, left the gathering and killed four white men at the Salmon River settlement. The four were the first white men killed by any Nez Percé in a generation. Anticipating inevitable reprisals from Howard's soldiers for the young warriors' actions, the bands started to move away from the lake. The so-called treaty people present in the camp, afraid of implication in the murders, hurried back to the reservation. Now that hostilities seemed unavoidable, Joseph and Ollokot joined the non-treaty natives in a new camp at White Bird Canyon. Joseph's reaction to the killings was regret. He now realized that only flight would preserve his people.
The Nez Percé War erupts
General Howard's reaction was to move immediately, not only against White Bird's people, but also against all the non-treaty Nez Percé. The initial engagement at White Bird Canyon in June 1877 would be between two units of the First Cavalry, about 90 men, under the command of Captains David Perry and Joel Trimble, and the non-treaty Indians. Eleven civilian volunteers accompanied the cavalry.
The Battle of White Bird Canyon. Still seeking a peaceful resolution to the onset of hostilities, the Indians sent out a truce party, flying a white flag. Unfortunately, a shot was fired at the Nez Percé truce team. That mistake triggered a quick, chaotic skirmish, known as the Battle of White Bird Canyon. In that skirmish, the Nez Percé had fewer than 50 warriors armed with bows and arrows, shotguns, old muzzle-loading muskets, and a few modern rifles.
During the skirmish, Ollokot, leading a number of warriors, emerged from cover, fired as they came, then charged into Perry’s mounted troop, frightening the horses and disorganizing the soldiers. The cavalrymen in the center, seeing Indians and confusion all around them, gave way and made a sudden rush for their horses. It did not take long for the entire command to be routed, fighting desperately for their lives. Warriors under Ollokot killed 34 cavalrymen — a third of Perry’s command — and more importantly, confiscated 63 rifles and numerous pistols.
Hysterical settlers sent word to General Howard that a large band of hitherto peaceful Nez Percé, under a famous tribal war chief named Looking Glass, was planning to leave the reservation and join the hostiles. Although that was false information, Howard accepted it as true. He separated Captain Stephen Whipple and his command from his own forces and dispatched them to intercept Looking Glass. Whipple reached Looking Glass’s village on the reservation and, although he found it peaceful, launched a vicious assault upon it.
An epic chase begins. General Howard obtained boats and started to cross the river, only to see that the Indians had crossed back over the river ahead of him and were disappearing into the wilderness. For several days, the Indian band led Howard's command on an exhausting, trying chase through inclement weather, steep hills and mountains, traversing some of the harshest ground in the West. The Indian strategy was to seek the protection of the Bitterroot Mountain range, where traditional cavalry tactics were useless. Approximately 500 women and children, and 250 warriors, moved over the Lolo Trail, crossed the Bitterroots, and then, hoping to avoid detection, moved southward to the vicinity of Yellowstone National Park, which had been crossed in August 1877.
Later, Ollokot boldly led a group of warriors into Howard's camp and captured 100 of their pack mules, thus severely hampering any further movements. The Nez Percé harassed and humiliated the cavalry repeatedly as they struggled toward Sitting Bull's Sioux (Lakota) in Canada. Still, the cavalry pursued, frustrated by the small group's resilience and skill. Indian strategy and tactics were agreed upon in councils of all the chiefs, and were carried out on the field by the younger war leaders and their warriors. Ollokot and the experienced war chiefs led the young men on guard duty or in combat.
The Battle of Big Hole. In July, before the Battle of Big Hole, Howard was back in pursuit of the Nez Percé with a reinforced force. Finding the Indian camp lying below him on the opposite side of the Clearwater River, he began to bombard them with a four-inch howitzer¹ and 2 Gatling guns², and launched an attack. The battle of Big Hole left about 100 Nez Percé dead, most of them women and children. Combat casualties were about 30 Nez Percé warriors dead, 25 soldiers and five civilian volunteers dead, and another 38 were wounded.
Following the battle, the combined Indian band headed eastward toward a pass that would lead the refugees over the Continental Divide to the Yellowstone, where they could turn north to Canada. West of the pass, Indian scouts brought word that Howard was catching up with them again.
In a bold night attack, Ollokot, three other chiefs, and a party of 28 warriors moved in quiet stealth back to Howard’s camp and ran off the general’s entire pack string. Howard came to a dead halt and was forced to scour the settlements for more animals, while the Indians hurried on, unhampered, across the divide and into Yellowstone.
From the beginning of the Nez Percé War to the end, the number of warriors led by the war chief Ollokot never exceeded 250 men. They fought some 20 engagements and five major battles against forces that totaled about 2,000 soldiers, many civilian volunteers, and several treaty Nez Percé scouts.
Despite the initial anti-Indian news reports, the Nez Percé began to receive favorable press for conducting themselves in an unusual manner for Indians "on the warpath," refraining from scalping or mutilating bodies, treating white women and noncombatants with humanity and even friendliness, and otherwise adhering to what was considered to be the white man’s code of war.
Battle of Bear Paw Mountain. Ollokot was killed while fighting at the final battle on Snake Creek, near the Bear Paw Mountains on October 4, 1877. Many soldiers and Nez Percé died in the battle. Gallant combatants fought a bitter battle under severe conditions: freezing weather, snow, and in the case of the Nez Percé, no food or blankets. In the end, the Nez Percé held off the U.S. troops long enough for 103 men, 60 women, and eight children to escape into Canada under the leadership of Chief White Bird. Then Chief Joseph surrendered, ending The Nez Percé War.
¹ Howitzer - a muzzle-loading high-angle gun with a short barrel that fires shells at high elevations for a short range
² Gatling Gun - A crank-operated ten-barreled .45-caliber rapid-fire machine guns capable of firing up to 1,000 rounds per minute with an effective range of about 2,400 yards.