Leopard, Snowflake, Blanket, Marble, Frost

Carolyn Kremers

I think of the Nez Perce, called "Pierced Noses" by French Canadian trappers, who saw some of the tribespeople wearing in their nostrils small, single dentalium shells, traded from Vancouver Island.  The Nez Perce were the most skillful horse breeders among North American Indian peoples.  I am drawn to their jewel, the appaloosa.  Developed in the mid-1700s from horses traded, stolen, or captured from wild herds, the appaloosa was noticed by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark when they visited the Nez Perce in 1805.

The musical name came from the French-speaking mountain men: Š Palousť, of the Palouse country . . . appolousy . . . appaloosa.  The animals thrived in the fertile, sheltered valleys of the Clearwater, Snake, and Palouse Rivers in what are now Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.  Appaloosas as well as other types of horses were selectively bred for a century by the tribe.  Carefully the Nez Perce culled the herds, castrating male horses that lacked traits the Nez Perce valued and trading unsuitable female horses to other Indians.  Favored for the appaloosa were a wispy tail and mane, to avoid entanglement with bushes and scrub; tough, resilient hooves, for speed and stamina in running; a hardy physique and cooperative temperament, suitable for both war and hunting; and a celebratory, spotted coat, described today in five patterns.  Leopard. Snowflake. Blanket. Marble. Frost.

At the height of its history, the Nez Perce tribe had perhaps 4,000 members and 12,000 horses.  I try to imagine the feelings, the nip in the air, as some of the tribe neared Canada and the approach of winter, in 1877, just north of the Bearís Paw Mountains in what is now Montana.

More than 750 men, women, children, and sick and old people--along with 2,000 horses--had left their ancestral home in the Wallowa Valley of Oregon.  They had refused to give up their lands to white settlers and be moved to the small reservation in Idaho, stipulated by the treaty of 1863. Instead, these "nontreaty" Nez Perce chose to flee over the Bitterroot Mountains.

The people traveled through forests, canyons, ridges, rivers, and grasslands--walking, riding, and pulling behind them their tents and the wounded on wooden travois.  Newspaper reporters accompanied the U.S. Army in pursuit and, through articles, essays, and field sketches published in periodicals like Harperís Weekly, the wits and skill of the fugitives captured the imagination of the American public--especially when the tribe lost in battle at the Big Hole River and disappeared into Yellowstone National Park.

The park had been established by Congress five years before, but without appropriations for roads or other facilities.  Nevertheless, visitors were enjoying the areaís geysers and bears by employing mining prospectors as guides.

While searching for a route east, the Nez Perce encountered two prospectors and nine tourists, including two women.  Unwilling to leave behind any white person who might aid the Army, the Indians captured all eleven people.  Five men escaped and two others were shot. After fording the Yellowstone River, Nez Perce leaders released the remaining captives and the tribe pressed on.

The families had managed to stay ahead of their pursuers, even as the Army employed field glasses, telegraph, steamboats, howitzer cannons, and Crow, Bannock, and Cheyenne guides.  Now the nontreaties decided to head for Canada, where Sitting Bull had escaped with 2,000 Sioux after helping to defeat Colonel George Custer the previous year.

Dragging the travois through a basin between the Judith and Snowy Mountains, the Nez Perce families cut north through what is now central Montana.  They forded the Missouri River at a traditional crossing-place, the shallows at Cow Island. In three and a half months, they had travelled almost 1,400 miles..

Around noon on September twenty-ninth, they made camp in the shelter of a hollow along Snake Creek, in the flats of the Milk River.  They were less than 40 miles from the Canadian border.  Hunters had been sent ahead and had killed some buffalo.  A cold wind was blowing, bringing snow, and the families needed to rest and eat.  Chief Joseph, White Bird, Yellow Wolf, and Looking Glass, all leaders of the tribe, and Daytime Smoke, the blue-eyed, half-Indian son of Captain William Clark, as well as Smokeís daughter and granddaughter--in total, about 650 tribal members shivered in the hollow, and twice that many horses strained for food.

No trees grew along the creek and there was little brush, but dry buffalo dung lay everywhere.  The people watered and pastured the many-colored horses and made fires for cooking and getting warm.

When the Nez Perce were ambushed the next morning, in what became the final siege, soldiers and some of the Cheyennes rode at full gallop into the herd.



Sources of information: The Encyclopedia of the Horse, Horses in America, The Horses the Indians Rode, The Journals of Lewis and Clark, Native America: Portrait of the Peoples, The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest, The Ultimate Horse Book, 500 Nations: An Illustrated History of North American Indians.


Carolyn Kremers writes literary nonfiction and poetry, and teaches in the MFA/Creative Writing Program at Eastern Washington University. Her first book Place of the Pretend People: Gifts from a Yup'ik Eskimo Village was published in 1996 (Alaska Northwest Books).  She lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, and Spokane.

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