Despite protests from the Nez Perce Tribe and the Salish Kootenai People’s Center, the town council of Philipsburg has approved construction of a diorama in the town square that depicts a confrontation between Nez Perce refugees and white miners near Rock Creek more than 100 years ago.
The life-size statuary includes three figures—a wounded miner clutching his arm and fleeing from two Nez Perce warriors armed with rifles.
The patrons of the artwork, who have offered it to the town, are Dennis and Helen Darling of Smithville, Texas. The Darlings spend the summers at their Philipsburg residence and believe the statues would prove to be a major tourist attraction.
Opposing their efforts is Liz Applegate, longtime Philipsburg resident, who serves on the local arts council and museum board. She believes the statues would depict a racial incident better left relegated to the pages of history.
“This whole affair saddens me greatly. I am embarrassed for the town of Philipsburg and for the state of Montana,” Applegate says. “I shall continue to voice my opposition in any way I can.”
Samuel N. Penney, chairman of the Nez Perce, has also voiced his opposition to the statue. “We urge you to reconsider this portrayal of a stereotypical scene which includes a ‘savage’ Indian,” he wrote in a recent letter to the town council. “This type of stereotyping has hurt many generations and, therefore, we cannot support it.”
Lucy Vanderburg, director of the People’s Center, wrote, “It is this typical stereotyping that we see whenever Indians are recognized. We want to foster positive education of the public and this, in our opinion, would be negative.”
White history records that, over a century ago, a group of Nez Perce was returning to Idaho from Canada when they met miners on Rock Creek, about 25 miles from Philipsburg. There was a confrontation, shots were exchanged and three miners died. J.H. Jones, another miner, ran for a number of miles with a shoulder wound, found a ranch, got a horse and went on to warn the people in Philipsburg of an impending Indian attack, which never happened. The Indians continued across the mountains to Idaho. Jones became known as “Nez Perce” Jones and retold the story often, adding embellishments over the years.
In a letter to the Philipsburg town council, The Darlings argued that the statue was worthwhile. “You cannot just sweep legitimate history under the rug because someone might take offense to part of history,” they said. “… To ignore Jones’ feat does this community and its history a great disservice.”