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Yellow Wolf: Nez Perce Warrior 1855-1935, By Dr. Richard Luppi

Dr. Richard M. Luppi is a member of the board of the Friends of Bear Paw, Big Hole & Canyon Creek Battlefields. Luppi is also a direct descendant of Patrick Rogan.

The single best historical source on the life of Yellow Wolf is Yellow Wolf: His Own Story, by Lucullus V. McWhorter, first published by Caxton Printers in 1940. This article is largely based upon that work. McWhorter was an ardent Native American activist and self-educated historian/archaeologist who befriended Yellow Wolf, years after the Nez Perce War of 1877. While spending his summer months at McWhorter’s ranch in Yakima, Washington, for more than twenty years, Yellow Wolf disclosed his early life and his participation in the Nez Perce War to McWhorter, who was assisted by such Nez Perce interpreters as Thomas Hart and Many Wounds.

Like other Nez Perce warriors, Yellow Wolf had a multiplicity of names. He was called Yellow Wolf {Hemene Moxmox} but was also known as White Thunder, or White Lightning {Heinmot Hihhih}. Yellow Wolf was a member of the Wallowa Nez Perce band, and he was related to Chief Joseph on his mother’s side. His father was Horse Blanket {Seekumses Kunnin}, who was rich in horses and cattle; and his mother was Swan Woman {Yiyik Wasumwah}, who was the first cousin to Chief Joseph. As a youth, Yellow Wolf was recognized by the members of his band for his superior horsemanship abilities and skills as a hunter. Yellow Wolf was born in the Wallowa Valley in 1855 in present -day Oregon. His band traditionally wintered in the warmer temperatures of Imnaha Valley and spent their summer and fall in the Wallowa Valley hunting and fishing for Salmon. Like other members of his band, he grew up as a non-Christian Nez Perce, following the Dreamer faith of his forefathers. He was about 21 years of age when he became involved in the Nez Perce War of 1877.

In his narration to McWhorter, Yellow Wolf blamed the Nez Perce War on what he called the “thief treaty “of 1863. That treaty reduced the Nez Perce reservation boundaries to one–tenth of its original size, and forced his band and other non-Christian Nez Perce to accept a small reservation centered at Lapwai, which was dominated by Christian Nez Perce. The discovery of gold in Idaho in 1860 led to the U.S. government’s decision to extinguish its earlier treaty {1855} with the Nez Perce and initiate the Treaty of 1863. However, the Wallowa band and other non-Christian Nez Perce bands had refused to sign the treaty of 1863. Like Yellow Wolf, they did not want to give up their ancestral homelands and accept the Christian faith, or what Yellow Wolf called the “Spalding God.” Nevertheless by 1877, the U.S. government was determined to relocate all Nez Perce on the small Idaho reservation. In this regard, Yellow Wolf also blamed the Nez Perce War on the actions of General Oliver Otis Howard and the Lapwai Indian Agent, John B. Monteith, for “showing us the rifle ” at the Lapwai Council of May 1877. During that conference, General Howard threatened to use military force to move the non-treaty Nez Perce to Lapwai and violated council protocol by temporarily jailing Toohoolhoolzote, a noted orator of Chief White Bird’s band.

During the Nez Perce War, which was a five month 1,600-mile war of flight from the U.S. Army, Yellow Wolf fought with distinction at all the major engagements. He principally served his people as a scout ahead of his people, or served as a rear guard to protect his people from sudden attack. Yellow Wolf claimed that he had the power to literally smell the enemy of his people during war, which served him well as a Nez Perce scout. During the military campaign, Yellow Wolf was wounded five times, and fought hand to hand in several battlefield engagements. Yellow Wolf attributed his success in battle to his “Wyakin” powers. That is, spiritual powers given to him by the natural world i.e., the wolf, thunder, etc. At the Battle of Clearwater, he was wounded in the wrist and suffered an eye injury. At the Battle of the Big Hole, he fought hand to hand and became a chief by taking a gun from a soldier he killed. At that battle, he also participated in capturing Colonel Gibbon’s artillery piece from the field of battle. At Camas Meadows, he and other Nez Perce warriors drove off a number of General Howard’s mules and horses in a night engagement. During the Battle of the Bear Paw Mountains, Yellow Wolf also fought with distinction and bravery, as a member of the “invincible twenty“ Nez Perce warriors. Despite Chief Joseph’s surrender to Generals Miles and Howard at the Bear Paw Mountains, Yellow Wolf and several other members of his band, together with Chief White Bird’s band, fled to Chief Sitting Bull’s camp in Canada near Ft. Walsh.

In his narration, Yellow Wolf expressed his bitterness over the fact that the Nez Perce did not receive any assistance from any Indian tribes in their flight from the U.S. Army. Instead, he recounted that ten different Indian tribes were enlisted by the U.S. Army to assist in their capture, including some Christian Nez Perce. He also argued that Chief Joseph and other Nez Perce would never had surrendered at the Bear Paw Mountains if they knew they would not be allowed to return to the Wallowa Valley, as promised made by General Nelson Miles. However, Miles was overruled by authorities in Washington.

A year after the Nez Perce War, Yellow Wolf returned from Canada and formally surrendered at Lapwai. He was then sent to Indian Territory like the other non-treaty Nez Perce after the war. The Nez Perce referred to the Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma as the “Eeikish Pah,” or the Hot Place. While there, The Nez Perce suffered sickness, high infant mortality, and death due to the climatic conditions and the lack of heath care. In 1885, the Nez Perce were allowed to return to the Pacific Northwest. According to Yellow Wolf, all the Nez Perce, except for Chief Joseph, were given a choice. As asked by an interpreter, “Where you want to go? Lapwai and be Christian, or Colville and just be yourself.” No other question was asked the Nez Perce. In the end, the tribe was again split with 118 going to Lapwai and 150, including Chief Joseph and Yellow Wolf, going to the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington. In 1935 at the age of seventy-nine, Yellow Wolf died of sickness, and not in battle as foretold in a dream. Today, he is buried near the grave of Chief Joseph, “whom he loved so well,” at Nespelem, Washington.

In his later years, Yellow Wolf humbly explained to McWhorter why he felt it necessary to tell his story:

“The story I gave you long ago-if people do not like it, I would tell it anyway. I am not strong and do not expect to be better any time. I would like finishing it as truth, not as lie....White people, aided by Government, are smothering my Indian rights. The young generation behind me, for them I tell the story. It is for them! I want next generation of Whites to know and treat the Indians as themselves….” I believe those words serve as a most fitting and enduring monument for all time to the Nez Perce warrior, Yellow Wolf.

2005 Copyright Richard Luppi

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