Historic trail a scenic reminder of the tragic “war of 1877”

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Nez Perce Indians with an appaloosa horse, around 1895.
Nez Perce Indians with an appaloosa horse, around 1895. Photographer unknown. From Appaloosa: The Spotted Horse in Art and History, by Francis Haines (1963).

When Sandi Broncheau-McFarland stands on the Nez Perce National Historical Trail she sees two stories. As administrator she sees the 17­­­­00-mile span that stretches from Wallowa Lake, Oregon, to the Bear Paw Battlefield near Chinook, Montana.

As an enrolled member of the Nez Perce Tribe, she also sees the feet of her ancestors who carved out the trail over years of use, and of the tragic loss of many of her ancestors during a five-month confrontation with the US Army.

“From my perspective, the Nez Perce Trail is very special to the Forest Service because it’s the only historic trail we administer,” Broncheau-McFarland said. “Although historic trails have the same elements, such as character, beautiful scenery, and interpretation, there were never intentions of it to be a long-distance trail like a scenic trail. This trail is protected because of what many people call the War of 1877. We call it the flight.”

The Nez Perce consider the trail sacred, which is why visitors are asked to be respectful of the tribal heritage and reflective of the historic and ancestral events that occurred along the trail.

In 1986, Congress amended the National Trails System Act by designating the Nez Perce Trail as historic based in part on a 1982 report that focused on “the route used by the non-treaty Nez Perce Indians during the summer and fall of 1877 in their attempt to escape the United States Army and seek peace in Canada”.

The expansive trail, which has a corridor about one-half mile on either side, runs through 10 national forests (396 miles), two national parks (86 miles), including Yellowstone, three wilderness areas and numerous refuges, monuments, recreation areas, state parks and a fish hatchery. About 60 percent, or 728 miles, of the trail is on private lands. There are 2991 miles captured on auto tour routes, along with the side and connecting trails with 79 historic sites and six high potential trail segments.

For thousands of years, the Nez Perce, or Nimiipuu, freely lived as a self-governing nation in what is now Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and Montana. They selectively bred spotted horses; Settlers once referred to these spotted horses as the “Palouse horse”, possibly after the Palouse River, which ran through the heart of Nez Perce country. Gradually, the name evolved into Appaloosa.

Forest Service trail administrator Sandi Broncheau-McFarland is administrator of the 1700-mile span of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail.
Forest Service trail administrator Sandi Broncheau-McFarland is administrator of the 1700-mile span of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, which stretches from Wallowa Lake, Oregon, to the Bear Paw Battlefield near Chinook, Montana. She’s pictured in her tribal regalia during a presentation at the annual Chief Joseph Trail Ride. © USDA Forest Service

The Nez Perce would also fish, hunt and trade in areas now part of Wyoming. Their daily lives were not unlike today. They would hunt, fish, trade goods, and make their products in what Broncheau-McFarland describes as “nature’s supermarket,” using more than 100 plants and trees to make shampoo, skin cream, insect repellant and other such products.

In 1855, after decades of growing encroachment by settlers seeking more land, the Nez Perce signed a treaty that limited their reservation to 7.5 million acres of traditional homelands. But the pressure from non-Indians continued, spurred in part by the discovery of gold and the blatant encroachment onto and destruction of tribal lands.

“Pent-up emotions agitated by 24 years of depredation by miners and settlers, and now being forced to leave their homeland for the reservation, caused several embittered young warriors to ride out and avenge the past deaths of tribal members. The hope for the peaceful move ended and the flight of the Nez Perce began,” the 1982 report reads.

The 126-day flight for their lives – called the Nez Perce War by the US Army – included a band of 800 men, women and children led by Chief Joseph and other chiefs. Because of their deep familiarity with the landscape, they successfully outmaneuvered the Army although there were horrific clashes that included the bludgeoning of Nez Perce infants and desecration of the corpses of men, women and children. On October 5, 1877, Chief Joseph, largely to protect his people, surrendered at Bear Paw Mountain in the Montana Territory. Today, the flight is commemorated at nearly 40 sites along the trail.

The tribe lost most of its horses after the flight, and the breed fell into decline for several decades. But dedicated breeders preserved the Appaloosa as a distinct breed until the Appaloosa Horse Club (ApHC) was formed as the breed registry in 1938.  Today, the Appaloosa is one of the most popular breeds in the United States; it was named the official state horse of Idaho in 1975.

Payton Sobotta, a Nez Perce tribal member, dresses in custom regalia on the Chief Joseph Trail Ride.
Nez Perce tribal member Payton Sobotta in custom regalia on the Chief Joseph Trail Ride. The annual ride, sponsored by the Appaloosa Horse Club, covers a 100-mile section of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail each year, following in the footsteps the Nez Perce took for thousands of years. © Jennifer Rapoza Photography

For years, the Forest Service worked with the Appaloosa Horse Club on the annual Chief Joseph Trail Ride, which this year is July 25-29. The ride covers 100-mile sections of the Nez Perce trail, beginning at the start of the trail and then taking on 100-mile sections each subsequent year until reaching the end before starting over. The number of riders has declined in recent years, but the purpose remains: See and feel the story of the Nez Perce.

“Most people know something about the flight,” said Broncheau-McFarland, who wants people to learn more about the tribe’s history and peaceful nature of their existence.

“The trail was used for many purposes, like the trade link between tribes, for buffalo hunting, fishing, to visit other tribes and play games, to exchange cultural ideas and practices. We were a peaceful people who shared these lands with other tribes. It’s a huge story that includes the flight but has so many other aspects I want people to know and understand when hiking the trail.”

She believes that story should include compassion for the other side, including the military and the hired scouts.

“Those boys. So young and coming from all those foreign countries outside the US,” Broncheau-McFarland said. “Here they are ill-equipped with military and weaponry, not used to riding horses. Forced to engage in horrific acts. It must have been an incredible experience for them and how they survived. The ones who did. The story is much grander than one event.”

She said her compassion, indicative of the Nez Perce, honors ancestors and her children and grandchildren who served in the military.

Broncheau-McFarland dreams of the day when most of the trail is inclusive of those footsteps that came before and of the smaller battles and clashes that kept some tribal members as prisoners of war for decades. She also wants people to understand how a small band of Nez Perce fared so well against thousands of soldiers.

They knew the land well enough to find food and water while the military was reduced to stripping bark from trees just to feed their horses because they didn’t know.

Clothed in beautiful regalia, young women participate in the 2019 Chief Joseph Trail Ride along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail.
Clothed in beautiful regalia, young women participate in the 2019 Chief Joseph Trail Ride along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail. © Reggie Polfer

Part of the forgiveness for tribal members is welcoming non-members to Trail Memorials, ceremonies and pow wows. “We need to teach them about our history and hope history never repeats itself. This has always been our way of life. Nimiipuun’ee wit,” she said.

The agency is also working on a trail-wide non-government organization. Organizers chose the name Qa’an in’ iskt, or “guardians of the trail”.

Reporting: Kathryn Sosbe 

This article coincides with the 30th anniversary of National Trails Day on June 4, which is sponsored by the American Hiking Society, and Great Outdoors Month, a celebration of the outdoors that encourages everyone to embrace the outdoor spirit.

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