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A Road Trip to Explore Race Along the Nez Perce Trail
This is the first travelogues in a 3-part series. Read part 2, The Gentrification of Wilderness, and part 3, Chasing Liberty Along the Nez Perce Trail.
It finally dawned on us after we walked into the La Tinga restaurant in downtown Billings, Montana. There, we met Evelyn Hammond, the gregarious purveyor of Mexican cuisine. My 33-year-old daughter, Sassia, and I had been road-tripping for more than two weeks and, on the last day of our journey, realized that, until trading stories with Hammond, we’d rarely been engaged in conversation by someone we didn’t already know. We had met up with friends in Jackson, Wyoming. Otherwise, unless it was a server or cashier looking for an order or payment, virtually the only human voices directed at us were each other’s.
There were a few exceptions. There was the gallery owner in Cody, Wyoming, who had lived in Seattle, where we are from. Earlier, there was that innkeeper in an eyeblink of a town in Montana. Right after, there was a woman at St. Mary’s Mission in Stevensville, Montana, who’d advised us to take a road off the beaten path. “It’s rural,” she’d said, which was curious. We thought we were already on a road very much less traveled. That we even found ourselves in Stevensville was ironic enough for a couple of Asian Americans during #StopAsianHate; the town had been the first permanent white settlement in the state of big skies. Rural was harrowing enough. We weren’t exactly seeking out what, for us, was “more rural”—two lanes of famously straight-as-a-laser road along which a snowstorm chased us through the Bitterroot Valley at the end of May.
We were also tailed by the specter of 1877, when five non-treaty bands of Nez Perce pledged and performed a peaceful passage between the Bitterroot and Sapphire Mountains. Even so, white settlers, some of whom the bands knew by name, joined in what amounted to a slaughter of Nez Perce women, children, and elderly at their encampment along the North Fork of the Big Hole River, where we were headed.
Our awkwardly silent spring unfolded during a 16-day tracing of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail in 2021. We were following the spirits and wake of the non-treaty Nez Perce (the tribe calls itself “Nimiipuu” for “the people”) during their 1877 flight from forced relocation. We entered the trail at Lolo, Montana, and then logged 3,340 miles—the equivalent of driving from Seattle to Baxter State Park in northeast Maine—in search of battlefields, BIPOCs (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), and bears (oh my). Our focus on race was partly an internal inventory ingrained in people of color like us, the reflection of a yearning to see ourselves in all situations. It was also an accounting, I suppose, of potential allies should something go down; such is life for people of color in a country of white domination.
Based on our experience and my research for the trip, we weren’t expecting to find much evidence of Native Americans. And we weren’t disappointed—rather, we were—to discover few traces of the people indigenous to these lands. Of all racial groups, Native Americans have been the most aggressively marginalized by this country. I’ve driven on parts of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail in the past and always knew that I had because of signage. Though we covered about three-quarters of the 1,170-mile Nez Perce Trail, we counted only 11 road signs, two of them during the last mile to the final stop at Bear Paw Battlefield, 40 miles shy of the Canadian border. The trail’s main interpretive site, outside Cooke City, Montana, was so poorly marked, we were looking for it and still drove past, forcing us to make a U-turn on the highway to visit it.
The general erasure of our Indigenous peoples was intentional, of course, to rationalize and conceal the devious and violent manner by which this country was built on stolen land and stolen labor. The Treaty of 1863—known among the Nimiipuu as the “Thief Treaty” or “Steal Treaty”—claimed 90% of the lands that had been reserved for the Nez Perce in the Treaty of 1855. Those included all the traditional Nez Perce homelands in Oregon’s Wallowa Valley. Gold had been discovered in the area three years earlier, further intensifying the land grab. Those Nez Perce living outside the proposed shrunken reservation refused to sign the treaty (which is why they are referred to as the “non-treaty bands”). It was enough for the U.S. that 51 leaders from inside the new boundaries gave their assent. The hypocrisy was not lost on Joseph, the famous Nez Perce chief, who, in “An Indian’s View of Indian Affairs” for the North American Review in April, 1879, wrote:
“Suppose a white man should come to me and say, ‘Joseph, I like your horses, and I want to buy them.’ I say to him, ‘No, my horses suit me; I will not sell them.’ Then he goes to my neighbor and says to him, ‘Joseph has some good horses. I want to buy them, but he refuses to sell.’ My neighbor answers, ‘Pay me the money, and I will sell you Joseph’s horses.’ The white man returns to me and says, ‘Joseph, I have bought your horses, and you must let me have them.’ If we sold our lands to the government, this is the way they were bought.”
I spent a lot of the trip contemplating the little I’d been taught about Native American history during my K-12 education in Seattle, a place ostensibly named for a Duwamish and Suquamish chief. That education was dishonest—it was all Pilgrims, Tonto, and Christopher Columbus, and nothing about genocide, displacement, and forced assimilation. Most of it landed on how “wiser” European Americans had hoodwinked “primitive” Indigenous peoples. Case in point is the story told and retold that Peter Minuit bought Manhattan (then New Amsterdam) from the Lenni-Lenape for $24 in “trinkets.”
The trail was already going to take us through Yellowstone National Park, which for us and the Nez Perce represented hope until it inevitably disappointed. I added visits to two other national parks, Glacier and Grand Teton, to further examine spaces where Native Americans were chased from their traditional lands for the convenience and pleasure of a white America riding the wave of Manifest Destiny.
Grand Teton was an unexpected revelation, only because it was not born from the same level of expulsion and rationalizing disinformation as its sister parks. Palmer “Chip” Jenkins Jr. was the recently installed superintendent at Grand Teton, and I’d known him from his leadership and racial allyship at Mount Rainier National Park, North Cascades National Park, and the Pacific Northwest regional headquarters. In an office with a stunning view of the Tetons, I’d asked Jenkins about the biggest difference between his old haunts and this one.
“I feel the absence of knowing what people have called these places for thousands of years,” Jenkins responded during a conversation about the importance of access that had been emotional for all three of us. As opposed to the numerous ancient Native references in Washington state, so many places in Jenkins’ park and the neighboring Yellowstone are named for settlers, soldiers, and even dude ranchers. Naming things and places for people—mostly white men—is so Euro, full of hubris, and another form of erasure. Even the places in Washington named for Native people were done so by appropriation by Euro-whites; name places in Indigenous and even our Asian cultures are descriptive, not eponymous. It wasn’t the first reminder of how far we’d strayed out of our comfort zone, nor was it the last.
The seeds of this trip were sown in 2017, when, during the 75th anniversary of World War II Japanese American incarceration, I made a pilgrimage to Heart Mountain, one of the prison sites outside Cody, Wyoming. In my readings about the area, I came across a place called Dead Indian Pass. It caught my attention because of its racist-sounding moniker. There, the U.S. Army believed it had trapped its quarry coming out of Yellowstone, but the non-treaty Nez Perce made a feint at the pass, doubled back, and navigated what was considered unnavigable terrain. They did so with their young, infirm, horses, and supplies. I felt a kinship with the Nez Perce who, like my Japanese American community in the Seattle area, were banished to less desirable land in Idaho. In 1942, Japanese Americans had been forcibly removed; 65 years earlier, the non-treaty Nez Perce had resisted and were on the run for 126 days.
Sassia and I weren’t exactly on the lam, but we did feel some trepidation about moving through strange places and meeting strange people with assumed attitudes about us. Our route rested completely within a region that the latest U.S. census analysis shows as among the whitest in the country. We passed through small towns stuck like pincushions with American flags. We were moved to ponder how something that used to mean passion and pride has, for many of us, devolved into a symbol of hostility and inhospitality. We were also greeted with plenty of outsize banners hailing the former chief with the similarly outsize ego, Donald J. Trump.
Some places and encounters left us more ambivalent. We stayed in a town whose only two restaurants happened to be closed that night, a Thursday. The innkeeper knocked on our door to offer an alternative eatery that we deemed too far away. Shortly, she arrived with some packaged vegetables, which she said we could stir-fry. Then, she brought us rice, and then soy sauce, and then—knock, knock—Chinese hot sauce. The innkeeper was being nice; however, “it was uncomfortable,” Sassia said, when we were back on the road and out of earshot. The innkeeper had me—mortified—at stir-fry: “They probably don’t see people like us around here,” I surmised, so she plied us with all the things she believed Asians could not do without.
I decided not to name the town because the identity of the inn would be too obvious. It was hard to get a read on the place. When I called to book a room, the innkeeper’s husband had asked, “Have you ever been to [this town]?” I hadn’t. “Well, there ain’t much around here,” he’d responded. It was one of the most underwhelming pitches in tourism history.
During our trip, folks in “ain’t much around here,” Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, either utterly ignored us or very obviously focused their complete attention upon us. One man leered so intensely at Sassia in a restaurant that I nearly abandoned our meal. “You can’t believe how many times I’ve been called exotic,” she said as we drove away.
As Asian Americans, we’re accustomed to being banished to the margins, but then from time to time summoned to a harsh and fleeting spotlight. #StopAsianHate was one of those moments intersecting our expedition. COVID-19—or, as some called it, the “China virus”—painted a target on the backs of all Asians in the U.S. because most non-Asians cannot distinguish between us. An uptick in anti-Asian hate crime was the result. This country hasn’t paid this much attention to the lot of us in years, maybe since Crazy Rich Asians. Given a choice, our American heritage tells us it’s probably better to be invisible because of the places visibility has led us—in Sassia’s ancestry, World War II Japanese incarceration and, before that, Chinese Exclusion.
Sassia and I also live in one of the most pro-vax, pro-mask areas in the country, and that certainly muddied our presentation here. Our default was to enter any indoor establishment with masks donned. We nearly always faced maskless masses. Their staring and obvious bad vibes would either shame us into removing our protection or, more often, removing ourselves from the premises. Still, it was difficult to conclude whether small-town white folks mistrusted us for our race or our politics. Maybe it was both, for some of them.
Such are the kinds of things that swirl in your mind while traversing snowy, squishy, and eminently unswerving roads along which, during one 90-minute stretch, we did not spy a single human-crafted structure. By the time we reached Billings, it was sunny, and we were wearing shorts and happily engaged by Evelyn Hammond and her tacos. We’d come a lot farther than the 3,340 miles on our odometer implied.
Editor’s note: Please reach out for permission if you are interested in republishing the photos.
Glenn Nelson is the founder of The Trail Posse, which explores the intersection of race and the outdoors. He also writes a column about race for South Seattle Emerald. Nelson is a founding member of the Next 100 Coalition, a national alliance of civil rights, environmental, and community groups advocating for more inclusive management of public lands. He has won several national awards for his writing, photography, and web publishing, including second place in 2020 from Best of the West for his columns on race for Crosscut and South Seattle Emerald. He also won first-place honors from the Society of Professional Journalists in 2018, 2019, and 2020 for his columns on race for Crosscut and Outstanding Beat Reporting from the Society of Environmental Journalists. Nelson is the primary author of a teen book about the NBA. He has been published in numerous magazines and book collections, and his photographic work appeared at the Smithsonian and has been profiled by NPR. He also serves on the board of Seattle Jazz Fellowship, the advisory committee for the Japanese American Remembrance Trail, and the Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Task Force. Glenn is a member of Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA), Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), National Association of Photoshop Professionals (NAPP), Seattle Audubon Equity Project, SportsShooter.com, Nikon Professional Services (NPS), and North America Nature Photography Association (NANPA). He can be reached on his website https://trailposse.com or through email: [email protected]