At the site of one of the bloodiest battles in the 19th-century West, Anna Killian is part of ongoing efforts to include perspectives from indigenous people to form multi-vocal narratives.
As a child, Anna Killian’s days were filled with stories from family members who regaled her with tales of the past. From legends of the Lone Ranger and Daniel Boone, to the accounts of strong women and men in her family tree, Killian loved it all and was hooked from day one. As an adult, Killian parlayed her love of history into a B.S. in History from Western Carolina University, and an M.A. in Public History from NCSU. These academic pursuits have led to exciting jobs around the country working in costumed interpretation, exhibit creation, and even artifact collection!
A summer job leading tours at Duke Homestead created a passion for crafting meaningful and hands-on experiences for guests at historical destinations. Killian has gained knowledge of artifact care from the experts at the State Heritage Society of North Dakota, and had the honor of collecting and cataloging artifacts from the DAPL protests camps under their leadership. She has also learned the finer points of school programming from the folks at Oak View County Park where agricultural history is the name of the game. These positions and others allowed Killian opportunities to develop her understanding and expertise in public history. Now, she puts this to use every day in her new position as Interpretation Intern at the Big Hole National Battlefield in Wisdom, Montana.
Killian loves working at the battlefield, and greets NPS guests from around the world sharing the story of the battle through daily Deck Talks, Battlefield Tours, and conversations with visitors. The summer was packed to the brim with fun programs such as Coyote Camp, the Summer Speaker Series, and Commemoration activities. When the cold Montana winter hits the battlefield, Killian will work to expand site programming and outreach. Check out her progress on Twitter and Facebook!
As public historians know, funding for full-time positions is scarce, but Killian’s position is funded through the Student Conservation Association. While the SCA funds the job, Killian interacts and reports daily to NPS employees, and works with them to ensure rich, accurate, and meaningful interpretation at the site. Each aspect of interpretation at Big Hole NPS is girded by the recollections and advice of members of the Nez Perce Nation, whose ancestors survived the battle in the valley. This collaboration and the amicable relationships the staff cultivates with descendants of the participants of this battle makes Killian’s job particularly rewarding.
Why do the Nez Perce have such a strong voice at the battlefield? Their families were attacked, killed, and their remains are still buried at the site to this day. While the 7th Infantry experienced significant casualties during this battle, it was the fleeing Nez Perce, who were trying to find a new home, who suffered the heaviest loss.
The exhibits at the museum do not shy away from this story. Interpretation is extremely Nez-Perce-centric with enrolled members of the tribe providing guidance to the sensitivity and direct language of the exhibits. The results of this partnership are astounding. Guests are greeted by signs proclaiming a welcome in Nimiipuutimt, the vernacular language of the Nez Perce, and each title, quote, and panel is headed with Nimiipuu phrases. Instead of only telling the soldier’s point of view, the museum and staff strive to provoke thought and interpret both sides of the battle.
What made this battle one of the bloodiest in the 19th-century West? Here’s the story….
In early 1877, the Nez Perce Nation faced a decision. They must either peacefully move nearly 800 people onto a reservation that was a tenth of what they had once called their own or be placed there by the force of the U.S. military. Through a series of sad and horrific events, these Non-Treaty Nez Perce were forced to abandon their homeland in a desperate attempt to find a new, safe home.
Under the able leadership of Chief Joseph, one of their most famed leaders, these displaced people made it to the Big Hole Valley in August of 1877 with the 7th Infantry, led by Colonel John Gibbon, in hot pursuit.
On August 9, the battle was begun when an elderly chief was killed while checking his horses. Valiantly fighting through the hot summer day, Nez Perce warriors defended their families from the surprise infantry attack. However, by the end of the battle the next morning, 60-90 Nez Perce had been killed. Two-thirds of this number were women and children. The soldiers lost 31 men, and 39 were wounded. All together, these numbers make this the bloodiest battle of the entire Flight of 1877.
The Nez Perce worked hard to recover their culture and today the Nez Perce people are thriving! Through places like Big Hole NPS, the Nez Perce can share their history, their language, and their hopes for the future with everyone who takes the time to visit.
Battlefield visitors are often entranced by the beauty of the landscape and moved by the heart-rending story. Killian helps guide them through history and gain a deeper understanding of the battle so that it can have meaning to them today.
“History can be so fascinating! But it’s up to museums and their staff to make it engaging for the public. I am so excited to help interpret this story and help others grasp the Nez Perce past,” Killian said. “And in the future? I’m focused on finding jobs that allow me to be on the front lines of visitor interaction, right where public historians can make an instant difference!”