Women in the Nez Perce War
(by Ruth Wapato)
Life after the 1877 Chief Joseph War was a dismal existence for the survivors of the war. Chief Joseph and his group were sentenced to live in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Many men, women and children died in Indian Territory, known to them as Eikish Pah-the hot place, so different from their beloved Wallowa. Those that managed to escape with White Bird into Canada found living difficult in a foreign country. Some wandered back into the United States. Propertyless, separated from family and friends, hunted by U.S. troops, theirs was a precarious, pitiable existence. If caught, some were sent to join Chief Joseph. Others were permitted by friendly agents to remain on the Lapwai reservation. Still others wandered from one reservation to another until Joseph returned from Oklahoma and they then rejoined the tribe.
The women are often overlooked in war. From a list compiled by Many Wounds and Black Eagle of the Nez Perces who escaped and were never captured, not one woman is mentioned. Usually the thought is that women stay home and are safe. The Nez Perce women suffered along with their husbands, fathers and sons. Women and children saw their fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and grandparents wounded and killed. They were hungry and cold with their warriors. Women provided food, water, clothing and fresh horses when their warriors were in battle. They dug shelter pits for the old people and children, using their camas hooks for digging. They took care of the wounded. They buried the dead. At the same time, they had to take care of every day living-set up camp, take down camp, prepare food, provide clothing, get wood, get water, take care of the horses, keep the fires going, dig roots when they could, dry meat when they could, cut poles for tepees which had to be peeled and dried for dragging. They had to be midwives as they were pregnant women in the group.
What happened to these women who survived the war? It is not clear but evidence indicated that Yellow Wolf's mother was exiled to Indian Territory. Chief Joseph's daughter, kapkap Ponmi was turned over to her aunt and placed in the Lapwai Agency School. She married George Moses, a full-blood Nez Perce in Spalding in 1879. Martha Minthorn, daughter of Looking Glass, lived in Canada for nine years on a reserve set aside for the Nez Perce fugitives. She then returned to Sweetwater on the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho. She died February 9, 1949, at the age of 93. Penahwenonmi, wife of Wounded Head, was shown in a picture taken in Spalding, so I assume she returned to the Lapwai Reservation in Idaho. She died March 15, 1938, at the age of 95. Wetatonmi, wife of Ollokot, escaped with White Bird to Canada, spent two years with the Sioux, then wandered about, spending winter of 1881 with the Spokanes, finally returning to Lapwai where she was allowed to settle. She remarried and became Susie McConville. She died in 1934.
There were many nameless women of all ages who lost their lives. In our hearts we will remember these brave women whose lives were cut short by the Nez Perce War of 1877.
Ruth Wapato is a Chief Joseph band descendant and board member of the NPNHT Foundation. Along with other Nez Perce women, she made a presentation at our Annual Meeting. She lives in Bend, Oregon with her husband, Paul, treasurer of the NPNHT Foundation.