Like the Trail of Tears, every American should take time to discover the Nez Perce story. This proud tribe, which befriended Lewis and Clark on their journey across the West, was later dishonored by a series of broken treaties. The process culminated in betrayal, bloody battles and a thousand-mile retreat by hundreds of members of the tribe seeking freedom in Canada. This quest for freedom has been immortalized by the establishment of the Nez Perce (Ne-Me-Poo) National Historic Trail. Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce (by Kent Nerburn, HarperOne) chronicles the tribe’s incredible escape attempt. The complicated topic is handled by the author in a sensitive manner and an engrossing style.
Chief Joseph’s father sets the tone for the book as he asks his son to promise him the land of his ancestors will never be sold or given up. After the great chief dies, his son takes on a leadership role. The Nez Perce people sign a treaty with the federal government allowing them to keep much of their original homeland. But as miners begin staking claims on valuable Nez Perce land, the United States alters terms of the original treaty. Government officials and homesteaders begin demanding the tribe vacate their prized territory and skirmishes erupt, resulting in white casualties. A large segment of the tribe then flees on foot and horseback, rather than be moved onto a reservation. The vibrant narrative guides readers along the many twists and turns of the escape — as 800 men, women, children and elders travel over 1000 miles along some of the most rugged backcountry in the West and warriors engage in battles with the U.S. Army.
Historical background of the tribe is provided, including their customs and philosophies — traits that made Lewis and Clark genuine admirers of the Nez Perce. The author believes that “these people did not seem wounded by the dominant American culture so much as masters of it.” He spent years getting to know today’s living tribe, researching and visiting most of the sites along the route — ultimately doing justice to the topic.
This era was a troubling time in American history with regard to Indian policies and there are violent, heart-wrenching moments. But the book includes scenes in which the human spirit triumphs. The unique character and humanity of the Nez Perce tribe shine through. As today’s tribe faces plenty of modern challenges, the surviving Nez Perce people who hold true to their tribe’s time-honored values are a source of hope.