Excerpt: Rising from the Ashes

The following is an excerpt from Rising from the Ashes edited by William Willard, Alan G. Marshall, and J. Diane Pearson (June 2020).

Chapter 2: Nimiipuu Peoplehood, Survival, and the Indian Territory
By J. Diane Pearson

On October 5, 1877, an estimated 398 Nimiipuu as well as their Palus and Cayuse allies surrendered to the U.S. Army at Bear Paw, Montana.1 A four-month-long “flight or fight” defensive war with the United States that began on June 17, 1877, was thus ended. They had not reached safety in the Judith Basin, Montana, nor had they gained sanctuary in Canada. And in spite of Colonel Nelson A. Mile’s promise to return them to their homelands next spring, they were now homeless. As General Oliver O. Howard and Colonel Miles affirmed, most of the war leaders and war chiefs, including Toohoolhoolzote, Ollokot, Looking Glass, and other senior leaders and statesmen were dead.2 These deaths were in addition to the ninety-six younger men, women, children, and elder fatalities recorded by the Nimiipuu schoolteacher James Reuben.3 Facing almost overwhelming odds, younger leaders including Young Joseph, Yellow Bull, and Húsus Kute (Palus) had opted to surrender to Colonel Miles. Other leaders such as White Bird, who placed absolutely no trust in the United States, escaped to Canada. And those who surrendered did so with specific stipulations guaranteed by Colonel Miles. Committed to peace with the United States, the Bear Paw surrender accord guaranteed the prisoners’ almost immediate return to Idaho.4 Miles had promised that the prisoners would be returned to the Nez Perce–Lapwai Reservation in the spring, or as soon as weather permitted a move from Montana. As Miles would later defend, senior military authorities had overridden his decision; they would move the prisoners farther away to Fort Abraham Lincoln, and then again to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.5

Now, following ethnohistorian Alan G. Marshall, who addressed the many changes experienced by the Nimiipuu “beyond the written record of life in Northwest North America,” this study addresses the language, sacred histories, ceremonies, and sacred territories of these surrendered Nimiipuu and their peoplehood.6 The peoplehood model of identity, defined by American Indian scholar Robert K. Thomas (Cherokee), clarifies how these several hundred persons influenced their survival as federal captives. It also explains their unremitting desire to avoid permanent federal incarceration in Kansas or Indian Territory and to actuate their return to their Columbia Plateau homelands.7

The peoplehood model of identity, as laid out by Thomas (who expanded Edward H. Spicer’s definition of cultural enclaves), consists of four factors: language, sacred history, ceremonial cycles (religion/spirituality), and place/territory (homelands) that are “interwoven and dependent on one another.” These factors form a “complete system that accounts for particular social, cultural, political, economic, and ecological behaviors” unique to Indigenous people in specific territories. The four factors of peoplehood “intertwine, interpenetrate, and interact” as they illustrate why so many of the white man’s ideas, such as mechanistic land concepts, Christian doctrines, the U.S. Army, prejudiced federal officials, and the might of Congress failed to destroy the resistant Nimiipuu. The factors of peoplehood illustrate why these Nimiipuu were adamant about whom they were, where they belonged, and the fact that federal removal from their sacred homelands (Numipunm Wéetes—“Nez Perce Earth”)8 was a key motivator spurring them out of captivity.9

Language (Nimiipuutímt) in almost all of the Nimiipuu quotations in this study is nearly always expressed through an interpreter. Many of the conversations were, however, recorded through different interpreters and by people who maintained many different relationships with the Nimiipuu. When these various translations are examined in light of their social and historical circumstances, the theologies and activities of peoplehood emerge. These captives remembered and celebrated their sacred histories in many ways. They were also aware that they formed a new, sacred history in the making; they were a living captivity narrative. Leaders made point after point to federal authorities who threatened death and permanent expulsion from their sacred homelands; as their captivity wore on, some also communicated with the press, with Congress, with local businesspeople, and various federal representatives in especially meaningful dialogues.10 These, then, are some of the ancestors whom, according to Alan G. Marshall, contemporary Nimiipuu “reclaim” as they “revitalize what has been taken.”11

Peoplehood also illuminates the “organic, living, and spiritual nature” of the Nimiipuu that is “part of their heritage.” As Robert K. Thomas, Tom Holm, Diane Pearson, and Ben Chavis specify, “particular territories are always mentioned in sacred histories, and quite often creation and migration stories specify certain landmarks as being especially holy.” Burials, shrines, health and well-being, plants, water, earth, animal parts, and theologies “live in the expectation of divine intervention and the creation of more sacred places.” The peoplehood model of identity continues; “homelands are often considered holy lands, and even when groups migrate or are removed from original territories the people continue to attach great meaning to them.”12 In this case, the Nimiipuu prisoners understood that forced separation from their homelands meant the lack of spiritual/religious freedom, federal extermination or neglect, and, quite often, death. But in every possible instance, these prisoners expressed their theologies and spiritualties even as they became federal captives. They participated in inter- and intragroup ceremonials such as truncated winter ceremonials and mourning ceremonials; they even managed to engage in beloved interactive spiritual activities such as horse racing and gambling.

Holm, Pearson, and Chavis also propose that Thomas’s peoplehood model of identity has “vast explanatory potential . . . [that] reminds us as scholars that human societies are complex and that Native Americans entwine everyday life with religious practice” and a view that “human beings are part of, rather than an imposition on, their environments.” While no single “element of the model is more or less important than the others . . . we remember that the environment is an aspect of peoplehood.” Or, as Marshall puts it so well, “Nimiipuu culture is not found in this chapter, or in libraries, or in various media; it is found atop the mountains, in the valleys, and in the rivers.”13 As we see throughout the Nimiipuu’s period of federal captivity between October 1877 and May 1885, the “holistic matrix” of peoplehood “reflects a much more accurate picture of the ways in which” the Nimiipuu acted, reacted, “passed along knowledge, and connected with the ordinary as well as the supernatural worlds.”14 The peoplehood model of identity helps us understand Young Joseph, Yellow Bull, and other prisoners who repeated this mantra throughout their lives: they had made an official federal agreement that assured them of their return to the Columbia Plateau. These were the homelands that were considered sacred; even linguistically, the suffix “-pu” (also “-pa” and “-po”) identified the Nimiipuu as people of and not from a place. For example, to be Tisayaxpo was to be one of the “people of the granite rocks.” The Nimiipuu were also of Umnapu (East Kamiah), Tsaynaspu (Kooskia), Tawapu (Orofino), and of Tamanmapo (Salmon River).15

Condensing Nimiipuu ethnohistory in time, we find that these people and their ancestors have inhabited their Columbia Plateau homelands homelands for thousands of years.16 As ethnohistorians Allen Pinkham and Steven Evans explain, the Nez Perce—“Real People—have been in their Columbia Plateau homelands for time-out-of-mind: “Within the framework of legend, myth, oral history, and written history—in other words, in every dimension vital to a description of human beings in relation to place—the Nez Perces have always been where they remain today.” They also trace their tribal memory deep into the prehistoric past; based on the “large hairy beasts” described in Nez Perce stories, Nimiipuu “knew of these animals, such as the wooly mammoth and the miniature three-toed horse, which were slain and eaten by the tribe’s ancestors.” These stories, and other stories of “exploding volcanoes and darkened skies,” place the Nimiipuu in their homelands almost seven thousand years ago or earlier.17 These sacred histories reaffirmed Nimiipuu origins, and shared ceremonials reinforced individual, family, band, and community relations and spiritual ties. These sacred homelands provided subsistence, health, and places of worship, spiritual guidance, and access to personal, spiritual, or communal power.18 This peoplehood bound the Nimiipuu spiritually, culturally, socially, and physically.

1. McWhorter, Hear Me, My Chiefs, 499.
2. Tom Hill, in Curtis, North American Indian, 171; Oliver O. Howard, “Telegram to Division Headquarters from the Field,” October 8, 1877, ARSW (1878), 1:633, 1878.
3. James Reuben, “History of the Nez Perce War,” MS, MG5369, 1883, Special Collections, University of Idaho, Moscow.
4. Nelson A. Miles, “Extract from Annual Report,” ARBIC (1887), 59– 60.
5. John Pope, “Nez Perce Population Statistics at Fort Leavenworth,” December 4, 1877, NARA, microfilm 666, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, Nez Perce War File, Washington DC. For a historical discussion of the captivity experiences, see Pearson, Nez Perces, 77– 145.
6. See chapter 1 of this volume.
7. Robert K. Thomas, in Holm, Pearson, and Chavis, “Peoplehood,” 12.
8. See chapter 1 of this volume.
9. Robert K. Thomas, in Holm, Pearson, and Chavis, “Peoplehood,” 12.
10. Holm, Pearson, and Chavis, “Peoplehood,” 13.
11. See chapter 1 of this volume.
12. Holm, Pearson, and Chavis, “Peoplehood,” 14.
13. See chapter 1 of this volume.
14. Holm, Pearson, and Chavis, “Peoplehood,” 15.
15. Pearson and Harrington, “Numipu Winter Villages,” 48; Primary data from Archie Mark Phinney Papers, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Northern Idaho Agency, 1926– 49, boxes 4- 11, RG75, National Archives, Pacific Northwest Region, Seattle WA.
16. See chapter 1 of this volume.
17. Pinkham and Evans, Lewis and Clark, 10.
18. Holm, Pearson, and Chavis, “Peoplehood,” 7– 12.

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