Here’s the Bear Paw Battlefield in the rain.
It’s here that the hunt to eliminate a people from the face of the earth was called a war. It was just a hunt. That tree you see is Chief Looking Glass’s camp, a name received mistakenly from Lewis and Clark. The image below shows how that is looking now. It shows the hole Looking Glass dug on the top o the ridge to protect himself from cavalry fire while the cavalry was shelling the women and children below. And it is here he died, as the offerings witness.
The Hunt for the Nez Perce came about because of some cynical politics, that started with the protection offered to the American spies, Lewis and Clark, in exchange for a government-government relationship with the United States. The offer was never genuine. For the Nez Perce it was a s’lahal game, a sacred game, called a gambling game, which binds spiritual and temporal worlds. To the Americans, the game was poker. In poker, you can lie. The Bear Paw Battlefield is 40 miles south of Canada, and freedom. The Nez Perce never made it. They were dragged off to the Cherokee Reservation instead. The failure of 100 Nez Perce men in gun pits like this (with shells exploding among their tipis below) to stop the U.S. Army led to them being turned into Indians — a form of property.
Prayer Flags at Looking Glass’s Camp
Before that, they were the Nimíipuu. Looking Glass was not part of this hunt … that is until a group of vigilantes bent on genocide fired on his camp, killing women and children, 1300 miles to the west, although in the eyes of the U.S. Army and Government it was a legal camp within the boundaries of the so-called Nez Perce Indian Reservation. He had no choice but to flee as well. His trail ended here, above the willows of Spring Creek…
…which I walked through yesterday morning in the rain, thinking. Battles based on protecting military authority in foreign territory will never make that territory less alien. Racial slaughter under the guise of law will never strengthen the law. Such huge failures of intellectual, human and spiritual tradition can not be resolved. There are no butterflies anymore at the village of Lapwai, on the Nez Perce Reservation, although “Lapwai” means “the place of butterflies.” It was there that the non-treaty Nez Perce were to be settled after being forced off of their homelands to the southwest. There are no butterflies at Spring Creek, below the Bear Paw Mountains anymore, either, but the milkweed are still calling for them, here at Chief Joseph’s tipi site, in the battlefield.
And the battle? The men of the band could have shot their way out of the cordon and fled to Canada. The battle was fought to protect their wives and their babies, who were under cannon fire for 6 days — fire designed to force the mens’ hands. Think of this: in contemporary terms, the shelling of innocent women and children is called terrorism. As a boy, my own father was subjected to bombing of this kind. One American pilot even spent a half hour in his Mustang fighter, trying to shoot him for sport. He was 11 years old. I am pretty clear about this. The Bear Paw Battlefield is my battlefield. And it was
a hunt. The process of humanization is not directed at removing the stain of “Indian-ness” from the Nimíipuu. They were always human. It is directed at removing it from anyone who stands behind the law. The law is a transparent shield. Anyone standing behind it is visible. And the guns which they must continually use to maintain its veil are visible, too. So too is the spiritual world, which completes us and makes us truly and fully human.