LAPWAI, Idaho – Some people just seem destined to serve. Wilfred “Scotty” Scott is one of those. He served 20 years in the United States Navy, then nearly 40 more years in tribal leadership with the Nez Perce Tribe, most of those years coordinating cultural memorials and blessings while assisting long time friend Horace Axtell.
In an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network Scott tells how a good friend, Rupert “Puff” Davis, influenced him as he was growing up. Puff was a Navy veteran and Scott recalls him saying, “Go into the Navy. It’s good. Get into administration. You’ll move up pretty fast from there.”
Scott enlisted in the Navy in December of 1951, just shy of his 21st birthday. Boot camp was served in San Diego, then during leave that spring he and Bessie got married. They remain happily married and she helps with tribal language classes while he works for the tribe in other matters in Lapwai, Idaho.
Back in San Diego he was given orders to an escort carrier. “We escorted downed planes and plane parts from Korea back to the U.S. and hauled new planes back over.”
In the fall of 1952 he again came home on leave. “I kind of took an extended leave. I stayed home for six months.” That “extended leave” caused him to serve about five and a half months in the brig for being AWOL.
Then assignment came to a small tanker, the Patapsco, based in Pearl Harbor. “I think I saw more and did more on that little ship than all the rest.” They made trips to many ports. He mentioned the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Saigon. “We hauled a load of fuel up the Saigon River and off-loaded it for the French. That was one of the first times we were close to any type of enemy contact. We only had two small armaments but also had two French gun boats with us, one in front and one in back.”
The ship also traveled to Bikini Atoll where the atomic bombs were tested. “A day and a half out and headed back to Pearl Harbor we were encountered by a plane signaling us they had done a test and to watch out for the tidal wave.” They picked up speed and avoided the wave but the ship spent six weeks in dry dock where it was completely stripped due to the radiation contamination it had been exposed to. Scott was tested throughout his career for radiation but was never classed as contaminated.
His next assignment was to a home port in Japan where he served on staff duty. He had a chance to visit Hiroshima and see the damage inflicted there at the end of World War II. Part of that period was spent transferring refugees between the northern and southern parts of Vietnam. Then it was back stateside and his first tour of duty with the Seabees at a construction battalion center in Rhode Island.
By the 1960s he was back in California at a test facility and a tour of duty with the Airedales, then in 1967 he went to Vietnam. This time he was on staff duty with Force Intelligence. “I was there during the TET Offensive,” he recalls. “I didn’t get involved in actual combat but got to see it.”
He retired from Navy service in January of ’72. “My goal was to make Chief Petty Officer, retire and go back home. I did that.”
It didn’t take him long to get into tribal politics. He was elected to his first term on the Executive Committee of the Nez Perce Tribal Council in May of 1972. He would serve with that group for 33 years including six years as chairman in addition to other years as vice-chairman, secretary, and treasurer. He served six more years on the tribal Fish Commission.
His military background came into play during those years. “I got involved in veterans’ issues and reformed our post. I sort of became the focal point when veterans’ issues became an issue.”
“Then we got started with memorials,” he said, regarding work he and Axtell became deeply involved with. “We got invited to the first one in 1977.” That was at Bear Paw where Chief Joseph surrendered in 1877. “Uncle (Axtell) and I had the honor of being invited to smoke. They had four pipe men come from the four directions. One from Canada, one from North Dakota, one up from Crow country and one local one. Only four others were invited so there were eight of us sitting around a little circle. That was quite an honor and the first time I’d been involved with the pipe.”
They started holding their own memorials the following year and over the years have held memorials at 17 locations in five states plus Canada. He estimates they have conducted 200-250 memorials since 1978 in commemoration of the Nez Perce War. “Since we started memorials a lot of our people have been doing research of family trees, reading the stories, and sharing stories about tribal history.”
Scott is now 81 and “Uncle” Horace Axtell is six years older. Age is slowing them down but they still plan to conduct more memorials in the coming months. Scott sets up the arrangements and serves basically as the MC while Axtell conducts the pipe ceremonies and other aspects of the memorials.
“I think the participation that Uncle and I have done throughout the years has been the high point of my life,” he concluded.