New novel sheds light on Indian warfare 145 years into Idaho’s past
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on December 3, 2020. We are republishing it as part of the book’s release on June 3, which has been updated in the story.
The use of the terms “Indian War” and “Indian” is a historical reference and is not intended as a derogatory remark.
IDAHO FALLS – Running Bird smelled the stench of death as he followed the Salmon River into the Clearwater Mountains in what is now begging Idaho in July 1877.
He knew he had found the source of the stench when he saw a corpse hanging from a tree. There was a faded sign around the dead man’s neck with the word “thief” written on it. The man had obviously been there for a while as a mouse entered the corpse’s mouth.
It had been two years since Running Bird’s father had been shot by white men. He had taken one of the men responsible for the murder to the sheriff of Lewiston, but the law prevented Indians from testifying against whites. Since there were no white witnesses, the sheriff saw no evidence of a crime.
Running Bird had sworn revenge on the other men involved, but the Chiefs talked him out of it. The Nez Perces had never harmed a white man, and they thought that proved that they could live in peace.
A book with roots in Idaho history
This is a summary of “Bone Necklace”, a new novel about America’s final war between the Nez Perce Indians and the US Army in 1877. The conflict occurred between June and October over 1,100 miles across Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
Author Julia Sullivan tells EastIdahoNews.com that the book is historical fiction. Many of the facts are true, but the main characters and the interactions between them are made up.
“There are three points of view in the novel,” says Sullivan. “The emotional heart of it is a conflict between two brothers – Jack and Running Bird – who are both enemies and allies in war.”
The other character is Nicole, a woman who is captured by the Nez Perce tribe as they pass through Yellowstone National Park.
Jack is entirely fictional, but Running Bird and Nicole are based on two real-life characters, Sullivan says. Running Bird, for example, is inspired by Yellow Wolf, a Nez Perce warrior who was wounded five times during the war and eventually fled to Canada.
“Nicole is…based on an actual group of tourists who were visiting the park (at the time),” says Sullivan.
The title of the book refers to a central plot point in the story, Sullivan says.
“That’s the name Nicole gives to one of the Nez Perce warriors,” she says. “An actual bone necklace connects the main characters, but you’ll have to read the book to learn more about that.”
Writing a book was never Sullivan’s plan, but she fell in love with this historic conflict after visiting one of the war’s battle sites near her home in Montana 21 years ago.
She spent a lot of time researching, and soon she had two libraries full of war materials.
“Honestly, it’s become kind of an obsession,” she says. “This story appealed to me because it shatters our assumptions about Native American culture and the inevitability of conflict during America’s western expansion. It shows that the two cultures could have lived peacefully, side by side, if they had try a little harder.
Understand the story
The U.S. Army had enjoyed a long history of peaceful relations before the war in 1877. The U.S. Army website indicates that the Nez Perce provided supplies and other resources to Lewis and Clark during the expedition to the west of 1804.
A mission was then established in what is now Lapwai, Idaho, to teach Indians to speak English, read, write, machine wood and grow grain, Sullivan said.
“They traded horses with fur trappers (in exchange for supplies) and they even had a printing press,” Sullivan explains.
RELATED | US soldier’s grave gets a makeover 140 years after his death, and now it’s rededicated
The Nez Perce Indian War began as a land dispute as hordes of people moved through the area when the Oregon Trail began in 1830. A treaty between the U.S. government and the Nez Perce helped resolve the conflict in 1855 .
Under the terms of the treaty, the Nez Perces agreed to cede 7.5 million acres of tribal land while retaining the right to hunt and fish in their traditional places.
Gold was discovered on the lands of Nez Percé five years later, which brought a new wave of population to the area. The government circumvented the terms of the treaty and instead created another treaty that reduced the size of the reservation lands by 90%. Congress ratified the treaty in 1867, despite overwhelming opposition from Nez Percé.
All the Nez Percé tribes have been forcibly moved to the reservation.
“Once the gold was discovered, the reservation was invaded by the worst representatives of white society who formed their own government and passed a law prohibiting Indians from testifying against white people,” Sullivan explains. “It was this law that made war inevitable. The Indians were beaten, robbed, murdered and raped without consequence.
The war lasted for months and there were serious casualties on both sides. The army lost 125 men and 146 wounded, according to Sullivan. The total number of Nez Percé casualties is uncertain, but has been estimated at between 103 and 133 killed and 71 and 91 injured.
The war officially ended on October 5, 1877, when Chief Joseph surrendered his forces to Generals Nelson A. Miles and Oliver Howard.
“I am weary. My heart is sick and sad,” Joseph said in his surrender speech. “From where the sun is now, I will fight no more forever.”
Learn the lessons of history
More than 140 years after that war, Sullivan says it’s a conflict that shouldn’t have happened, but it provides significant insights that are relevant today.
“It’s a lens through which we can see the racial divisions we still face. You can look at the cause, you can look at the cost, and you can look at what it takes to earn your freedom. Everyone suffered in this war,” she says.
Sullivan is a lawyer by profession and has represented many people throughout her career, including death row inmates, undocumented immigrants and victims of abuse. She is also the former Executive Director and Chair of the Board of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, a nonprofit that “works to prevent and correct the sentencing of innocent people in DC, Maryland, and Virginia.” .
Her experiences as a lawyer inform her research for “Bone Necklace,” she says.
“I’m a lawyer and I think about things like access to justice (and that’s what this book is about),” Sullivan says.
Sullivan hopes her book will provide readers with anecdotal evidence of what happens when people don’t have access to justice.
“Some people say the Nez Perces refused to adapt, and that’s why there was a conflict, but I don’t believe that,” Sullivan says. “At the start of the war, they had the same skills as any white family. The only thing they lacked was access to justice.
“Bone Necklace” will be released on June 3. To pre-order or learn more, click here.