June 20, 2007

The Camas Meadows Cavalcade

To the best of my knowledge and ability I have tried to represent in rhythm and rhyme the Battle of Camas Meadows that took place between the U.S. Army and the Chief Joseph Band of the Nez Perce in August, 1877 – a year and a month after the Battle of Little Big Horn in neighboring Montana.

I have visited the battle ground several times, which is located on the Kilgore road some twenty miles west of Island Park, Idaho. Mount Jefferson, mentioned in this poem stands on the eastern horizon as part of the Centennial Range.

For years the rifle pits of lava rock, quickly thrown together for protection by the soldiers were still there in their original condition. They had survived more than a hundred years untouched until an informal sign, part of an Eagle Scout project, appeared next to the road indicating the location of the battle together with a brief description. The site was desecrated within ten years. The rifle pits no longer exist and the area has been vandalized. The imagery of molten lava, semi-circular volcanic calderas and rifle pits both play a role in the set-up of this story.

Camas Meadows is a sacred site to the Nez Perce Tribe, who hold commemorative tribal ceremonies each year at different locations along the trail followed by Chief Joseph and his band. I have had the honor of attending and participating in one of these a few years back. These ceremonies have the effect of putting names and faces to the Indian side of the story as it is the descendants who gather and teach.
The photos above are of Chief Joseph and his nemesis, General O.O. Howard, a distinguished Civil War veteran. Be sure to visit this link for more information.

The Camas Meadows Cavalcade
by Paul Kern

Molten lava flowed in days of yore,
Through the mountain valley of Kilgore,
Time was young and the earth was new,
Sagebrush sprouted under skies of blue.

A caldera crater is formed from the heat,
Of igneous streams not used to defeat,
Round like a circle with one missing link,
Where hot rock flows over the brink.

Lava flows hot and scorches its path,
Brown earth is hardened in its bath.
Molten eddies, ripples and waves,
Petrify into canyons, cracks and caves.

Somewhere back of this shimmering past,
An Indian band found their home at last.
In the Wallowa valley they came to live,
Where life and time was theirs to give.

Life they spared for Jefferson’s men,
Struggling to the Pacific and back again,
They fed and sheltered these brave and bold,
In a deep dark winter from the bitter cold.

For years, the white men didn’t come,
But then they came with bugle and drum,
And took the lands of the Nez Perce,
Pushing them hard out of the way.

When the U.S. Calvary forced their hand,
They lost their hold on ancestral land,
From Wallowa Valley where they were born,
Chief Joseph’s band from the land was torn.

Ordered to leave with no place to go,
Young braves killed settlers, a bitter blow.
The tribe of Joseph on horse and afoot,
Escaped to the valley of the Bitterroot.

To a wooded valley they called Big Hole,
Crossing over the mountains from Idaho.
Into Montana they fled from the chase,
Of the U.S. Calvary’s advancing pace.

At Big Hole the soldiers would take their kill -
Sixty-nine children, the old and the ill.
Joseph’s braves attacked and then crossed fired,
Crossing over Bannock Pass, hungry and tired.

Four hundred forty Indian souls
Mothers, fathers the young and the old,
Carrying everything on foot and in packs,
Fled to escape the cavalry attacks.

And on to Kilgore ahead of the crush,
Of horse soldiers and mules all in a rush,
Following the orders of one who signed,
O.O. Howard - “General Two Days Behind.”

There in the meadowland, lava and sage,
Not far from Mount Jefferson’s steady gaze,
The cavalry and mules stopped for the night,
To resume the manhunt at first morning light.

The mule corral was a petrified eddy,
Pistols and rifles were kept at the ready,
Lava rock barricades made the gunmetal clink,
A stone circle each - round with one missing link.

They were quick to answer the bugles call,
Be quick and spare no life at all.
No mercy for families covered with grime,
Running for life and needing more time.

Two days behind just wasn’t enough,
Two weeks were needed and going was rough.
Supplies were scarce, August nights were clear,
For the hunted families, the end was near.

The caldera knew from when it was young,
That kindred souls were on the run.
A people not used to defeat,
Scarce on time, supplies and meat.

Near the mountain that bears his name,
Jefferson’s spirit brooded again.
Not forgetting seventy years ago,
These Indians saved his men below.

To return the favor long ago made,
Mules would make a suitable trade.
Army packs would give supplies and time.
To head down through the forest of pine.

Through Camas Meadows and beyond the bend,
Miles ahead of where the soldiers would end.
The plan of the band camped in the trees -
Head east to where the rivers don’t freeze.

All gathered ‘round the council fire,
The lodegpole burnt and flames leapt higher.
By the light of the coals a pact was made,
To scatter the mules in a cavalcade raid.

No sleeping Indian at all that night,
As the horses and braves moved out of sight,
Across the meadow under cover of dark,
Quietly, quickly they rode to their mark.

Ahead of the rays of gray morning light,
Soft leather shod feet prepared for the fight,
Hidden away from the night guards view,
Behind the rocks awaiting their cue.

Molly mules and Johns never would know,
Who it was that let them all go,
Off of the ropes and off of their tether,
Far into the shadows they ran off together.

Bugles sounded, the men sprang to life,
Shooting at rocks, and sage they might,
Get back at a redskin and make him pay,
For the mules he scattered at the start of the day.

Volcanic cartridges from the lava flow sounded,
Behind rock barricades they stood surrounded.
The battle erupted and the battle flowed on,
Three soldiers and two braves dead at dawn.

In the lava flow the Army was stranded.
In harm’s way they now had landed.
No way to chase the Nez Perce braves,
Running spotted horses back through the sage.

For General Howard it took two weeks,
To go for help and survive the heat,
Of the August caldron on the lava flow shore,
Where he’d get the Indians in his wrath he swore.

The horses and riders returned to the hills,
Where old men, boys, women and girls,
Took to flight according to plan,
Escaping the wrath of the cavalryman.

Through prairies, pines and over the flat,
Through Targhee Pass and over the back,
Over oceans divide swift through the trees,
To a land where the rocks, not rivers, freeze.

Taking to flight according to plan,
To escape the wrath of the cavalryman,
They moved ahead of bullet and blade.
Such a tale - the Camas Meadows Cavalcade.

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