LAPWAI - Many Idahoans have never heard of Black Eagle or Speaking Eagle. But the two Nez Perce warriors who trekked from what is now Idaho to St. Louis - a journey similar to that of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark from the Pacific Coast to St. Louis - will soon emerge from two centuries of obscurity.
The Nez Perce St. Louis Warriors Project is a recent recipient of a $10,000 Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Grant through the (Idaho) Governor's Lewis and Clark Trail Committee. Nowhere was the news more welcome than in Lapwai, Idaho. At the heart of the Nez Perce Reservation, the project honoring the warriors is a source of civic pride that has been a long time coming.
"A lot of people are hoping to go to St. Louis," Black Eagle descendant and Tribal Council member Allen Pinkham said. "It's going to be a significant event for a lot of people, not just descendants but the whole tribe."
The warriors' remains recently were traced to a collective grave in St. Louis where they died after meeting with Clark. On March 29, an eight foot granite carving of two eagle feathers - designed by Lapwai historian Crystal White - will be dedicated there in their honor. A related ceremony will be held in the Lapwai-Kamiah, Idaho area in mid-March.
In Lapwai, population 1,100, the St. Louis memorial is big news.
"A lot of people are saving their money and making travel arrangements," White said. "Some have already purchased plane tickets. The closer it gets, the more excited people get."
The project unofficially began when White, its co-director, found a brief reference to the warriors while doing a Lewis and Clark project for Washington State University, where she's working on her doctoral degree.
"I thought I'd go to St. Louis and pay my respects to them," she said. "That's when I found out that no one knew where they were buried."
Went to meet Clark
The warriors left Idaho in 1831 to meet with Clark, then an army general and the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for much of the West.
Twenty-six years had passed since he and Lewis had encountered the Nez Perce during their historic Corps of Discovery expedition. Clark had strong ties to the Nez Perce. The tribe had helped the explorers after they emerged from the Bitterroot Range near Weippe, Idaho, nearly starving. And in 1806, Clark had a son with a Nez Perce woman.
A generation later, Black Eagle and Speaking Eagle were seeking help for their people. Accompanied by two younger warriors, Rabbitskin Leggings and No Horns on His Head, they arrived in St. Louis that October. No one in the city spoke their language, Lewis was dead, and Clark had forgotten what little of the Nez Perce language he once knew. The warriors communicated with signs, often misunderstood, and the purpose of their journey is still debated.
One view is that they went to St. Louis to be converted to Christianity. No one knows for certain. But whatever the objective, their pilgrimage influenced history by launching the missionary movement to convert the tribes.
"It's important not only for Idaho, but for the entire Pacific Northwest," Idaho State Historian Larry Jones said. "It introduced religion to the Northwest and changed the social, cultural and political landscape."
"At the time, it was mostly English out here. They'd introduced some religion, but the real thing came with the missionaries who came out here after the St. Louis warriors. With that came encouragement of white settlements because the settlers didn't want to come without religion. And it caused schisms in the tribes between Catholics, Protestants and the traditional ways. That's still going on. You can see it in tribes all over the Northwest."
Pinkham rejects the view that the warriors were seeking religion.
"They were wandering around St. Louis, and no one could understand their language or their sign language," he said. "Finally some people got the idea that they were looking for the Bible. That was the beginning of us being inundated by missionaries ... Black Eagle and Speaking Eagle said they were looking for the book of Heaven. There are five versions of what that is. My father told me it was the book of knowledge, that they were looking for what went into a book and how you convey knowledge. ...We didn't need a new religion. We had our own ways that were a way of life."
Died in St. Louis
Whatever they were looking for, the trip cost the warriors their lives. With no immunity to the illnesses prevalent among the white population of St. Louis, both died within a month of arriving there. Black Eagle was buried on Halloween, 1831. Speaking Eagle, also known as Man of the Morning, followed him 17 days later. Rabbitskin Leggings and No Horns on His Head left St. Louis to return home. No Horns on His Head sickened and died en route. Rabbitskin Leggings made it as far as the headwaters of the Salmon River, where he was killed in a skirmish with members of the Blackfeet Tribe.
Over time, the remains of Black Eagle and Speaking Eagle were moved to a succession of cemeteries. Their final resting place was a mystery for decades. White and Robert Moore, a National Park Service researcher in St. Louis, both spent time searching for it. Moore succeeded in the fall of 2000, when he traced the warriors to an unmarked mass grave in St. Louis' Calvary Cemetery.
Soon to be memorialized there in feathers hewn from Maine granite, Black Eagle and Speaking Eagle were "elderly men, probably in their 50's," Pinkham said. "They would have had great knowledge and status in the tribe."
The tribe they knew is believed to have had as many as 7,000 members. Today it has 3,300. Some still practice the old ways. Others have embraced the religions of the missionaries.
"We thought if we took up their religion, they'd treat us better, but they didn't," Pinkham said. "We lost our land, our language, our cultural practices. But we survived all this. Since the time of Black Eagle and Speaking Eagle, whose names have been passed down through the generations, we've had to make decisions that have had a profound effect on us. Some have been good, some bad. But we've remained. We've survived all the things that have happened since Lewis and Clark. We must have done something right, because we're still here."
(Reprinted with permission from the Idaho Statesman.)
WBNPTIC sets meeting March 8
The Wallowa Band Nez Perce Trail Interpretive Center general board meeting will be held Saturday, March 8 at 1 p.m. in the Wallowa office located at 209 E Second St. All interested parties are welcome.