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Nez Perce National Historical Trail more than just scenic

Kathryn Sosbe
Office of Communication

Editor’s Note: This feature coincides with the 30th anniversary of National Trails Day on June 4, which is sponsored by the American Hiking Society, and Great Outdoors Month, a celebration of the outdoors that encourages everyone to embrace the outdoor spirit.

A picture of Forest Service trail administrator Sandi Broncheau-McFarland.
Forest Service trail administrator Sandi Broncheau-McFarland is administrator of 1,700-mile span of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, which stretches from Wallowa Lake, Oregon, to the Bear Paw Battlefield near Chinook, Montana. She’s pictured in her tribal regalia during a presentation at the annual Chief Joseph Trail Ride. (USDA Forest Service photo)

When Sandi Broncheau-McFarland stands on the Nez Perce National Historical Trail she sees two stories. As administrator she sees the 1,700-mile span that stretches from Wallowa Lake, Oregon, to the Bear Paw Battlefield near Chinook, Montana. As an enrolled member of the Nez Perce Tribe, she also sees the feet of her ancestors who carved out the trail over years of use, and of the tragic loss of many of her ancestors during a five-month confrontation with the U.S. Army.

“From my perspective, the Nez Perce Trail is very special to the Forest Service because it’s the only historic trail we administer,” Broncheau-McFarland said. “Although historic trails have the same elements, such as character, beautiful scenery, and interpretation, there were never intentions of it to be a long-distance trail like a scenic trail. This trail is protected because of what many people call the War of 1877. We call it the flight.”

The Nez Perce consider the trail sacred, which is why visitors are asked to be respectful the tribal heritage and reflective of the historic and ancestral events that occurred along the trail.

The 1986, Congress amended the National Trails System Act by designating the Nez Perce Trail as historic based in part on a 1982 report that focused on “the route used by the nontreaty Nez Perce Indians during the summer and fall of 1877 in their attempt to escape the United States Army and seek peace in Canada.”

A picture of Dan Kane, a Nez Perce tribal member.
Dan Kane, a Nez Perce tribal member, films activities along the Nez Perce National History Trail, which is administered by the USDA Forest Service. (Photo courtesy of Gene Colling)

The expansive trail, which has a corridor about one-half mile on either side, runs through 10 national forests (396 miles), two national parks (86 miles), including Yellowstone, three wilderness areas and numerous refuges, monuments, recreation areas, state parks and a fish hatchery. About 60 percent, or 728 miles, of the trail is on private lands. There are 2,991 miles captured on auto tour routes, along with the side and connecting trails with 79 historic sites and six high potential trail segments.

For thousands of years, the Nez Perce, or Nimiipuu, freely lived as a self-governing nation in what is now Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and Montana. They also would fish, hunt and trade in areas now part of Wyoming. Their daily lives were not unlike our own today. They would hunt, fish, trade goods, and make their products in what Broncheau-McFarland describes as “nature’s supermarket,” using more than 100 plants and trees to make shampoo, skin cream, insect repellant and other such products.

In 1855, after decades of growing encroachment by settlers seeking more land, the Nez Perce signed a treaty that limited their reservation to 7.5 million acres of traditional homelands. But the pressure from non-Indians continued, spurred in part with the discovery of gold and the blatant encroachment onto and destruction of tribal lands.

“Pent-up emotions agitated by 24 years of depredation by miners and settlers, and now being forced to leave their homeland for the reservation, caused several embittered young warriors to ride out and avenge the past deaths of tribal members. The hope for the peaceful move ended and the flight of the Nez Perce began,” the report reads.

A picture of a young hiker on the Nez Perce National Historic Trail.
A hike walks a portion of the 1,170-mile Nez Perce National Historic Trail, which was designated in 1986 to remember the flight of the Nez Perce trying to escape to peace in Canada. Hikers are asked to be respectful of the Nez Perce, who consider the trail sacred. (USDA Forest Service photo)

The 126-day flight for their lives – called the Nez Perce War by the U.S. Army – included a band of 800 men, women and children lead by Chief Joseph and other chiefs.. Because of their deep familiarity of the landscape, they successfully outmaneuvered the Army although there still were horrific clashes that included the bludgeoning of Nez Perce infants and desecration of the corpses of men, women and children. On Oct. 5, 1877, Chief Joseph, largely to protect his people, surrendered at Bear Paw Mountain in the Montana Territory. Today, the flight is commemorated at nearly 40 sites along the trail.

“Most people know something about the flight,” said Broncheau-McFarland, who wants people to learn more about the tribe’s history and peaceful nature of their existence. “The trail was used for many purposes, like the trade link between tribes, for buffalo hunting, fishing, to visit other tribes and play games, to exchange cultural ideas and practices. We were a peaceful people who shared these lands with other tribes. It’s a huge story that includes the flight but has so many other aspects I want people to know and understand when hiking the trail.”

She believes that story should include compassion for the other side, including the military and the hired scouts.

A picture of Payton Sobotta, a Nez Perce tribal member, on top of a horse.
Payton Sobotta, a Nez Perce tribal member, dresses in custom regalia on the Chief Joseph Trail Ride. The annual ride, sponsored by the Appaloosa Horse Club, covers a 100-mile section of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail each year. The trail follows the footsteps the Nez Perce took for thousands of years. (Photo courtesy of Reggie Polfer)

“Those boys. So young and coming from all those foreign countries outside the U.S.,” Broncheau-McFarland said. “Here they are ill-equipped with military and weaponry, not used to riding horses. Forced to engage in horrific acts. It must have been an incredible experience for them and how they survived. The ones who did. The story is much grander than one event.”

She said her compassion, indicative of the Nez Perce, honors ancestors and her children and grandchildren who served in the military.

“I think there was a time in my 20s that I was a little bitter,” she said, adding that as a child she witnessed prejudicial acts against the Nez Perce. “But I had a wonderful professor who told me I could be better and that carrying with me bitterness is not going to do anyone any good. He told me, ‘I know you have a heart.’ Tim’ine. That changed things for me. We must love one another and help each other if we’re going to be humans. It’s not human to do the atrocious things they did in 1877. The way to heal is to be forgiving.”

Broncheau-McFarland dreams of the day when most of the trail is inclusive of those footsteps that came before and of the smaller battles and clashes that kept some tribal members as prisoners of war for decades. She also wants people to understand how a small band of Nez Perce fared so well against thousands of soldiers. They knew the land well enough to find food and water while the military were reduced to strip bark from trees just to feed their horses because they didn’t know. She also wants people to revel in the beauty that remains and see interpretation of the contributions of Nez Perce woman played in 1877.

Part of the forgiveness for tribal members is welcoming non-members to Trail Memorials, ceremonies and pow wows. “We need to teach them about our history and hope history never repeats itself. This has always been our way of life. Nimiipuun’ee wit,” she said.

A picture of several young women participating in the 2018 Chief Joseph Trail Ride, all riding horses.
Clothed in beautiful regalia, young women participate in the 2018 Chief Joseph Trail Ride along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail (Photo courtesy of Reggie Polfer)

For years, the Forest Service worked with the Appaloosa Horse Club on the annual Chief Joseph Trail Ride, which this year is July 25-29. The ride covers 100-mile sections of the Nez Perce trail, beginning at the start of the trail and then taking on 100-mile sections each subsequent year until reaching the end before starting over. The number of riders has declined in recent years, but the purpose remains: see and feel the story of the Nez Perce.

The agency also is working on a trail-wide non-government organization. Organizers chose the name Qa’an in’ iskt, or guardians of the trail.

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