A man and his wife woke to the sound of gun shots early on August 9, 1877. The wife told her husband to get his gun and fight. He told her to grab their 2-year-old daughter and run for the willows.
The woman’s child wasn’t in the tipi. She frantically searched through the animal skins for her daughter. When she stepped outside of her home, she found her—the little girl was walking toward the soldiers and their flashing rifles. The mother sprinted toward her, but before she could get there, her little girl was shot.
This is the story a nimí-pu, or Nez Perce, tribal elder told to start off the open microphone portion of the Annual Commemoration of the Battle of the Big Hole, Saturday morning. The story took place 141 years ago, but the elder tells it like it was yesterday.
“I can see this happening,” he says through a portable microphone, sitting in a lawn-chair circle with other tribal elders on the same soil their ancestors were sleeping on that day in August. “I can see the little girl walking, see the toddler get shot, see the woman grab that child and take a bullet in the back. But she survived. And she buried her child two days later somewhere on the trail at an unmarked grave.”
The two great-granddaughters of the mother that survived stood up at the end of the man’s story. To commemorate this story specifically, the elders asked for a young nimí-pu girl, close to 2 years old, to come to the circle at the front of the gathering. Sage tiwiiwasas Campbell and her mother came forward. The elders and tribal leaders gave her a chair and a small gift, encouraging her and the rest of the tribal members present to remember the sacrifices their ancestors made over one hundred years ago.
This story, along with the several others shared, weighed heavy on the 40-plus people who came to the Big Hole Battlefield, which is now managed as a Nez Perce Historical Park by the National Park Service. Most were tribal members, but the leaders stressed that the battle is Montana history and important for all Montanans to understand.
Historically, the nimí-pu people moved throughout about 7.5 million acres of land in Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Montana and Wyoming, where they would fish, hunt and trade. Then, in 1855, the Nez Perce agreed to give the U.S. government their tribal land, so long as it was protected as the tribe’s exclusive reservation, according the Nez Perce Tribe’s website. An 1860 gold discovery on the reservation led to a second treaty in 1863, which took away protection of 5 million acres. The nimí-pu outside of the small reservation left were considered non-treaty Nez Perce and refused to endorse this “steal treaty.” Their defiance led to the Nez Perce Flight of 1877, a 126-day, 1,170-mile, 8-battle run from the U.S. Army.
The Battle of the Big Hole was a turning point in this flight, according to the national battlefield’s website. The non-treaty nimí-pu, about 800 people and 2,000 horses, had passed peacefully through the Bitterroot Valley near Missoula and believed the U.S. Army was not pursuing them — that the fighting was over. They arrived at the soon-to-be battlefield near present-day Wisdom on August 7, 1877, to rest before heading to buffalo country.
Two days later, army soldiers made a surprise attack at dawn. Between 60 and 90 nimí-pu were killed.
“Looking around, I can think of many reasons why our ancestors stopped here,” Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee Chairman Shannon Wheeler said through the microphone. “I can feel the deep, heartfelt sadness of this place.”
Wheeler talked about how he carries the same nimí-pu name his great-grandfather carried through the 1877 battles. He said his people just wanted to be people, to be left alone to live their lives — a desire and challenge the nimí·pu· still face today as Indian people, Wheeler said.
“Every time I have to make a difficult decision, I think of the ultimate sacrifice my ancestors made,” Wheeler said. “I hope we can make similar sacrifices and go on for our people. I never want to forget who I represent.”
While the descendants of the Battle of the Big Hole spoke, the sweet smell of their sacred pipes wafted from the center of the tribal circle. In between stories and speeches, singing and drumming honored this history and six nimí-pu horses circled the gathering, both riders and animals decorated with colorful beadwork. Many of the stories were of sadness and heartbreak, but many were also of hope.
“We are a living history. We have an unbreakable connection with Mother Earth and with our ancestors,” Casey Mitchell or Sun Necklace said, secretary of the tribe’s executive committee. “This is where we were supposed to be, where the Creator intended us to be. No matter how much time goes by, we will always have this connection.”