“Why do you not want schools?” The Commissioner asked.
“They will teach us to have churches.” Joseph answered.
“Do you not want churches?”
“No, we do not want churches.”
“Why do you not want churches?”
“They will teach us to quarrel about God.” Joseph said.
It’s a long road that has no bends, but there wasn’t one of those to take us there. Charles Kurault had called it the most beautiful drive in America.
“I’m not sure you’ll be able to get through.” She had said, the Occidental Hotel proprietress with the grey hair, in Buffalo the previous evening. “Shoshone National Park is on fire.” We were already concerned about the Idaho flames of the Beaver Creek Fire blocking our trail to Ketchum, and this was another rocking horse worry, that wouldn’t get us anywhere.
“It may still be closed.” Said Buffalo Bill’s admissions desk giant. “But you can’t hurry up good times by waiting for them.”
And so we were on our way up and out of Cody, along U.S. 120 to the junction of Wyoming 296. The one road away from trouble, is straight and narrow, and this wasn’t it either. We rose into puff white and powder blue, beside a pink orange sandstone layer cake escarpment frosted with white icing, tilted like it had slid off a sage baking pan. The earth turned to reveal the floating purple majesty of the Absaroka Mountain anthem, sloped walls of the green Shoshone National Forest falling towards and across us. There had been fire. In hard times the Shoshone subsisted on the tiny tubers of a small low scabland perennial with white and deep pink and rose flowers. The French trappers called them racème amer, from where we got out own appellation. Bitterroot. The man the highway was named for, had shown Lewis and Clark how to survive on them. The Lemhi Shoshone believed the small red core in the supper taproot had special powers had specials powers to stop an attack. They would be proven wrong.
The layer cake turned into a pillbox and the wilderness melted into meadows as we continued the turn. Robyn stopped to talk to two ancient bikers, an elderly couple with head bandanas and sunglasses, rebalancing the important appendages of their Harleys, her sidecar, his white beard. We drove north, past the open veins of a massive orange Aztec temple massif, immobilized by its grass foundation. Clouds moving overhead cast shadows over the pine profiles of prominences, either breasts or anthills, depending on perspective and passion. The wagon curved up, following switchbacks over summits of ochre crumble, which looked into deep lichen valley on the other side. We pulled over at a metal monument set among the white rock and spindle pines, far above the undulating viridescence below, and the far pavilion peaks beyond.
It was an alloyed couple on two metal horses, a rust and white man riding in front, with his bow and quivered arrows, and a white and rust woman riding behind, with her papoose.
“They’re heading away from where we’re going.” Robyn said.
“We’re looking for.” I said. “They’re running from.”
The Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, in true American fashion, was one of those national monuments named in regretful respectful retrospect, after a profound and unjustifiable governmental atrocity, which had neutered and neutralized the subject of the memorial, and rendered him historically irrelevant. The Chief of the Nez Percés got 47 more paved miles of commemoration than most of his contemporaries, but he would have preferred the bitterroots of his Wallowa winding water homeland to an asphalt river ribbon to exile.
As usual, the whites got it wrong from the beginning. French Canadian fur traders encountered a tribe of more than 70 permanent winter villages spread over a seventeen million acre area surrounding the Snake, Salmon and Clearwater river basins, extending from the Bitterroots in the east to the Blue Mountains in the west. They were the largest tribe on the Columbia Rover Plateau, and covered a considerable part of what is now Washington, Montana, Idaho and Oregon. with a population of around six thousand. The trappers named them the Nez Percés, the ‘pierced noses,’ mistaking them for the Chinook further down the Columbia basin. The Nez Percés didn’t pierce their noses or wear ornaments. They called themselves Cúpnitpelu, the People Walking Single File Out of the Forest, a reference to the time before they had horses.
The Nez Percés, were migratory and traveled in seasonal rounds, according to where food was most abundant at any given time of year. Their Wheel of Fortune spun them through about 300 temporary camps, as far east as the Great Plains of Montana to hunt buffalo, and as far west as the west coast to fish salmon. The Nez Percés kept horse herds, and gathered camas roots and berries in season.
On September 20, 1805, while crossing the Bitterroot Mountains and low on food, William Clark became the first Euro-American to encounter them. His experience was exceptional. These Indians are anti-belligerent and have some other qualities that are rare and commendable. Not only were they well fed, but Clark entrusted their horses to Walammottinin, chief Hair Bunched and Tied, who would become the father of Chief Lawyer, the Nez Percé that would preside of the Wheel of Misfortune seventy-two years later. Lewis and Clark recovered their horses upon their return from the Pacific. The many kindnesses extended would soon be forgotten, and the white men that came later would be different. One of them, Jacob Miller, made the observation in 1839.
“All these Indians seem to bear the impress of a doomed race.” He said. Their story was the same story as would be told by them all.
The earth is our mother. We cannot sell you our mother. Their story is still best told by the chief the highway was named after.