Harry and I arrived in White Bird (population 91) at 7:00 p.m. I didn’t want to wait for a so-called “guided tour,” so I searched online and read about the Battle of White Bird Canyon in 1877. It was the first conflict of the Nez Perce War and a notable defeat of the US Army. White Bird had been the chief of the tribe, and in 1891, the town was established and named for the Nez Perce chief.28
We hopped off our bikes at the White Bird Motel, found in a valley on the most southern edge of town and south of the Nez Perce National Historical Park. I opened the front office door and saw Barbara sitting on a couch, with the television turned on, volume low.
After exchanging a pleasant greeting, Barbara stated the obvious. “You guys are way behind the leaders.”
I embraced her sense of humor. “What can I say?” is all I could muster in response.
While standing in the parking lot of the White Bird Motel, Barbara shared a brief history of White Bird and pointed to a memorial erected on the opposite side of US Highway 95. A prominent focal point in the center of town, the White Bird Idaho Veterans Memorial displayed the names of 107 of the Nez Perce who had served and fought for the United States. Barbara recounted that the Nez Perce had been peaceful and amenable to living alongside White Americans when the hordes began migrating west in the 1800s. Many years after that, in 1855, a US Treaty guaranteed the Nez Perce these lands they had occupied for thousands of years. After discovering gold here in 1863, the US Government pressed the Nez Perce to abandon millions of acres of their land. Many chiefs, including Chief Joseph and Chief White Bird, refused to move, but a handful of chiefs agreed, and in 1863 signed away 90 percent of their ancestorial land.29 Then, under threat of a cavalry attack in June 1877, Chief White Bird, who had opposed any treaty that took away land, led resistance in the region known today as White Bird. The Battle of White Bird Canyon was the Nez Perce War’s opening battle with the United States.30
According to Stephen Ambrose in Undaunted Courage, Lewis and Clark first met the Nez Perce when the Corps of Discovery made its way to the mouth of the Columbia River. The Nez Perce helped Lewis and Clark prepare for the treacherous journey over the Bitterroot Mountains in the winter of 1805. A trust had developed; the expedition left supplies with the Nez Perce that they planned to retrieve on their return trip east during the spring of 1806.
As I listened to Barbara talk, the account of White Bird and the Nez Perce tribe fascinated me. I stood at the Veteran’s Memorial and imagined the days of cowboys walking across the dirt road to the saloon for the afternoon gathering, their spurs kicking up dust with every step. I imagined a horse-drawn buggy coming down the same dirt road I had to bring much-needed supplies that would last for several weeks. The TV shows Lone Ranger and F Troop romanticized the communities where Whites and Native Americans lived alongside each other, a place I had found myself in on this day. I loved watching those shows growing up. At the time, I didn’t fully understand the complicated nature of the relationship between settlers and Native Americans.
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