At Dead Indian Pass

I pull off at an overlook in the mountains of northern Wyoming, my wife and youngest daughter in my FJ Cruiser, my oldest daughter and her boyfriend pulling in ahead of me in their Honda Element. As we are standing, stretching, starting to move toward the overlook and toward the informational signs arrayed along the edge I glance over at the truck across the parking space from us. A big Chevy, pulling a horse trailer. The hood is up and three women, one about forty, the other two older, are gathered around the engine on the far side, one reaching into the engine, unscrewing something. Before I have time to process what I was seeing an eruption of water shoots out of the now-uncapped radiator fill hole, steam spreading.

The Nez Perce–and then the Seventh Calvary in pursuit–would pass through Yellowstone National Park on their flight, five years after that park was founded.

After the water dies down I walk over and ask them if they need help. I know almost nothing about engines. The forty-year-old tells me she thinks they did the wrong thing. I tell them probably. We talk about the truck, was it overheating before they pulled over, were there any other signs trouble. I suggest one of two ways forward. One, wait for the engine to cool, then add water, then get to a mechanic. Two, walk down the road a few hundred feet and ask the construction crew there if anyone knows Chevys. In this part of the country I figure her odds are one hundred percent she will find a Good Samaritan. She wants to add the water and has a fast-food glass of water in the cab. I walk back to the FJ and dig out my gallon of concentrated anti-freeze that I keep on hand for emergencies. I never expected to be giving it to a stranger on the top of a mountain pass in Wyoming, or for it to be used in a Chevy truck. I tell her I have no idea if this is the right thing for her truck, but it will get her down the mountain to the nearest town.

We are at the overlook at Dead Indian Pass, supposedly named because a wounded Indian of the Nez Perce tribe was left behind near here during the flight of the Indians from the pursuing U.S. Army. The story of the Indians is told on the signs. Here is a version of that story:

The Army had been chasing these Nez Perce–about 700 men, women and children–for a long time, their tribal territory already some seven hundred and fifty miles to the west. The chase had started in the chaos of post-civil war expansion and Indian policy. Gold brought whites to the Nez Perce lands and the resulting friction caught the attention of the army. Forts and treaties followed as did, inevitably, the creation of reservations, the arbitrary shrinking of those reservations, the Nez Perce, surprisingly accommodating up to this point. Eventually there was violence, but not much. Peace returned, a council between the army and the Indians set out to resolve the matter.

The man sent to negotiate with the Nez Perce was Oliver Otis Howard, a Major General with experiences from Gettysburg and Sherman’s March who had most recently been commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau, tasked with helping the now-freed slaves to get paid for their labor, to teach them reading and writing, and to help them understand legal issues and enforce their contracts with the white landowners. Howard was passionate about his duties and no doubt this was in part fed by his unusually deep religious convictions, which earned him the nickname of the “Christian General.”

That factored into his negotiating with the Nez Perce in that the tribe, as Indian society collapsed more and more due to the pressures of white enrichment–the tribe itself fragmenting, alcoholism already taking deep root, the future bleak–a new religion swept over the tribe finding many adherents, a religion promising a new world of tomorrow where the white man would fade away and the dead would return, the old ways would be brought back, the new rejected, they would hunt again in game-filled valleys, unchallenged. These Dreamers, as they were called, were an odd sight, wearing their own clothes, flying their own triangular flag and sporting a dramatic pompadour hairstyle on the men.

Chief Joseph (born Hinmuuttu-yalatlat–Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain) was a Dreamer and a dreamer. Photo by Orlando Scott Goff, made in Bismarck, Dakota Territory in November of 1877, shortly after the end of the story related here. Image via WikiMedia Commons.

Howard thought the best thing to avoid conflicts between settlers and Indians was to get the Indians onto protected reservations–and the various Indian chiefs of the tribe were working their way toward accepting Howard’s offer–then a warrior murdered four white settlers, a Nez Perce war party attacking nearby settlements the next day, killing and raping settlers.

Two companies of calvary and armed citizens were sent to arrest the killers. At the parley a shot is fired from one of the citizens, return fire kills a soldier. And, to everyone’s astonishment, in the ensuing battle the calvary is forced to retreat in disarray with thirty-four men dead.

Of course the army, pushing back on its embarrassment, sends troops to attack the wrong band of Nez Perce giving new allies to the warring band. In the back and forth of battles and skirmishes the Nez Perce come up with a plan to travel to Montana, to link up with their powerful Crow allies, finding safety there or across the Canadian border.

Thus begins the five-month, almost twelve hundred mile journey of the Nez Perce, crossing through what is now five states, chased (and attacked) by the U.S. Calvary the whole way.

The overlook I stand upon marked an important moment in that journey.

Below us, in the valley, a road winds up to our point near the top of the pass. Back in 1877 the remaining Nez Perce (almost three thousand began the journey) struggled up this same pass, after misleading Howard into thinking they had gone an easier way. Howard, who found difficulties in catching up to the Indians or to anticipate their movements earned him the nickname of “Day After Tomorrow,” recognized his error too late and the Nez Perce slipped over the pass, leaving him even further behind.

The road sign sums it up: “The Nez Perce has accomplished the unbelievable and escaped!”

The story told here ends on a high note.

So ends the story on the road sign but it’s not the end of the story. The end of the real story occurs not long after when the Nez Perce at last reach the Crow, hoping to be welcomed. The Crow, wary of risking their good relationship with the U.S. Government–the chase of the Nez Perce had been intently followed by all of the newspapers mostly siding with the Indians and mocking the army–rejected the Nez Perce, despite past aid the Nez Perce had provided the Crows against their enemies. The Crows rejected the Nez Perce, and to make things as clear as possible, they sent their best warriors to fight alongside the army against them.

The end, though it didn’t come immediately, was inevitable. Caught far from their tribal lands without allies, internal dissension confusing and weakening them, and after a final battle which descended into a multi-day siege–the Seventh Calvery (the so-called “Custer Avengers” after the previous incarnation of the Seventh was destroyed at Little Big Horn) suffering another surprising defeat–the was over, the tribe defeated.

Every middle-schooler knows this next part. During the surrender negations Chief Joseph said:

Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, to see how many I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.

Only he probably didn’t say those words. The man taking notes at the meeting did take detailed notes but at that part simply indicated that Chief Joseph’s words would be added later. That man was C.E.S. Wood, the “C.E.S.” initials for Charles Erskine Scott. Like Oliver Otis Howard, the naming of Charles Erskine Scott Wood hints at baby-naming norms, and perhaps senses of humor, slightly askew from our own. Wood, very much sympathetic to the plight of the Indians, wrote down something of what Chief Joseph said, but what part is Joseph’s and what part is Woods’ is impossible to say.

Later, when we finally reach Cody, the next major town after Dead Indian Pass, we have lunch standing around the hood of my FJ. No one in Cody seems to be wearing a mask or much concerned about the virus. On the way out of town we cross through an intersection and there at the light to our right is that same Chevy truck, the forty-something-year-old woman at the wheel, blinded by the sun an unable to see my hand waving at her.

This post is from a series of articles chronicling a 2020 cross-country trip with my wife and two daughters and a boyfriend, from California to Ohio (to visit family) and Pennsylvania (to drop off my oldest daughter at grad school), and then back. We spent over five weeks on the road during the pandemic.

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