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AMERICAN ALBUM

Unique national park traces tribe's heritage : Officials are adding 14 sites to the scattered locations that combine to tell the story of the Nez Perce.

August 23, 1993|RONALD B. TAYLOR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SPALDING, Ida. — The place names are an echo from the colorful, often violent past: Buffalo Eddy on the Snake River, Old Chief Joseph's Grave in Oregon's Wallowa Mountains and Bear's Paw Battlefield in Montana.

These are three of the 14 sites being added to a unique national park that lies scattered in bits and pieces cross 12,000 square miles of the Northwest. Called the Nez Perce National Historic Park, it's named for the American Indians that once roamed these wild regions of Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Montana.

"There's no other park quite like it. . . . It's like a string of pearls stretched across four states," park superintendent Frank Walker said. Acquiring the new sites may take two years, but controversy could prolong the process.

Created by Congress in 1965, the park embraces a slice of Western history and tribal culture dating back thousands of years.

Unlike Yosemite or Yellowstone, this park has no real boundaries, nor does the National Park Service own most of the 24 original sites. Some are privately held; most belong to other government agencies or the Nez Perce tribe and are administered by the Park Service under cooperative agreements. Similar pacts are being negotiated for the new sites.

Each pearl on the string is linked somehow to the Nee-Me-Poo tribe, which was given the name the Nez Perce (pierced noses) by early French traders.

When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark explored the West in 1805, it was the Nez Perce who helped the beleaguered expedition cross the rugged Bitterroot Mountains. They befriended fur traders, missionaries and settlers, then, finally, fought a bloody war when the Army tried to force them onto a reservation in 1877.

Some of the park sites are little more than roadside stops along the Clearwater and Snake rivers; others, like the park headquarters at Spalding, are well-developed interpretive centers with museums and exhibits.

The 100-acre Spalding site is 10 miles east of Lewiston, Ida., on Route 12, where Lapwai Creek spills into the Clearwater. Here Henry and Eliza Spalding established a Presbyterian mission in 1836.

Proposed park additions include archeological sites like the Buffalo Eddy petroglyphs in the rocks above a swirling bend of the Snake River, 20 miles upstream from Lewiston. Images of buffalo dominate the prehistoric rock art.

One new site has stirred up a controversy between a developer who wants to subdivide a block of private land near Oregon's Wallowa Lake and those who want to preserve the nearby cemetery where Old Chief Joseph is buried.

The Wallowa Valley was the homeland of the Joseph Band of Nez Perce before white settlers pushed them out. Today the five-acre cemetery outside Joseph, Ore., is all that's left of this heritage.

The developer has refused government offers to buy the 68-acre parcel bordering the cemetery. Tribal leaders say that at least eight acres are needed as a buffer between the housing development and the grave sites.

The Nez Perce war had its beginnings in the Wallowa Mountains. Before Old Chief Joseph died in 1871, he made his son, Young Chief Joseph, promise not to give up their homeland.

While most of the Nez Perce bands agreed to live on a reservation near the Spalding mission, Joseph and the chiefs of five other bands refused to move. When the Army tried to force them onto the reservation in the spring of 1877, they fled over the Bitterroots into what is now Montana.

That was the beginning of a tragic, often heroic 1,700-mile odyssey. The rebel bands fought cavalry and infantry regiments through the bloody summer as they fled east and then north toward Canada.

The new acquisitions include the Big Hole National Battlefield, near Wisdom, Mont. This is where 80 Nez Perce died in early August as the warriors beat back a surprise dawn attack by Col. John Gibbon's 7th Infantry.

The beleaguered Nez Perce fled through Yellowstone, fighting more battles as 2,000 U.S. soldiers converged on them. They surrendered in late September, after a six-day fight in the Bear's Paw Mountains, only a few miles short of the Canadian border.

When it was over, only 418 men, women and children were left--half the number that had started that spring. They were banished to the Oklahoma Indian territory and then brought back to the Coleville Reservation in Washington, where Young Chief Joseph is buried.

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