The Warrior Tradition: 5 of the Greatest Native American Battle Victories

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Flight of the Nez Perce

Though ultimately a tragic ending, the story of the flight of the Nez Perce, otherwise known as the Nez Perce War, was reported to the citizen of the United States as it happened and did a great deal to bring the plight of the natives into the spotlight. It prompted sympathetic media coverage such as this from the New York Times of that year: “On our part, the war was in its origin and motive nothing short of a gigantic blunder and a crime”

The war and flight began shortly after the government decided to shrink the Nez Perce reservation in central Idaho to about a tenth of its former size. The resulting tension between Natives and Americans led to fighting and soon a U.S. cavalry regiment of over a hundred men and several volunteers set out to attack about seventy Nez Perce in White Bird Canyon.

Outnumbered, and fighting uphill, the Nez Perce displayed excellent marksmanship and tactics as they employed covering fire and flanking tactics to move up the hill and force a retreat. Thirty-four U.S. soldiers were killed and only three Nez Perce warriors were wounded. The Nez Perce also collected dozens of new weapons from the slain and retreating soldiers.

As the Nez Perce fled East towards Yellowstone they fought rearguard actions against pursuing U.S. armies. On one occasion the U.S. set up cannons overlooking a temporary Nez Perce camp and fired and attacked, but still, the Nez Perce retreated, leaving forty-three U.S. casualties to only ten Nez Pearce killed or wounded.

By this time, the reputation of the Nez Perce had grown. They were respected as warriors but also began to gain sympathy as they headed over a Rocky Mountain pass into Montana. A fort was constructed to block the exit out of the pass but the defending Montanans were unwilling to meet the Nez Perce in battle.

As the Nez Perce crossed into Montana the volunteers disbanded and the soldiers did not want to provoke a fight. From then on, the fort would be known as Fort Fizzle. This would be the end of the victories for the Nez Perce. Though they did lose pursuing armies winding through Yellowstone, they were eventually caught in battle about forty miles from Canada and safety.

Chief Joseph and Chief White Bird were finally forced to surrender after the battle of Bear Paw. Chief Joseph said in his message of surrender “I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.” Despite the loss of the war, the Nez Perce impressed on the battlefield and in the compassion as they released prisoners and traded peacefully with Montana ranchers. General Sherman was most impressed by their tactics saying that they “fought with almost scientific skill, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines and field fortifications.”

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