Following the Nez Perce Trail: A Guide to the Ne-Me-Poo Park

January 4, 2012

Much has been written about the Nez Perce retreat to Canada, and Chief Joseph has assumed an important position in American mythos; perhaps Wilfong and her publishers sought a fresh approach to the story. But they should have published two books, the road guide and the retreat chronicles.

The 1,500 mile trail winds through Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. Most Nez Perce never made it to Canada. Harassed and badgered during their flight by panicked volunteers and a concerned military, they were stopped at Bear’s Paw. The United States in the person of Col. Nelson Miles ended the sovereignty of the Ne-Me-Poo people. The tribe who helped Lewis and Clark, the peace-loving nation that gave the world the Appaloosa, were beaten into submission and captivity. Wilfong address the end of freedom in a moving passage:

The Nez Perce, “more like a nation of saints rather than a horde of savages” (C. J., p. 4), were a noble people who lived exemplary lives long before the civilized white man came with promises, words which were broken time and time again by deeds. One of the messages of Warren’s poem is that the Nez Perce were America’s fathers just as surely as Jefferson and Lincoln and all those who followed them. The Nez Perce were mountain Indians who inhabited the Pacific Northwest from Montana to the Pacific Ocean. They were “a handsome and very vigorous people, but not basically warlike; and in general they refused scalping” (C. J., p. xi). Moving about with the seasons, they ate the camas root, a variety of lily; followed the buffalo herds; fished for salmon when it spawned in the rivers. The Nez Perce were not nomads, however, like the neighboring Plains Indians–Sioux, Blackfeet, Shoshones, Crows. Each band had an area of land which it called its own, and to which it was deeply devoted, rooted there by a sense of ancestry and belonging. Meriwether Lewis, representing Jefferson, promised the Nez Perce possession of their lands forever. Chief Joseph’s homeland was in northeastern Oregon, south of the Snake River, and called Wallowa, a beautiful word resonating with the name of the Viking paradise, Valhalla.

For those of you who have followed the … trail extensively, arriving at the Bear’s Paw Battlefield may be quite a moving experience. This innocuous, forgotten-looking state monument signifies the end. The end of the traditional sovereignty of the Nez Perce Nation. The end of the hope of escape. The end of your journey. Remember the beginning of the Trail at Wallowa Lake and the utter grandeur of the scene there. The contrast between that memory and the bleakness of the landscape here at Snake Creek is but a metaphor for the impoverishment of the Nez Perce People…. Their land, their horses, their caches of food, their lodges, their very own people-in just a few months, this wealthy tribe had lost almost all they valued.

Throughout the book, Wilfong effectively combines juxtaposition of today’s retrospection with voices from the past. Wilfong lets the Nez Perce speak for themselves. She has sought out settlers’ accounts and incorporated extensive military records. She allows the competing cultures and peoples involved the dignity of direct communication from the past to today and to future generations.

Wilfong’s research is meticulous. Her writing style is clear. The book is full of maps and illustrations. This is a painful episode in American history, but Wilfong has treated it with compassion and understanding. It is well worth reading.

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