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July 18, 2013 1:16 pm

Chief Joseph’s legend lives on in historic horseback tour

Written by Gib Mathers

For the first time in 13 years around these parts, the spirit of Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce people will ride again.

Each year since 1965, the Appaloosa Horse Club out of Moscow, Idaho, rides about 100 miles of the approximate 1,300-mile journey Chief Joseph led in 1877 in a failed effort to keep his people off a scaled-down reservation. The chief’s flight began in Wallowa Valley, Ore., and ended 42 miles south of the Canadian border at Bear Paw Battlefield, just south of Harve, Mont.

The Nez Perce got the short end of the stick when gold was discovered in the 1860s on their land. Suddenly, 7 million acres guaranteed to the tribe in an 1855 treaty was cut by 90 percent in 1863.

The tribe recognized the 1855 treaty, but not all Nez Perce accepted the 1863 treaty. Tensions culminated in the battle of White Bird Canyon in 1877, when the Nez Perce routed Capt. David Perry’s First Cavalry.

On the run and leading a band of Nez Perce, Joseph evaded troops for months.

Now the horse club is back in the saddle to cover some of the ground Chief Joseph traversed all those years ago.

He began with 2,000 horses and 600 to 700 men, women and children, said Rita Lovell of Clark, who has ridden 900 miles of Chief Joseph’s trail. Her husband, Art Lovell, has traveled 1,300 miles of the historic trail, she said.

With the exception of a little bit of Bureau of Land Management land, most of the club’s 2013 leg will cross the Shoshone National Forest, following Chief Joseph’s approximate route, said Anita Harper, Shoshone National Forest natural resource specialist.

Beginning Saturday, the club will embark from Pilot Creek in the Beartooth Mountains and ride to Line Creek north of Clark by Friday.

She is expecting 150 riders and another 60 people serving as a support crew. The riders are authorized to make the trek under a national forest special use permit, Harper said.

“The Forest Service has been so wonderful to work with,” Lovell said.

Those making the run must ride a registered Appaloosa, because the Nez Perce selectively bred the spotted horse, Lovell said.

The riders will cover a designated distance and camp at planned sites. The support crew will drive refrigerator and cook trucks and rigs that haul the riders’ gear.

“It’s quite a smooth operation,” Lovell said.

They also pack a portable dance floor, and speakers will discuss history and other subjects each night. At the Thursday night encampment, she will discuss the Nez Perce history and Clark area geology, Lovell said.

In 1877, Chief Joseph surrendered to Gen. Oliver Howard, ending nearly a four-month retreat from Oregon toward Sitting Bull’s encampment in Canada. It was one of the most remarkable military feats of the Indian Wars, according to the PBS documentary “New Perspectives on The West.”

By that time, Joseph was down to 87 men. He held out for five days in a brutal snowstorm before capitulating because his people, with no food or blankets, would have died of cold and starvation, the PBS documentary said.

“From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever,” Joseph reportedly said. It is a line that has gone down into history.

“They were sent down to Oklahoma,” Lovell said. “It was horrific. None were allowed to return to beautiful Wallowa Valley.”

After seven years in Oklahoma, Chief Joseph returned to the Pacific Northwest, but he and his followers were not allowed to live in the Wallowa Valley. He died in 1904 on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington state, reportedly of a “broken heart,” according to his doctor.

Soldiers appropriated the Nez Perce Appaloosas, and some were slaughtered. Lovell said a friend of hers now raises equine descendants of Chief Joseph’s Appaloosas.

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