Philip J. Burgess, a poet, writer and storyteller, talked Saturday afternoon about a critical moment in the life of Poker Joe, known to the Nez Perce as Lean Elk.
In a talk titled “The Legend of ‘Poker’ Joe Lean Elk,” Burgess spoke about the half-French, half-Nez Perce man who lived during the Indian Wars of the 1800s. Poker Joe played a part in trying to lead survivors of the Battle of the Big Hole on their flight to freedom.
Poker Joe was known as a small man with a loud voice and had a reputation as an excellent fighter, said Burgess, speaking to a small but attentive audience at the Pictograph Cave State Park visitors’ center.
“He loved to play poker with whites; he spoke good English; and he had somehow acquired a good understanding of the U.S. military,” said Burgess, who lives in Missoula.
He is one of several speakers tapped this summer for a series of free Saturday talks at the state park. Next up, on July 12, is author and wilderness advocate Doug Peacock, who will discuss his book “In the Shadow of the Sabertooth.”
Burgess talked about two fishing access sites that can be found just south of Missoula, on Highway 93. One is named for Poker Joe and the other is named for Looking Glass, a full-blood Nez Perce chief.
“Every time I drive by there, I think about the tendency of men, whether they admit it or not, to measure themselves by their ability to protect their women, their children, their elders, and how no man can really succeed at that task,” he said.
Some men handle that failure poorly, taking it out on themselves or others, Burgess said. Other men handle it with grace and dignity and act as heroes.
“And I think this story I’m telling you today is an example of that sort of thing,” he said.
Burgess, a Vietnam vet and former Veteran’s Administration therapist, said his work has taken him to a number of reservations in Montana. He called himself “just another ignorant white guy wandering around with good intentions in Indian Country.”
The connections he made opened the opportunity for him to take part in a number of sun dances and sweat lodges.
“And those experiences made my visit to the Bear Paw Surrender Site even more meaningful as the years went by,” Burgess said. “I would go as a veteran to pay my respects to all the vets who fell trying to protect the people.”
The site is where Chief Joseph made his famous surrender speech. It lies 20 miles south of Chinook, in north central Montana.
A shallow, little winding valley brings the Snake Creek down the rolling hills from the Bear Paw Mountains to the Milk River, Burgess said.
“There’s nothing to suggest that a violent and tragic drama took place over 100 years ago,” he said. “Even the monuments erected to commemorate that event have disappeared against those rolling hills.”
The Nez Perce, a semi-nomadic tribe, lived in the Washington/Oregon/Idaho area. When the U.S. Army threatened to attack the tribe if it didn’t relocate to a reservation in Idaho, Chief Joseph decided to move his people to Canada.
When the tribe began its flight, Looking Glass, a respected warrior and chief, was selected to be trail chief, Burgess said. The trail chief chose the route, set the pace and selected the campgrounds.
“But Looking Glass didn’t understand the U.S. Army,” he said. “He kept them going at a traditional, leisurely pace, and that’s how they got caught at Big Hole.”
The tribe won the August 1877 battle, “but at a great cost,” Burgess said. So the chiefs turned to Poker Joe as the new trail chief.
Poker Joe had been off on his own in the Bitterroot Valley with his family when the Nez Perce came through on the run from the cavalry, Burgess said. At great risk, he chose to ride with them.
“I’ve often wondered about what motivated him to make that decision,” he said.
Poker Joe pushed the people hard toward the Canadian border, even though it was difficult on the more fragile members of the tribe. Because of that, Looking Glass convinced the chiefs to reinstate him as trail chief.
Looking Glass slackened the pace, not realizing their danger. The tribe spent its last night of freedom at Snake Creek, rather than making for the border that was less than 100 miles away, Burgess said.
Poker Joe told Looking Glass he had tried his best to save his people.
“ ‘You can take control, but I think we’re going to die here,’ ” Poker Joe told Looking Glass, Burgess said. “And so both died there amongst the reeds and buffalo grass at Snake Creek.”
But the story doesn’t end there. At the start of his talk, Burgess shared a caveat, that he was going to tell the truth as well as he could, “but it’s just an attempt.”
He finished by saying that while all of history says Poker Joe died in that battle, there might be another chapter. On the Internet, Burgess ran across “a rather irate note written by a Blackfoot Indian up north, and she has creds.”
The woman said people should stop talking about Poker Joe as if he died in that battle because he was part of a group of the Nez Perce that escaped across the border.
“She said that Poker Joe went with them and he was her great-grandfather,” Burgess said.
A second woman, a relative of the first, called him to share similar information, that Poker Joe lived to a ripe old age.
“I like to think of him surviving all that,” Burgess said.