IDAHO FALLS – Running Bird smelled the stench of death as he followed the Salmon River into the Clearwater Mountains in what is now the panhandle of Idaho in July 1877.
He knew he’d 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 “theef” written on it. The man had obviously been there a while because a mouse was entering the cadaver’s mouth.
It had been two years since Running Bird’s father had been gunned down by white men. He’d brought one of the men responsible for the killing to the sheriff in 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 vengeance on the other men involved, but the chiefs talked him out of it. The Nez Perce had never harmed a white man, and they thought it proved they could live in peace.
A book with roots in Idaho history
This is a summary from “Bone Necklace,” an upcoming novel about America’s final war between the Nez Perce Indians and the U.S. Army in 1877. The conflict occurred between June and October across 1,100 miles throughout Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
Author Julia Sullivan tells EastIdahoNews.com 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,” Sullivan says. “The emotional heart of it is a conflict between two brothers — Jack and Running Bird — who are both enemies and allies in the war.”
The other character is Nicole, a woman who is captured by the Nez Perce tribe as they’re traveling 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 injured five times during the war and eventually escaped to Canada.
“Nicole is … based on an actual group of tourists who were touring the park (at the time),” says Sullivan.
The book’s title refers to a pivotal plot point in the story, Sullivan says.
“It’s the name Nicole gives to one of the Nez Perce warriors,” she says. “An actual bone necklace binds the main characters together, but you’ll have to read the book to find out more about that.”
Writing a book was never Sullivan’s plan, but she became enamored with this historical conflict after visiting one of the war’s battle sites near her home in Montana 21 years ago.
She spent a great deal of time researching it, and it wasn’t long before she had two bookcases full of material about the war.
“Frankly, it became kind of an obsession,” she says. “This story was appealing 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, had they tried a little harder.”
Understanding the history
The U.S. Army had experienced a long history of peaceful relations before the war in 1877. The U.S. Army’s website indicates the Nez Perce provided supplies and other resources for Lewis and Clark during the westward expedition of 1804.
A mission was later established in what is now Lapwai, Idaho, to teach the Indians how to speak English, read, write, mill lumber, and grain and cultivate crops, Sullivan says.
“They traded horses with fur trappers (in exchange for supplies), and they even had a printing press,” says Sullivan.
The Nez Perce Indian War began as a land dispute as hordes of people came 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 Perce agreed to give up 7.5 million acres of tribal land while still retaining the right to hunt and fish in their traditional places.
Gold was discovered on Nez Perce land five years later, which brought another surge of people to the area. The government bypassed the terms of the treaty and instead created another treaty that reduced the size of reservation land by 90%. Congress ratified the treaty in 1867, despite overwhelming Nez Perce opposition.
All Nez Perce tribes were being forcibly moved to the reservation.
“Once gold was discovered, the reservation was overrun with the worst representatives of white society who formed their own government and passed a law that prohibited Indians from testifying against whites,” Sullivan says. “It was this law that made the war inevitable. Indians were beaten, robbed, murdered and raped with no consequence.”
The war lasted for months, and there were serious casualties on both sides. The army lost 125 men with 146 wounded, according to Sullivan. Total Nez Perce casualties are not certain, but have been estimated between 103-133 killed and 71-91 wounded.
The war officially ended on Oct. 5, 1877, when Chief Joseph surrendered his forces to Generals Nelson A. Miles and Oliver Howard.
“I am tired. My heart is sick and sad,” Joseph said in his surrender speech. “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
Learning the lessons of history
More than 140 years after this war, Sullivan says it’s a conflict that didn’t have to happen, but it provides meaningful insights that are relevant today.
“It’s a lens through which we can view racial divisions that still confront us. You can look at the cause, you can look at the cost, and you can look at what it takes to win your freedom. Everybody suffered in that war,” she says.
Sullivan is an attorney by profession and has represented many people throughout her career, including inmates on death row, undocumented immigrants and victims of abuse. She is also the former executive director and board chairwoman for the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, a nonprofit that “works to prevent and correct the conviction of innocent people in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.”
Her experiences as an attorney 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 aren’t given access to justice.
“Some people say the Nez Perce refused to adapt, and that’s why there was conflict, but I don’t believe that,” says Sullivan. “By the time the war started, they had the same skill sets as any white family. The only thing they lacked was access to justice.”
“Bone Necklace” is slated for release in February 2022. Visit Sullivan’s Facebook page for more information.