Speaking from the heart

I recently had an article published in Iskitpe, the publication of the Nez Perce Trail Foundation. I thought you might find it interesting.

And please note that Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce should be in bookstores now. I hope many of you will get it, read it, share the story of Joseph and the Nez Perce trail, and get the book into the hands of history teachers who can help make this part of the necessary understanding of the settling of the American West.


When I was asked to write an article for the NPTA newsletter, I immediately began thinking about the issues that have become most important to me in the past four and a half years of traveling and researching for my forthcoming book, Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce: The Untold Story of an American Tragedy.

My first thought was to emphasize how important it is that we each strive explain the trail as a story, since so many casual travelers see it as only a series of disconnected roadside stops. My second thought was to write about how important it is for us to continue the story beyond the surrender – through Bismarck, along the rail journey down to Leavenworth, then on to Baxter Springs and Tonkawa, and back to the Lapwai and Colville reservations.

But slowly I realized that there is an issue far closer to my heart – an issue far more controversial, but far more crucial in my estimation. It is the issue of the Bear’s Paw interpretive center

I wish that center would never be built.

I know this has been discussed and planned and set into motion by people with far more investment and understanding than I. I know, too, that it will make the site more accessible and bring the story alive for more people. But in my heart of hearts, I believe it is a mistake.

I remember the first time I traveled the entire trail, and I made that long, desolate journey up from the Missouri Breaks and the McClellan’s Ferry. As I came over that rolling grassland and saw in the distance the small pull-off that told me I had arrived at the surrender site, something released in me, and I broke down sobbing. What lay before me was not just the end of a journey, it was the end of a dream.

I stepped from my car into the buffeting winds. With only a small brochure to guide me, I stepped along the paths, down into the gullies, across the small creek rimmed with willow. Here was a peg marking the spot where Ollikut fell; here a marker showing where twenty one soldiers were buried. I looked out into the distance, hearing only the wind and the heavy silence of the Montana plains.

There was no interpretive overlay between me and the power of the land. I walked the small trails with a sense of reverence, alone with my thoughts and feelings. This was not an historical event, it was a spiritual experience. It was awakening something deep inside me that went far beyond understanding, far beyond mind. It was a kind of hallowing.

I have since been back there many times, sometimes accompanied by others, sometimes at the commemorations, sometimes alone, with only the keening winds and whispering spirits to keep me company. But no matter whom I am with or how I am feeling, something deep and undeniable overtakes me.

I have no quarrel with historical interpretation. There is a place for such unfoldings. The Big Hole battle site and interpretive center is a prime example. It leads us, step by step, through a crucial moment in the journey, and allows those who have not delved into the story a chance to learn it anew, and, perhaps for the first time, to get a sense of what the Nez Perce travelers, as well as the soldiers and volunteers, experienced in that isolated Montana valley on that fateful day in August of 1877.

But the Bear’s Paw offers us something different. Here we do not learn, we feel. We hear those voices below hearing; we sense those presences beneath understanding. Truth is carried on the winds and in the blood knowledge of the earth..

This is hard to explain to Euro-American sensibilities. We seek the rational, the quantifiable. We make our decisions based on practicalities. And practicality says that an interpretive center will allow more people to experience the Bear’s Paw and learn about the Nez Perce journey.

I cannot argue that. But, as a writer cares about the power of unseen forces, I cannot help but feel that an interpretive center, no matter how tastefully done and how well hidden from the battlefield itself, will cut into the great powerful emptiness of those plains and the overwhelming sense of spiritual presence that the battlefield now possesses.

I firmly believe there is a need for historical understanding of our nation’s past. But I also believe that there are places in this country that should be left alone; places that should be honored, not interpreted. The Bear’s Paw is such a place. The greatest honor we can do to that battle site is to leave it as it is – a lonely high plains grassland under monumental skies, with only the fewest of markings as reminders of the people who struggled, suffered, and gave their lives in pursuit of a dream denied.

Let it be discovered, not presented. Let it be seen by those with eyes to see; heard by those with ears to hear. As for the rest, let them pass by. There is world enough to explore, interpret and understand.

I know the decision has been made, and I respect that. But I believe in my heart that we will lose something great and fundamental if we do not leave that battlefield as it is, alive with that echoing silence and the presences that blow in the Montana high plains wind. Sometimes we do not need to commemorate, we need to hallow. To me, setting the Bear’s Paw aside as sacred ground would be the greatest single honor we could pay to those who huddled, fought, and died there. Their voices would speak with more eloquence than all the maps, plaques, and interpretive centers that money can buy.

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Kent Nerburn is a member of the NPTA and the author of numerous books, including Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder. His new book, Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce: The Untold Story of an American Tragedy, published by HarperSanFrancisco, will be available at bookstores across the country in November of this year.

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