A Yellowstone tale 

Five years after the park opened, tourists stumbled into the last great Indian war.

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The Nez Perce story ended in sorrow. By October, the beleaguered tribe made it within 40 miles of the Canadian border, so close that many thought they were safe. Unfortunately, as with the Battle of the Big Hole, the Nez Perce could not outrun the telegraph. A message went out, and U.S. Gen. Nelson A. Miles attacked the Nez Perce at the foothills of the Bear Paw Mountains.

The awful, final battle lasted for five days. Poker Joe was killed. Chief Looking Glass, too. Only a few, including Chief White Bird, Red Scout and Halfmoon's surviving relatives, snuck to Canada under cover of darkness. Chief Joseph surrendered to Gen. Howard, who had finally caught up and promised that upon surrender the 500 remaining Nez Perce would be taken back to their reservation in Lapwai, Idaho. Under those conditions, Chief Joseph agreed. There the heartsick chief made his immortal speech, saying, "From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."

That winter, Gen. Sherman broke Gen. Howard's promise and ordered the Nez Perce penned and shipped on unheated rail cars to a prisoner of war camp in Kansas, then later to a reservation in Oklahoma, where many died of disease. For years Chief Joseph pleaded with leaders in Washington D.C. for his people to be returned to their homeland. Finally, in 1885, some of the Nez Perce were allowed to return to the reservation in Idaho, but Chief Joseph was still considered too dangerous to join them. He was exiled to the Colville Reservation in north-central Washington, where he died in 1904. His doctor said the cause of death was "a broken heart."

In the few years after the Nez Perce's run through Yellowstone, in which two other unlucky tourists were killed and others wounded, park superintendent P. W. Norris evicted bands of Western Shoshone known as Sheepeaters, the only Native Americans to call the Yellowstone region their year-round home. Though the Sheepeaters played no role in the Nez Perce War, Norris feared their presence would discourage tourists.

When Halfmoon visited Nez Perce Creek, he had a revelation about his tribe's journey. The Nez Perce had made incredible time running from Gen. Howard, even traveling uphill through thick timber over the rugged Bitterroot Mountains with women, children, their injured, wickups and hundreds of head of livestock. In Yellowstone, their pace slowed. Some historians said it was because they didn't know their way. Halfmoon thinks it was something else.

"I saw the trees and I felt the cool air in Yellowstone Park and it reminded me of the Wallowa Valley," he says. "I realized that it must've been at this point that these people became very homesick, realizing that they would never see the trees or feel the air of their home again, and they realized by then that if they were caught they would be slaughtered. These feelings slowed them down."

Reflecting in her memoir on the treatment she received at the hands of the Nez Perce, Emma wrote, "knowing something of the circumstances that led to the final outbreak and uprising of these Indians, I wonder that any of us were spared." In perhaps an unwitting nod to the Nez Perce's pursuer, "Christian" Gen. Howard, Emma added, "Truly a quality of mercy was shown us during our captivity that a Christian might emulate."

That message was passed down in family lore.

"My grandmother always told me that my great-grandmother and great-grandfather never harbored any animosity toward the Nez Perce," Hawkins says. "They understood later what the Nez Perce were going through, that they were being driven from their homes."

The story of the Cowan family and the Nez Perce goes on. Halfmoon is a national park ranger who worked for years at the Bear Paw Battlefield and is an expert on the Nez Perce War of 1877. He had searched for years for descendants of George and Emma Cowan. When contacted, he called back within minutes. "You found Cowans, eh?" he said.

Halfmoon explained that beginning in 1977, the centennial of the war, the Nez Perce began an annual powwow on their reservation in Lapwai. The tribe has made it a tradition at the Chief Joseph and the Warriors Powwow also to honor descendants of the cavalry who chased the Nez Perce. It is to recognize their shared history, Halfmoon said.

He extended the same welcome to the Cowan descendants. "We would like to honor them," he said.

Thus, a June 2011 email sent from New York City addressed to Hawkins, her cousin Sharon Strand and Halfmoon marked the first time there was contact between the Cowan family and the Nez Perce tribe since their ancestors met in Yellowstone Park almost 134 years earlier. Halfmoon called Strand and invited her and her family to the Chief Joseph and the Warriors Powwow. The timing didn't work out, but the two had a friendly chat and plan to one day meet one another.

The Nez Perce Creek that the Cowans and the tribe encountered on their historic Yellowstone visit had no fish, as it sat above an impassible falls on the Firehole River. In 1890, it became the first stream in Yellowstone to be stocked with Von Behr brown trout, a species of fish that originally hails from Germany. These trout flushed up and down the watershed and, in the next few decades, were bolstered by additional stocks of brown, rainbow and brook trout throughout the Firehole, Gibbon and Madison River systems. The result was that by the time Emma Cowan died in 1939, these rivers were all great sport fisheries, but their native Westslope cutthroat trout, which she delighted in catching and eating in the days before her capture, were either exterminated, hybridized or pushed into just a few tiny, inhospitable headwater streams where no other trout lived. Thus, Nez Perce Creek trout supply is a metaphor for European settlement of North America and the treatment of its native people.

For an interview with Nate Schweber, click here. Schweber will give a reading in Missoula on Sat., Aug. 25, at 11 a.m. followed by a mini-concert with Chip Whitson and Bob Wire, at Shakespeare & Co., 103 S. Third St., 549-9010.

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