Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce The Untold Story of an American Tragedy
By Kent Nerburn
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2005 Kent Nerburn
All right reserved. ISBN: 0060513012
"We Thought They Might Be Descended from Dogs"
The nez perce first encountered the European world, and the Europeans first encountered theirs, in a wide, pine-rimmed meadow in the foothills of the Bitterroot Mountains on a sunlit day in the autumn of 1805. There, in a flower-covered field called the Weippe Prairie, in the state we now call Idaho, three young Nez Perce boys were lazily playing with sticks and bows while their mothers and grandmothers dug camas roots on the far side of the clearing. It was the autumn gathering time, and the roots they dug would be dried and pulverized and made into meal for bread. A good harvest meant a good winter, and this year the harvest was good.
Smoke rose from fires near the buffalo-skin teepees, which were set in the same places they had been set for as long as anyone could remember. Each family had its own spot, each band its own area. The gathering had the gentle grace of a yearly ritual, when the different bands of the tribe came together from their distant homelands to share in the harvest, to meet family and friends, and to offer the firstfruits of the camas gathering in thanks to the earth for the bounty she had given.
Only women and children and elders were in the camp. The younger men had gone off across the rugged hills toward the south to confront the Shoshone, who had killed three Nez Perce peace emissaries the season before. It would be some time before they would return, and by that time the harvest would be finished and the bands would be ready to return to their respective wintering grounds in the lower valleys, where the snow seldom reached and the waters seldom froze. The sun was warm, the digging was good, and the day had an air of quietude and peace.
Through this golden autumn peace the three boys heard the snorts of horses and saw a glint of movement in the woods on a nearby hillside. Soon a figure emerged, then another and another, all on horseback, all unlike any the boys had ever seen. They had arms like men, legs like men. But their faces were covered with fur, like dogs. One of the figures had hair the color of sunset. Another was black and had hair like a buffalo. He looked like a warrior painted for night battle, except that the blackness was not paint but skin itself.
The boys tried to run, but the creature with the sunset hair caught up with them. He made gestures of peace with his hands and gave them lengths of red ribbon. He motioned for them to return to camp and bring back the leaders of the people.
The boys arrived at the lodges breathless and terrified. They pointed to the field and told of the pale beasts with the hairy faces and held up the ribbons they had been given. In the Nez Perce fashion, the youngest boy was asked to deliver the worst news about these beasts they had encountered. He huddled with the other boys for a moment, then turned and spoke solemnly. "They all had eyes like dead fish," he said.
The strangers were led back to camp, where everyone gathered around them. They seemed by all accounts to be men, though not of any tribe that had ever been seen before. Their language was not recognizable and their condition was barely above that of animals. They were filthy and squalid and gave off a repulsive odor. With their hairy faces, there was some thought that they might be descended from dogs.
The "sunset hair" acted as the leader. He seemed friendly and offered gifts. Most important, he and the others with him carried guns with long barrels, a mysterious weapon of which the Nez Perce had only recently learned. Earlier that year, a band of hunters who had gone across the mountains to the buffalo country had traded for six of these strange weapons and brought them back to the Nez Perce villages. They spoke in awe of what these guns could do--about the terrific noise they made and how a ball placed in the long barrel could kill an animal from a distance far greater than that reached by an arrow.
The Nez Perce had long been known as the makers of the finest bows and arrows of any tribe, having learned to steam the horn of the mountain ram until it softened, then to shape it into a bow and strengthen it with rawhide attached with the boiled blood of the sturgeon or the grease from the skin of the salmon. Once hardened, these bows were powerful enough to launch an arrow completely through the body of a deer. All the tribes with whom the Nez Perce traded were hungry to obtain them.
But these long-barreled guns were even more powerful--perhaps not as efficient for warfare, but well able to pierce the leather shields of enemies and quite capable of stopping attackers and terrifying horses at a great distance. That these beings had these guns spoke of great power and influence, whether in fact they were men or beasts.
The dog-men were led down the hill to the camp of Twisted Hair, a chief who had been too old to go off on the raiding party against the Shoshone. Though frightened, he greeted the strangers with hospitality, feeding them a meal of camas roots and salmon. They seemed both appreciative and friendly.
While the strangers ate and slept, the situation was discussed in council. There was some thought to kill them, because stories had long been told about strange, pale-skinned men coming from the east who would bring sickness and ruin. But one old woman called Watkueis, or "She Who Had Returned from a Far Country," spoke to spare their lives. Years ago she had been captured by Blackfeet while in . . .
Excerpted from Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce by Kent Nerburn Copyright © 2005 by Kent Nerburn. Excerpted by permission.
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