The Nez Perce War of 1877 is one of the most stirring episodes in American history. Cheated out of their homeland by a federal government too weak to resist pressure from land-hungry settlers, the tribe took flight after a few fed-up warriors killed four white men with a history of anti-Indian behavior. For three months about 800 people -- including women, children and the elderly -- eluded and outfought the U.S. Army over a circuitous 1,700-mile route. The Indians' brilliant marches and countermarches brought them tantalizingly close to their goal -- escape across the border into "Grandmother's Land," their name for Canada in the Victorian era.

Finally, they had to surrender; the other choice would have been a hopeless last stand against the Army, and the Nez Perce were a sensible people. In laying down his arms, their great Chief Joseph uttered his immortal war-weary explanation: "Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."

The war serves as the underpinning of John A. Sanford's first novel, "Song of the Meadowlark," which is narrated by a fictional Nez Perce man called Teeto Hoonod. As he explains it, the irony of the war was its termination of an interracial amity that had persisted for generations, ever since the Nez Perce had helped "starving men of the Lewis and Clark expedition." A further irony -- one especially poignant for Washingtonians -- is that Gen. Oliver Howard, a founder and the namesake of Howard University, acquitted himself poorly in this campaign. Not only did he let himself be outgeneraled; he made the mistake of treating the Nez Perce with contempt.

As depicted by Sanford, the Nez Perce fit the bill for ideal Indians: generally peace-loving though fierce if provoked too far, ecologically enlightened and reverent toward their homeland in the Wallowa Valley of Washington, secure in the possession of a lively mythology to explain who they were and why the world was made. In their creation myth, Coyote, the archetypal Indian trickster-god, fashioned the Nez Perce as an afterthought. "You may never be a numerous people," he told them, "but you will be strong. Even though I have deprived you by creating you last of all, nevertheless you will be very, very manly."

In keeping with the author's metier -- he is a Jungian psychologist -- the story is embellished with several more myths. My favorite is an explanation of why, when katydids are chirping, one always seems to be out of sync. The reason is that one day a katydid woman living among the Nez Perce defected and tried to rejoin the insect race. But katydids can't go home again. "And that . . . is why, when the katydids sing, there is always one singer who is left out. It's the katydid woman, no longer human, yet not able to become again one of her insect kind."

The story is as much Teeto Hoonod's as it is the tribe's. A sensitive and educated young man (he grew up near the Christian school), perhaps a shaman in the making, he doubts his manhood because he feels no great urge to be a warrior. So it rankles when he goes on his vision quest and receives a meadowlark as his power animal. (A bear, a cougar, even a hawk would be preferable.) When his beloved older brother is gunned down in battle with white soldiers, Teeto Hoonod becomes consumed with vengefulness. Yet his mentor, the healer Kapoochas, warns him that revenge does the most harm of all to its seeker, and something inside the boy rises to this sentiment in spite of himself. The conflict between his fraternal duty and his inner convictions adds a personal dimension to the tribal plight.

But Teeto Hoonod is a bit of a stick, and his wrestling match with revenge doesn't come alive. Even when he makes love with his dead brother's wife (he has a perfectly good wife of his own), he seems gray and fuzzy compared with the tragically perceptive Joseph or the uncannily wise Kapoochas.

Nonetheless, "The Song of the Meadowlark" is an intelligent and absorbing novel, particularly valuable for its cumulative explanation of how the Nez Perce could consistently whip the U.S. Army. In the end the Army prevailed only because of Coyote, who created the Nez Perce too late and too few.