Commemoration and Preservation:
An Administrative History of Big Hole National Battlefield
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In the 120 years since the Battle of the Big Hole, visitation has grown from a trickle of curious Montana residents and souvenir hunters to some 65,000 people annually who come from all over the United States and the world. Most of the increase in visitor numbers has occurred on the Park Service's watch, much of it as a direct result of the national battlefield staffs efforts to promote the site and to make the visitor's experience inspirational and informative. During this same period, the administrative presence at Big Hole battlefield has grown from one seasonal caretaker or ranger to a small staff of three or four year-round and four or five seasonal employees. The original physical plant, consisting of a forest-service built ranger station and museum located near the Siege Area, was removed and replaced in the Mission 66 era by a modem visitor center and employee apartment complex on the bench overlooking the battlefield.

Big Hole National Battlefield has accommodated this growth in visitation fairly successfully. The classic tension in national park management between preservation and use exists at a relatively low level of intensity at Big Hole. Controversies over the appropriateness of public camping at the battlefield in the 1930s, the location of the visitor center in the 1950s, and the character and size of the new employee housing complex in the 1990s were essentially internal. Typical management problems of heavy use – visitor crowding, human impacts on the natural environment, visual intrusions of parking lots and roads – remain secondary to other management issues at Big Hole.

All of the leading management challenges revolve around interpretation. Big Hole National Battlefield possesses an extraordinarily compelling human story, but physical traces of it are spare and a sensitive telling of it can be demanding. As early as 1935, Yellowstone Superintendent Roger W. Toll recognized that the story was hardly one to inspire patriotism. L.V. McWhorter worried about the dearth of Nez Perce sources in the written record, and dedicated himself to preserving the Nez Perce perspective on the battle. By the 1960s, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement brought new interpretive challenges to Big Hole; as veteran seasonal ranger Kermit Edmonds recalled, this battle was the Indians' My Lai. When the battlefield centennial approached, NPS officials fretted over each word and phrase of Big Hole's interpretive literature.

The difficulty of interpreting the Battle of the Big Hole objectively – or with equal sensitivity to the soldiers' and Nez Perce's point of view – was compounded by problems with the land base. Too much of the battle ground lay outside the unit boundaries. Extension of the national monument boundaries helped to broaden the interpretive focus from the siege – reminiscent of Custer's Last Stand – to the whole see-saw course of the battle. Beyond that, it opened the door to a more finely textured presentation of the epic tragedy of the Nez Perce flight. Indeed, Big Hole National Battlefield became a counterpoint to Custer National Battlefield 500 miles away in eastern Montana. At Custer, most visitors came in search of the immortal moment when Custer and his men laid down their lives in the cause of Manifest Destiny. By contrast, most visitors to Big Hole came in solemn remembrance of the horrors committed against the North American Indian. For Kermit Edmonds, a longtime seasonal interpreter and specialist in the frontier military, it was always a place of sorrow, the very bushes "redolent with pathos." For Otis Halfmoon, a Nez Perce park ranger, the battlefield literally cried out to him with the spirits of the dead.

In interpreting Big Hole National Battlefield to the public, the Park Service has faced other significant challenges. Giving equal weight to the soldier and Nez Perce points of view in the battle, for example, has required a delicate combining of documentary evidence and oral tradition, supplemented in recent times by archeological investigation. Alternatively, the Park Service has not so much tried to meld the two traditions as present them side by side and let the visitor draw his or her own conclusions. Interpreters at Big Hole have sought to provoke without offending, but the distinction has not always been clear.

Big Hole's unit managers have faced the problem that the battleground's physical features are changing. The vegetative cover that existed in 1877 became modified over the decades through a combination of natural plant succession, fire suppression, livestock grazing, and invasion by exotic weed species. The Horse Pasture turned to sagebrush, the willows grew too high, bullet-scarred trees died and toppled over, and rifle pits gradually filled with duff. Since successful site interpretation must tie the story to the existing scene, this, too, was a central management issue.

Unit managers long ago recognized that the most important artifacts of the battle were the trees and willows and grasses that formed the "natural" environment in 1877. Yet this environment was itself a historical artifact – shaped by the near-extermination of the beaver a generation before the battle, the elimination of buffalo from the valley by the 1870s, and the grazing of horses each time Indians camped in the area. To restore the vegetation to the way it looked in 1877 was perhaps the Park Service's most difficult goal of all. And yet the modem visitor to Big Hole National Battlefield could find much to be pleased about. At the end of the twentieth century the battlefield appeared remarkably unspoiled and pristine. The surrounding ranch country remained largely open and sparsely settled. The Park Service was poised to acquire another 635 acres to the unit's land base, including the Nez Perce's path of retreat known as Bloody Gulch.

Superintendent Al Schulmeyer described Big Hole National Battlefield as a "sleepy hollow," a description that Superintendent Jon G. James still considered apt in 1998. The unit began in a remote section of Montana and has remained far off the beaten path. Yet there are currents of change that could transform the unit's administrative context in the coming decade. The Nez Perce Tribe's involvement in cultural preservation and interpretation is growing, partly as a consequence of the Nez Perce National Historical Park Additions Act of 1994. Heritage tourism initiatives are underway in Montana, stimulated by growing public interest in the Lewis and Clark and Nee-Me-Poo trails and rising expectations about the Lewis and Clark bicentennial event. Despite its relative isolation, Big Hole National Battlefield is central to these resources, both geographically and thematically. Already serving as a parent unit to the Montana battlefield sites of Nez Perce National Historical Park, Big Hole is likely to acquire increasing administrative importance in the future.

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Last Updated: 22-Feb-2000