LEWISTON, Idaho – Horace Axtell is known as “Uncle” to virtually everyone on the Nez Perce Reservation, a sign of both respect and affection. He conducts memorial services, blessings, funerals, and various other occasions where he is asked. But his story dates long before that, back to World War II where he served in the U.S. Army, and to even earlier as a child.
He had tried to volunteer for the Navy or Marines but was rejected due to an earlier eye injury. He tells the story of going huckleberry picking with his mother and grandmother, riding a horse as the women traveled by horse-drawn wagon. He was galloping when the cinch broke, landing him on his face in gravel and breaking the tear duct in his right eye. Fearful he would lose his eye, his grandmother dug a root, crushed it, and put it in a wet washrag over his eye. The eye healed but kept him from joining the Navy or Marines.
In 1943 he “raised his age,” got into the draft and joined the U.S. Army. He did basic training at Camp Swift in Texas. He was assigned to 529th Engineers and was scheduled to sail to Germany but caught mumps while on furlough, missed the ship, and was later reassigned to a combat engineer unit and sent to Hawaii, “zigzagging to avoid torpedo boats.”
Part of the 1298th Combat Engineer Battallion, they set off from Hawaii to Japan but arrived there just two days after the atomic bomb was dropped and the war ended. “I never served in combat,” he commented. He did remain in Japan eight months building such things as roads and warehouses and hospitals.
His mother had died while he was overseas. The family house had burned down and no one was waiting for him when he returned after three years and four months of military service. It was a difficult time and he started drinking pretty heavily, which led to him and couple of buddies being arrested for stealing. Although he doesn’t remember much of it, the result was a year in prison.
His life back in order, he got a job at the Potlatch Mill in Lewiston, married Andrea in 1963, and remains married. He worked for Potlatch for 36 years but during that time he became deeply involved in the ceremonial life and spirituality of the Nez Perce people.
Axtell explains how that started. His grandmother only spoke the Nez Perce language and Horace grew up fluent in that language and kept up with it while in Japan. “I’d be on guard duty and start talking Nez Perce. I was talking to my grandmother and then I’d answer her,” he laughed. “I did that quite a bit and never forgot my language.”
Back home, he was awakened one morning by a small group of elders who believed in the old Nez Perce spirituality. “They call it Seven Drums, or things like that,” he said. They had heard him speak the language and asked if he would go out and learn how to lead the old longhouse way, “the old spirituality of our tribe.”
After talking with his wife he decided to try it and spent time with other Plateau tribes learning from them how to conduct the various ceremonies, funerals, and blessings. He learned how to conduct pipe ceremonies. He already knew the old songs, learned from church and from his grandmother. “It wasn’t hard for me to take over this longhouse way. I still do that,” he said.
He also did some language teaching at Lewis and Clark State College and was later given an honorary doctorate by the school.
In 1977, 100 years after the Nez Perce War, he visited the Bear Paw Mountains in Montana, where Chief Joseph formally surrendered. He took his father with him, just two weeks before his death. This was also where his grandfather had died. He and three other warriors had escaped toward Canada but decided to return to help Chief Joseph and all four were shot and killed.
In 1978 he and Wilfred Scott began conducting memorials at various battle sites along the Nez Perce Trail as well as other locations throughout the ancestral homelands and sites in Kansas and Oklahoma where the Nez Perce were held prisoner following the war. The memorials they’ve conducted probably number between 200 and 300.
Axtell is now 87. His health isn’t the best but his present intention is to conduct memorials along the Nez Perce Trail again this summer and fall.