Nez Perce Tribe
Most American Indian and First Nation people are connected to the boarding school era through a relative’s experience. Bonnie Ewing’s connection is personal. At the age of five, she and her older brother and sister were forcibly removed from their home and taken to De Smet Catholic Mission School. Her story, however, does not continue there. Over several years, her aunt Edna devised a plan. Though blind, Edna had raised Bonnie and her siblings. Edna made a visit to the school and requested to see Bonnie and her brother and sister together. In a daring escape, she gathered the three children and ran from the school to a waiting taxi. An astonishing act of courage and love, like Bonnie’s family, like Bonnie’s life.
A citizen of the Nez Perce Tribe and descendant of Chief Twisted Hair who played a role in the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Bonnie and her relatives made their mark in tribal history. Her grandfather, fought with Chief Joseph at the Battle of the Bear Paw during Joseph’s attempt to bring his people to Canada. Her grandfather was a teenager at the time. He later escaped and made it to Lakota Chief Sitting Bull’s camp in Canada. Witsitum Tipits, her grandfather called her. Her name means brave one.
Chief Joseph outran and outwitted the U. S. military for 1,500 miles. It was a difficult and painful journey. Bonnie probably knows the trail by heart. She has traveled it twenty-eight times on horseback with young people from her tribe. Along the way they experience their history, their culture, and their relationship with the Appaloosa horse. The journey is life changing.
Bonnie has devoted her life to guiding children and mentoring youth. She began in Head Start as an aide and twenty years later retired as the director. She co-founded the Chief Joseph Foundation that connects you with both their history and their horse culture. The foundations’ Mounted Scholars, Royalty, and Riders to Leaders programs have supported and strengthened youth since 1990.
Equine therapy is fast gaining notoriety. But for the Nez Perce, this is old knowledge. In Bonnie’s words, “Horses are a spiritual portal to better self-esteem, health, education, and Native identity.”
When she recently celebrated her 81st birthday, Bonnie reflected on her life and the work still ahead. She tells us there are “very immediate” challenges remaining in her community. At this point in her life, Bonnie intends to bring her focus to the women. She is creating a unique Riders to Leaders program. This unique design will pair a selected elder woman mentor with girls or young women ages 10-18. Youth will learn horsemanship and horse culture through the elders. This intergenerational mentoring will help to preserve the ancestral knowledge that served Bonnie’s people for millennia.
The power of intergenerational knowledge transfer is something Bonnie understands deeply. She has been passing on her knowledge to her granddaughter Lucy. Lucy now stands by her side, working with her to ensure the future of the Nez Perce people is strong.