Nez Perce tribe honored on Fort Leavenworth.
Quentin Schillare | Special to the Fort Leavenworth Lamp
A tradition started in 1959 memorializes Native American nations in the housing areas on Fort Leavenworth. Since that time, 11 tribes have been honored: Kansa (1959 and 1964, two different areas), Delaware (1971), Kickapoo and Shawnee (1972), Ottawa (1990), Osage (1991), Pawnee (1992), Iowa (2006), Cheyenne and Nez Perce (2007), and Pottawatomie (2008). This naming convention is somewhat ironic because no other former enemies of the United States government are so honored on post.
The reasons for the convention are straightforward. In some small way, it makes amends for the turbulent times of the 19th century when ever-changing government Indian affairs policy and U.S. Army operations implementing that policy created conflict in parts of the nation west from the Missouri River to the shores of the Pacific and south from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. The 36 years from the “Grattan Massacre” in August 1854 to the surrender of Brule and Oglala Lakota Sioux bands in January 1891 mark the longest period of conflict in U.S. Army history.
The U.S. Army recognizes 14 campaigns with about 1,200 individual engagements involving soldiers during the Indian Wars. Most are obscure and their narratives are little remembered today, but some have entered the realm of legend. The Nez Perce campaign of 1877 is one of the latter. The campaign is significant in the history of Fort Leavenworth, and the tribe and one of its chiefs are the namesakes for three locations on post.
The traditional homeland of the Nez Perce nation was north central Idaho and included parts of Washington, Oregon, Montana and Wyoming. The Nez Perce helped the starving Lewis and Clark in their travels in the northwest with food and guides. They called themselves the NiMiiPuu (the Real People), but legend says that the name “Nez Perce” (pierced nose) comes to us from an interpreter with the Corps of Discovery.
In 1877, tensions within the tribe, conflicts with local white settlers, and an attempt by the Army to confine the tribe to a reservation led to deaths on all sides. The Wallowa Valley band decided to flee. Civil affairs leader Joseph, war chief Looking Glass, shaman White Bird and others led a band of 700 from the reservation. Fewer than 200 were warriors. From mid-June to early October, they conducted a running fight with 2,000 U.S. soldiers and Indian auxiliaries in five major battles and numerous skirmishes covering 1,700 miles in Idaho and Montana.
Initially moving south into the Bitterroot Mountains they turned north in an attempt to reach Grandmother’s Land. The grandmother was Queen Victoria and the land was Canada. They did not make it. After a final five-day battle at Bear Paw Mountain, Montana Territory, 448 Nez Perce surrendered — all but 87 were women and children. At the time, Chief Joseph is reported to have said, “Hear me my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
From November 1877 to July 1878, a band of about 700 Nez Perce Indians was confined in a camp on the fever-prone Missouri River bottomlands inside the Weston Bend on what is now Sherman Army Airfield. In a tradition established in 1863 during the Lincoln Administration, Joseph and others travelled to Washington several times to preach against theU.S. government’s broken promises, lobby Congress and talk to newspapers. Photogenic and articulate, Chief Joseph became somewhat of a national celebrity.
During their nine-month stay on post, 22-100 tribe members (accounts differ) died and were buried in a makeshift burial ground near their compound. The outline of the burial ground appears on old maps from that era. No trace of the burial ground remains. The band left Kansas for Indian Territory in present-day eastern and southern Oklahoma. They were not permitted to return to their homelands until the mid-1880s.
Nez Perce Way in the bottomlands at the southeast end of Sherman Army Airfield, Chief Joseph Loop circling the airfield and Nez Perce Village north of the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery honor the Native American nation from the Pacific Northwest. The tribe was considered an enemy of the United States 140 years ago, but today the determined challenge they presented to the Frontier Army is well remembered on an Army installation.