The Spirit of Ollokot

Tribal Leaders Then and Now

By Linden B. Bateman

Photos Courtesy of Linden B. Bateman

This story is offered free in its entirety for the first part of March.

One day in 1947, when I was seven years old, my mother and I were walking along a dry creek bed on our family ranch near Carey, where we had gathered for a reunion, when she became animated and cried out. Thinking she might have seen a rattlesnake, I ran to her side, but a broad smile on her face quickly dispelled that notion.

“Guess what I found,” she said, and held out in the palm of her hand a sharply pointed arrowhead.

I had never seen a genuine Indian arrowhead, which she explained had been made hundreds or even thousands of years ago, before the area had been touched by European civilization. My young imagination conjured up images of Native Americans living on our ranch with herds of bison still in the region, which she affirmed had indeed been the case. As late as the early 1920s, small groups of Shoshones occasionally camped in the area, and Mother recalled witnessing, as a small child, the birth of a baby in a tent on the ranch.

I was hooked. From that moment on, I began to develop a passionate interest in all things relating to Idaho tribal culture and history. Returning home to Idaho Falls after the reunion, my little hands were sweaty from holding the arrowhead so tightly. It quickly had become my most prized possession.

My parents fed my passion for tribal lore, taking me to most of the major museums in Idaho and other states in the West. In 1950, our family visited the Little Big Horn battle site located near Harding, Montana, and walked across the huge Sioux encampment area nearby, reading every historical marker and picking up books and souvenirs in the visitor center. Sioux and Cheyenne survivors of the Custer engagement were still alive at the time.

In the days before television, we sat by the radio with bowls of popcorn listening to a program called The Idaho Story, where I first heard the heroic tale of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce fighting for freedom in 1877. Forced by the government from their ancestral lands in the Wallowa Valley of Oregon, some 750 tribal members led the United States Army on a thirteen-hundred-mile chase, crossing the north of what was then the Idaho Territory and winning most of the military engagements until they were forced to surrender in Montana Territory’s Bears Paw Mountains, less than fifty miles from the Canadian border.

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The author with Rep. Paulette Jordan, a Coeur d'Alene Tribe member.
a
A legally collected Indian arrowhead.
b
Dancers in eagle feather headdreses at a Forth Hall Festival, date unknown.
c
Members of various tribes pose with Rep. Merrill Beyeler (center) on Idaho Day, 2015.
d

 

I was too impatient to wait for my father to obtain a photograph of Chief Joseph, so I cut his portrait from a public library book to hang in my room. There were no copying machines in those days. I like to think the guilt ensuing from that theft has been assuaged to some degree by my subsequent contributions to libraries!

When I was twelve, Jess Croft, a local sheep rancher and Mormon church leader, obtained permission from tribal leaders for our youth group to view a sun dance at the Fort Hall Reservation. Few events have affected my imagination so profoundly.

Male dancers fasted for several days. Blowing whistles that were made from the wing bones of eagles, and wearing regalia that included moccasins and beautifully crafted, multi-colored beaded belts, the men danced toward a tall tree stripped of branches, crowned by a buffalo head, and then away again. I wondered where the dance had originated and for how many centuries the wistful primeval sounds of those eagle bone whistles had echoed across the Snake River Plain.

Around the arena, dancers could rest in huts shaded by freshly cut tree branches. In front of the arena, also shaded by tree branches, a large circle of men sang and beat dance rhythms on a huge drum, while women in long shawls swayed back and forth, singing. The grounds were covered with cattail rushes. I sat on a log, transfixed, when a very old Shoshone man sat down beside me and began to sing and speak in the Shoshone language. His long white hair was braided, leather sinews wrapped around the end of each braid, and he wore a beautifully beaded vest. Our knowledgeable youth leader, Mr. Croft, told us that his name was Benjamin Tyone, he was more than ninety years of age, and had hunted bison as a young man in Montana. In that moment some sixty-five years ago, as I viewed the image and countenance of that charismatic, historic personality, the past instantly came to life.

Just recently, I noticed a photograph of Tyone in a publication written by Hope Benedict for the Lemhi County Historical Society, History of Lemhi County. He was a Lemhi–Shoshone who had moved from Salmon to Fort Hall in 1907 with the rest of his tribe. During the early 1950s, the prominent Idaho Falls artist Helen Aupperle painted several portraits of Tyone, one of which can be viewed in a mural at the Museum of Idaho in Idaho Falls, depicting Tyone on a horse as he approaches a sun dance at Fort Hall.

A few years after my sun dance experience, while I was attending a festival at Fort Hall, I had the opportunity to meet Willie George, who as a young man performed in the famous “101 Ranch Wild West Show.” I saw him in about 1957, riding a very tall pinto horse, wearing full regalia, including an eagle feather war bonnet, with feathers fluttering in a light breeze against a vivid blue sky as he rode, turning his head from left to right.

There has rarely been anything as beautifully created and crafted by the mind of man as the Plains Indian war bonnet. The annual Shoshone-Bannock Festival held in August at Fort Hall provides a wonderful opportunity to see eagle feather bonnets in various configurations, along with other regalia from tribes in attendance from throughout the West.

I was delighted when Randy’L Hedow-Teton from the Shoshone–Bannock Tribes was chosen to serve as a model for the new Sacajawea dollar, first issued in 2000. Soon after, during one of her tours promoting the dollar and her Native American heritage, she spoke to my students at Bonneville High School, who were thrilled by her narrative of Sacajawea and the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

During service as a member of the Idaho House of Representatives, I often came into contact with tribal members. I fondly recall Jeanne Givens, a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and also a member of the Legislature, who one day appeared on the floor of the house in a stunning, full-length white deerskin native dress, beautifully fringed and beaded.

Paulette Jordan from Plummer currently serves in the Idaho House of Representatives and is also a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. Her office was next to mine in the Capitol Building, making it convenient for her to feed my interests in all things Native American. She told stories and legends about her people, gave me camas bulbs and huckleberries she had harvested, and suggested tribal remedies when I got sick, even supplying medicinal roots and pills. Paulette has a striking, elegant presence, standing about five feet eleven inches in height with keen, intelligent eyes and long black shining hair. She and I served together on the 2014 Idaho Day Committee, and during the March 4 celebration on the House floor, she appeared in full Coeur d’Alene regalia along with members of all the tribes in Idaho participating in the program.

Last year I was astounded to learn that Rep. Jordan, through her mother’s family line, is a direct descendant of Ollokot, who not only was the brother of Chief Joseph but the leading warrior in the Nez Perce War. Joseph himself served primarily as camp chief and political leader of the band. Ollokot was described as splendid in appearance, standing more than six feet tall, his hair cut to about seven inches in front and stiffened, so that it stood up like a comb, while very long hair hung down his back. Ollokot inspired the Nez Perce during their heroic struggle and survived all the fighting until the last battle at the Bears Paw Mountains, where he was killed. His wife had died earlier from wounds suffered at the Big Hole engagement. On that cold day in October at Bears Paw, it couldn’t have entered Ollokot’s mind that his beautiful third great-granddaughter would one day serve in the Idaho House of Representatives. Yet there she is.

The spirit of Ollokot and the tribes of Idaho lives on.

This article was prepared in conjunction with the third annual official Idaho Day. Activities on Friday, March 3, 2017 at the Capitol Building will celebrate the creation of Idaho Territory on March 4, 1863. The author, a retired state representative from Idaho Falls, introduced 2014 legislation to establish Idaho Day. The theme of this year’s event is “Idaho the Beautiful.”

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