Debut Author Releases Novel About The Little-Known Native American Nez Perce War Of 1877

By Julia Sullivan

I became fascinated with the story of Chief Joseph after visiting the Big Hole Battlefield in Wisdom, Montana. It is stunningly beautiful place where something truly horrific occurred; this juxtaposition would become an important theme in my novel. 

Bone Necklace is inspired by a small band of Native American warriors who, in 1877, held off four converging armies while their families escaped to Canada. Nez Perce families were pulled apart – much as Ukrainian families are being pulled apart today – with some members staying behind to fight and probably die while others set out on a perilous journey to carry their children to safety. There is tragedy in these stories, but there is also love and sacrifice … beauty almost.    

In times of war, it is usually the women who must flee for safety with their children. In Bone Necklace, we meet two women on opposite sides of the war, each one running for her life. Nicole, a widow, travels first with the Nez Perce, then with the U.S. Army, sizing up the men on both sides of the war. In this excerpt from Bone Necklace, she has just arrived with two broken down mules and a guide at wind-swept expanse of yellow grass where the Absaroka Mountains flatten out into the Great Plains:

Nicole remembered the day Running Bird had dragged her away from Witt’s body, pulled her up behind him on his spotted horse, and tied them together with a leather cord. She’d nearly toppled them both off the horse, half-crazed with grief and fear. She didn’t know where Running Bird was taking her. She didn’t know what the Indians would do to her. A few days later, she was one of them, dressed in rags, running for her life, terrified General Howard would kill her with his Gatling gun. It was as if she’d been plucked from the quiet pool of her own life and dropped into the swirling torrent of someone else’s brutish existence. 

Before Witt died, she’d never really wanted for anything except maybe a dollop of cream for her tea. Life with Witt was a kiss whenever she wanted one, a perennial garden near Piccadilly Circus, mint juleps served on a pretty silver tray. Tragedy, privation, hunger, exhaustion, desolation, anguish, despair—those were things that happened to other people. Things she read about in novels while she sat in her rocking chair with the tri-colored tabby purring on her lap.  

Nicole didn’t just mourn Witt. She mourned the person she was before she lost Witt. The person who still thought life was gentle and easy. She felt like Orpheus, who’d followed his love to the netherworld and returned broken-hearted and alone.

She realized now that people were much the same, though their circumstances might be vastly different. Everybody made mistakes. Desperate people made more and bigger mistakes. Young men who’d seen their families bayonetted? Who’d seen children burned alive? Well. Stay out of their way. That’s what General Sherman should have said when he passed the Lowsleys on his way out of Yellowstone Park. Turn around. Go home. It isn’t safe, and it isn’t going to be safe for a very long time. Not with so much blood crying out from the ground. 

Part of Nicole still wanted it to be somebody’s fault. General Sherman, for claiming the Indians wouldn’t go near the geysers. Mr. Ford, for igniting the Indians’ smoldering anger by offering them crumbs. Witt, for charging them with a mule and a bird gun. Running Bird, for being the better marksman. God Almighty, for not stopping this cursed war. But in the end, Nicole found that anger required too much effort. It flattened out into Thoreau’s quiet desperation. 

She flipped through the sketchbook she’d kept throughout her ordeal. The Nez Perce stared back at her from the pages: Peopeo Tholekt, wounded in the right leg and again in the head; Chellooyeen, shot in the right side of his waist; Espowyes, with a bayonet wound in the abdomen; Temme Ilppilp, with a gunshot in the right thigh; Tahkoopen, also shot in the leg; Yellow Wolf, wounded five times, most recently by a bullet to his head; and Inwholise, who used to be called White Feather, whose new name meant “Broken Teeth,” who could hardly eat, who had no mother and no sister now.

There were gentler drawings too: Prairie Dove collecting strawberries in a tightly woven basket; Cedar Smoke with his extravagant hat; Joseph helping his daughter, Sound of Running Feet, with a horse; White Bird holding an eagle’s wing in front of his face; young boys building their contemptuous dung cairns for General Howard; a snowy owl, almost invisible in a white-barked aspen. 

Nicole already missed the medicine man’s shining face, and Joseph’s oldest wife, holding a child on each hip, and the chief himself, running through the camp, shouting “Hurry! Hurry!” She worried about Silooyelam’s broken ankle and Eeahlokoon’s torn-up leg and Elaskolatat’s strained back. Now that Nicole was gone, who would collect yarrow for Inwholise’s infected teeth and willow bark for painkilling tea? 

She realized she was crying, but she didn’t bother to wipe the tears. She looked out over the plains, at the grass fading and stiffening, the spent flowers crumbling on broken stalks, the bright sun reflecting off chalky alkali fields. She felt the pull of exhaustion, a heaviness in her eyelids and limbs.  

She recalled the time she’d gone to see the Severn River bore at Minsterworth, how the river had surged toward the sea until high tide, then buckled back upon itself in a wave, six or seven feet high, heaving and swelling and breaking in the wrong direction before turning back toward the sea again. She felt like that river now, flowing in two directions at once, her sympathies aligned with both sides of this war.

Still, Nicole doubted she could have survived with the Indians for much longer. She was too exhausted, too cold and hungry, too unaccustomed, by birth and experience, to the hard way that they lived. She was well-educated and well-traveled, but it turned out she was helpless in the wilderness, having acquired not one single useful skill through all those years of boarding school. She knew how to plant a flower garden, but she didn’t know which flowers she could eat.

She knew the difference between a fish knife and a butter knife, but she didn’t know how to use a knife to gut a gopher or a squirrel. She could embroider a handkerchief, but she couldn’t patch a moccasin. She could select the silver, but she couldn’t cook the meal. The Indians must have found her ridiculous.

She supposed they were no better suited to life on a reservation than she was to life in the high, cold mountains. She tried to imagine Running Bird wearing farmer’s coveralls and laughed out loud at the absurdity of it. The government might just as well tell a fish not to swim or a peacock not to preen. 

“I can’t imagine what you find so funny,” Mr. Ford said, as if she owed him an explanation. 

“I can’t imagine you finding anything funny,” she said. 

Julia Sullivan is an author and an attorney whose debut ‘Bone Necklace’, is a historical novel about a little-known Indian war, the Nez Perce War of 1877, as told through multiple fictional perspectives. Bone Necklace is currently slated for release in Spring 2022. The issues explored in the novel resonate with her work as an attorney. The through-line between the two is her passion for justice. Julia has represented inmates on death row, undocumented immigrants, and victims of domestic and elder abuse. She provided countless hours of pro bono work as Executive Director and Chairman of the Board of MAIP (Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project). Her focus has been on righting the scales in a system where corporations or the very wealthy often have the upper hand – while lower-income individuals frequently had their entire lives destroyed by a system that often fails the most fragile.

Comments are closed.