blackbirdonline journalFall 2022  Vol. 21  No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Ghost Horses

It was around midnight. The crazy woman had gone to sleep. Vernon Waters and I sat by a small campfire not far from his battered pickup truck. The mile-wide Snake River was ten yards away. The mouth of the Imnaha River was a short distance upstream. Downstream, the great Salmon River, which drained much of north-central Idaho, flowed into the Snake. Hells Canyon was thirty or forty miles upstream.

We had been talking quietly when we heard them. The horses.

“What’s that?” I asked Vernon.

He smiled. “You heard them too?”

I nodded. We sat a long time, silent, gazing at the dying fire, feeling the silent powerful pull of the Snake.


Early that morning, Vernon and I had set out on our second trip to the Wallowas. From Lapwai, Idaho, on the Nez Percé Reservation, we had driven to Lewiston, Idaho where the Clearwater River enters the Snake. We crossed the Snake and drove through the southeast corner of Washington State and then down the terrifyingly steep highway into the Wallowas in northeastern Oregon. The previous summer we had visited Lake Wallowa and the Lostine River. This time, we headed east from the town of Joseph, at the north end of the Lake, to the small outpost of Imnaha. We bought some supplies and started out on a twenty-six-mile dirt road that followed along the north-flowing Imnaha River to the Snake.

It was the worst road I’ve ever traveled. Vernon’s old pickup bounced and crashed from pothole to rut and over protruding boulders. After a mile or so, we saw a young woman walking along the road. We stopped and asked if she wanted a ride.

“Yes,” she said, “I’m headed for Idaho.”

Vernon and I looked at each other. Idaho was just across the river, but there was no bridge, no town, and no other road. The shortest route to Idaho was the long swing through southeastern Washington that we had taken that morning. We told her this; she did not seem to mind. She’d recently been released from a mental hospital, and she wanted to go to Idaho.

“OK,” Vernon said. “Hop in.”

It must have taken us three hours to negotiate this awful road. We saw three or four ranch houses along the way but no signs of civilization after the first ten or twelve miles. To the south were the mountains of the Eagle Cap Wilderness, to the east, the rugged canyons of Idaho. The land in the Imnaha Valley gradually flattened as we approached the Snake.

Vernon was a Nez Percé Indian. His great-grandfather, Ollokot, which means “Little Frog,” was the younger brother of Hin-mah-too-yal-lat-kekht (“Thunder Traveling to Loftier Mountain Heights”), known to whites as Chief Joseph, or Young Joseph. Hin-mah-too-yal-lat-kekht was the chief of the Wallowa band of the Nez Percé.

In 1855, the father of these two chiefs, Tu-eka-kas, dubbed Old Joseph by whites, had, along with many other chiefs in the region, signed a treaty with the governor of the Territory of Washington that recognized the right of the Wallowa band to the northeastern corner of Oregon. Three years after gold was discovered in 1860 in Nez Percé land in Idaho, the US government “renegotiated” a new treaty. Lawyer, a chief from the Lapwai area, signed away the Wallowas without authorization. Nez Percé who settled on the reservation converted to Christianity, Anglo farming practices, and the alien concept of private property.

Old Joseph refused to sign this “steal treaty.” He had originally embraced Christianity, but after 1863 he renounced the religion of the people who had stolen his people’s land. The non-treaty bands persisted in their hunting, fishing, and gathering ways.

In the early 1870s, conflicts between non-treaty Nez Percé and white settlers and miners in Idaho and Oregon steadily escalated. In 1876, the Centennial of the United States, in the aftermath of the annihilation of Custer’s army, the government moved to extinguish the claims of all the off-reservation Nez Percé.

At a council in Lapwai in May 1877, the Army forced the non-treaty chiefs to agree to move to the Lapwai Reservation that covered about 10 percent of the ancestral lands of the Nez Percé.

General Oliver Otis Howard of the US Army, formerly the head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, had granted Joseph, Ollokot, and their band thirty days to return to the Wallowas and round up all their horses, cattle, and other possessions, recross the swollen Snake, and move onto the reservation. Humiliated young men in the non-treaty bands were furious with their chiefs for bowing to the demands of the army. A couple of days before the non-treaty bands were due to move onto the reservation, Wahlitits (“Shore Crossing”), a young man whose father had been murdered by a white who went unpunished, sought out his father’s murderer. When he failed to find the killer, he and Sarpsis Ilpilp (“Red Moccasin Tops”) went after others who had mistreated Nez Percé. Over the next couple of days, they killed several whites and spread panic across the Idaho frontier.

The cavalry attacked the non-treaty bands at the Battle of White Bird Canyon and was routed. The non-treaty Nez Percé crossed to the south of the Salmon, and the US Army gave chase, beginning a three-and-a-half month, 1300-mile odyssey across Idaho, Montana, through the newly established Yellowstone National Park, and north toward Queen Victoria’s Land before a second US Army, dispatched from the Dakota Territory, captured them forty miles south of the Canadian border, where Sitting Bull was safely out of the jurisdiction of the American troops.

Joseph had opposed fighting and had tried to make peace, even after the initial violence. Nevertheless, he and Ollokot quickly realized that to the whites, all non-treaty Nez Percé were the enemy. Joseph and his brother joined with the other non-treaty bands; Ollokot led the Wallawa warriors; Joseph managed the noncombatants during the grueling retreat across the Rockies into “Buffalo Country.”

After the War, white historians dubbed Chief Joseph the “Red Napoleon.” West Point cadets studied Joseph’s brilliant strategies. No one bothered to consult the Nez Percé for their accounts of the war until a rancher, L.V. McWorther, befriended some old Nez Percé who had been young warriors during the 1877 war. He was so moved by their stories and the great injustice suffered by the non-treaty Nez Percé, that he compiled boxes of papers, much of it notes of interviews with the old warriors. He published a book Yellow Wolf Remembers, a pre-tape recorder oral history of the war as seen through the eyes of one warrior. At his death, McWorther had not completed his great history of the Nez Percé people, Hear Me My Chiefs. Eventually, an editor completed it.

Hear Me My Chiefs tells the Nez Percé story of the war, including the fact that Joseph was a peace chief during the war, not a brilliant strategist. He led the non-combatants, the women, the children, and the aged throughout the long retreat. Vernon’s great-grandfather, Ollokot, was killed on the first day of fighting in the final battle, at the Bear’s Paw Mountain on October 1, 1877. His daughter, Vernon’s Grandmother, survived.

For years I had been moved by this tragic story and by the paradoxical situation of the Nez Percé. To save their freedom, they fled even farther from their homeland—from the place that defined their culture and nurtured their freedom and peace of mind. The Nez Percé War was an American Tragedy in need of an Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

On my first visit to the lands of the Nez Percé, I met Vernon at the Nez Percé National Park Headquarters in Lapwai where he was working as a cultural interpreter. I was fascinated by his stories. After some time, he said, “I’m off Monday. Would you like to drive down to the Wallowas?” You bet I would. A year later, I returned, and Vernon cheerfully agreed to take me back to the Wallowas.

Our campsite on the Snake River was near the site where Joseph, Ollokot, and the Wallowa band departed their homeland for the final time. Although the Snake was swollen and the current was powerful, they managed to move all members of their band and some of the horses and cattle safely across the river.

As Vernon and I sat by the campfire, we spoke softly of Ollokot, Joseph, the logistics of transporting all the possessions of a non-agricultural culture across this powerful river during the spring flood season. We spoke of the injustice and the tragic fate of those who fought. There were long silences. The fire was dying down. And then we heard the horses; no whinnying, just hoof beats. Many more than one horse. It sounded as if they were emerging from the river, coming up onto the riverbank, milling around, waiting for the others. And then we heard them trot off into the silent night.

“What was that?”

“You heard it too?”


We went to sleep.

In the morning, we walked along the riverbank, but found not one hoof print of the horses that had returned to the Wallowas.  

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