|NEZ PERCE WAR MEMORIAL
(Original - Aquatint-etched engraving on copper; 24x36 in.)
Like many children growing up in the Midwest, back in the 1930’s, I was heavily influenced by the stereotypes of Indians as portrayed in Hollywood westerns. Books, magazines, paintings, and prints by 19th century artists like Remington and Russell and a host of others often cast all Indians in an unsavory role and often as ruthless savages.
Many years later, as a serious student of western military history, I came to recognize the myriad myths and falsehoods that surrounded the many Native American tribes and nations.
Settling in Idaho in 1959, with an interest in the Nez Perce War of 1877, my curiosity led me into a more in-depth study of these peaceful people, their homeland, their culture, and their history.
Twenty years earlier, the seeds had been sown that eventually would lead to this war. The Treaty of 1855 was the first to be broken. Some bands of the Nez Perce were being forced onto reservations with the loss of their ancestral homelands. Their freedom to travel to their traditional buffalo hunting grounds had been revoked. They were directed to enroll their children in ‘white’ reservation schools. Their ceremonies, spiritual rituals and celebrations needed to be abandoned in favor of those followed by the ‘whites’. And fmally, they would suffer ridicule for continual use of their native tongue.
These were many of the reasons that lead to the outbreak of hostilities at White Bird Canyon on June 17, 1877 and would continue through October 5th and cover thirteen hundred miles of pursuit by United States Troops. These occurred through all of Idaho, and most of Montana, and would end just short of a Canadian sanctuary. At every juncture along their route, they were set upon with harassment and brutality.
While the Nez Perce were excellent marksmen and the finest of horsemen, they were disadvantaged with too few modern repeating rifles; many of them fought with old muzzle loading weapons, bows and arrows, and the lance. These were certainly no match for the army’s breach loading rifles, bayonets, carbines and twelve pounder howitzers which were used indiscriminately against women, children, babies and the very old.
With every engagement, more braves and their chiefs were killed and with no help or promise of replacements forthcoming. Tending to their wounded became increasingly more difficult. Frequently the dying were left by the side of the trail with no help or promise of burial. Food, medicine, warm clothing and blankets were soon to disappear. In late September and early October another formidable adversary emerged: WEATHER!! Bitter cold, sleet, snow, and blizzard winds that raced through tattered bullet-riddled teepee flaps were to result in the inevitable surrender of Chief Joseph on October 5, 1877. Those taken in captivity suffered the final indignity of banishment to Oklahoma Territory where the entire tribe was taken down with malaria; a great number died their first year in exile.
It was against this backdrop of inhumanity and injustice that I began work on the Nez Perce War Memorial while on sabbatical leave in the summer of 1977 at Atelier Royce, Santa Monica, California.