10/18/09

From Where the Sun Now Stands

Tuekakas lay by a dim fire, his eyes half-closed and staring up at the twinkling stars. He was dying and had called for his son. Heinmot Toolyalaket approached and at first said nothing as he sat down beside him. He simply stared quietly at the wrinkled face. He was thirty-one years old, but next to his father he still felt and looked the boy.

Without moving his eyes from the heavens, the old chief began to speak.

“My son... when the white men first came, our people welcomed them as our brothers... Clark and Lewis they were called. And when I became a man, I accepted their banner of stars and stripes and learned their language and religion... I even took their name when they blessed me in the water... But no more! I wished to live in peace but they are thieves with their treaties. I’ve torn their flag and burned their book....”

Heinmot Toolyalaket remembered that day sixteen years ago. He remembered his father giving him long sticks with hawk feathers attached so as to forevermore mark the boundaries of the two peoples.

“My son, soon I will go to the Great Spirit and our people will look to you to guide them... The whites will come back again... This country will hold my body... Never sell the bones of your father! Never forget these dying words!”

The whites did come back, and chased them from Oregon’s Wallowa Valley.

It wasn’t until October 5th, 1877, that the little band of 800 Nez Perce Indians, pursued for 1,700 miles by 2,000 professional soldiers, were finally trapped – just forty miles short of the Canadian border, and their freedom.

Chief Joseph, exhausted from conflict, had to choose between the reservation and death. “I will fight no more forever,” was his decision.