Special Forces Unit Adopted by Nez Perce Tribe

By Greg Walker (ret), USA Special Forces

“Now you become part of the Nimiipuu people and we welcome you”
— Spiritual leader Horace Axtell

“Each year, Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) people gather in a grassy field at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site to honor their ancestors who were incarcerated here in 1877-78. The men, women, and chil-dren — led by Chief Red Heart at the time — were treated harshly. Conditions were so bad that a young boy died. More than 120 years later, the Red Heart Memorial began in 1998 and has happened every year until 2020, when it was cancelled because of the coro-navirus pandemic. This year, Nimiipuu members of the Red Heart families gathered once again, this time in a private, socially-distant ceremony that included only Tribal members and representatives from the City of Vancouver and the National Park Service.

“In lieu of a public event, Confluence has partnered with organizers of the ceremony on this Red Heart Memorial Oral History Project to record this year’s event and gather oral history interviews from participants, with support from the National Nez Perce Historic Trail. A recording of the event will air on CVTV and be available at the Confluence Digital Library, where we will also keep the oral history recordings. We have collected the first set of those interviews into a special episode of the Confluence Story Gathering Podcast.”

View the video of Chief Red Heart Ceremony

Welcoming the Black Scarves – August 2003 SPALDING — Under the shade of cottonwood and locust trees rus-tling in a stiff breeze, the men of Company A, an airborne Army Special Forces unit fresh from Iraq, formed a circle with veterans from the Nez Perce Tribe.

Wilfred Scott, vice chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, an elder and veteran himself, welcomed the 20 young men to Nez Perce Country and described the coming pipe ceremony.

“I do not recall us doing one like this for any group or any unit,” said Scott. “Many of us get pretty emotional doing these ceremonies.”

At that the tribal flag song was played and the Special Forces troops stood straight and rigid as the stars and stripes, tribal flags, an Army flag and the company banner were brought in.

The Nez Perce veterans befriended the unit and honored it with a pipe ceremony prior to the war. They also sent black scarves embroidered with the word Nimiipuu (Nez Perce for “The People”) and the Alpha Company insignia to the men, who wore them in Iraq.

The troops were also welcomed to the ceremony by Anthony Johnson, chairman of the tribe and a veteran of the Gulf War. He spoke of his return from war 10 years ago and how welcome the sight of trees and green grass was after months in the desert.

“We want to say welcome home and job well done,” said Johnson. “We are very glad that in a traditional way we didn’t have to do an empty-saddle ceremony in honor of a fallen comrade.”

Company commander Maj. Gregory Allen, dressed in desert fatigues, accepted the welcome and thanked the veterans for their prayers and blessing.

“This is very overwhelming to me,” he said. “I’m not a very emotional person.”

Allen introduced each of his men and described what their job was during the war. “It is pretty incredible all these guys are back alive and no one was injured. We can thank God for that and we can thank all of our training.”

Spiritual leader Horace Axtell then blessed the ceremony and he and others prepared pipes that circled the group of about 40 men three times. Each man and a few women raised the pipe to the sky and then to their lips to draw in the smoke.

“Now you become part of the Nimiipuu people and we welcome you,” Axtell said.

Following the smoking, gifts were exchanged before an eagle feather was passed around the circle. Each person who held the feather stood and told of their service and some of their experiences.

SFC Gregory Walker, who had formed a friendship through e-mails with Scott, said the tradition of Special Forces was born from the courage and tactics of Indian warriors in the 1700s.

“Your scarves and your prayers with them went over with us and brought us back safe today.”


Opening ritual for the Chief Red Heart ceremony

Greg Walker presents the tribal colors in the opening ritual for the Chief Red Heart ceremony. (Photo courtesy Greg Walker)

Book Yellow Wolf His Own Story

Only a Nez Perce Elder can bestow a tribal name. “Black Scarf” is the name given to the author. (Photo courtesy Greg Walker)

The Renegade Drums

The Renegade Drums provided traditional music for the ceremony. (Photo courtesy Greg Walker)

What’s in a name?

“Each name fulfills the purpose of revealing something about the character or temperament of the person or place. Names like these are still in use across America today. Some people receive more than one name, which reflects significant character changes during their lifetime. Legal names are given, but Native American names are earned.”


“Native Americans inspire us to think about our names as allegory — with multiple dimensions. To remember that we are on a linear voyage in life, that we should be constantly changing and growing, that our identity consists in how we are seen and judged by others — by what we give, not by what we take. To remember that our names should remind us first of ‘us’, not ‘me.’ To remember that making the world a better place means not only helping others but also caring for nature so that our descendants will enjoy the same bounty we have. To remember that every human being has a sacred spiritual core.”