Friday, February 22, 2013

A puzzle re the Treaty of 1863



In 1863 the Joseph or Wallowa Band Nez Perce lived quietly in the Wallowa Country, isolated by mountains on three sides and the Snake River Canyon to the east. There were no white settlers—though a couple of French trappers married to Nez Perce women had lived among them from time to time—just a few hundred Indians who gathered summers in the Wallowa valley and at the Lake to hunt and socialize and catch and dry fish, and then spread out in family groups along the tributaries of the Snake River in colder times. 

In 1863, to the north, over high timbered country and across what is now called the Grande Ronde River and then more high country and then about at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, white men made new lines on maps drawn at Walla Walla in 1855 that had promised the Wallowa Country and a total of almost 8,000,000 acres total to the Nez Perce people forever. The new lines would exclude the Wallowas and whittle the Nez Perce Reservation down to fewer than 800,000 acres.  

Nez Perce arrive at Walla Walla in 1855
The reservation lines of 1855 had been made impossible by the discovery of gold and the intrusion of 18,000 white miners on the Reservation and a Civil War in the East that needed the gold and left no time or desire on the part of the federal government to understand and protect Indians from the economies and the greed of its white citizens. 

I had wondered why the new lines needed to omit the Wallowa Country. The Wallowa Nez Perce were not engaged in all that was going on in the outer world—the mission churches, the alcohol, the gold commerce that was growing like cancer to the north. Old Joseph, who had once invited the Reverend Spalding in, had given up his Bible after the doings in Walla Walla, no gold had been found, and there were no white settlers demanding land in the Wallowas. 

If the 1863 treaty had allowed the Nez Perce to keep the Wallowa country, I reasoned, the War of 1877 might not have happened. What were Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Washington Territory Calvin Hale and Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the new state of Oregon, W.H. Rector, and their white colleagues thinking? And Lawyer and the other Indian treaty signers?

In the end, after carefully reading the Josephy chapters in the big Nez Perce book and related chapters in his Civil War in the West book and looking at a map, I realize that I was the simple thinker. Joseph and his small band and the Wallowa Country were an island in a growing sea of whites and rapidly changing economies and religious activities that were transforming the region
.
The Nez Perce, who had escaped with ceding only small portions of their territories in the 1855 Treaty, were awash in white miners, missionaries, and, maybe most importantly, changing attitudes towards land. At Walla Walla, Indian chiefs argued that the land was their mother and could not be divided and sold. But others had started talking about the sale of land, and, in essence, agreed to compensation for ceded lands. Some tried to hold both ideas in their heads simultaneously. 

In 1861 gold was discovered on Nez Perce lands, and soon the Nez Perce, some of whom now spoke and wrote in English, many who called themselves Christians, met and traded with the hoards of white miners. They operated ferries and sold them meat, and took their gold. Of course whites didn’t wait for the Nez Perce to build their cities and overrun their land, and 3,000 Indians had little overall power over 18,600 whites who had bounded onto reservation lands by 1862. The Indians were divided, and increasingly powerless, people.

And the white miners weren’t only on the Clearwater to the north, but also east, across the Snake River, where the city of Florence boasted 9,000 whites. To the south, there were gold strikes in Powder River country—not Nez Perce land, but land bordering the Wallowas. 

To the west, in the Grande Ronde Valley, settlers were growing crops, building towns, raising cattle, and looking for more grazing ground over the mountains. Joseph and the others had been told at Walla Walla that the whites would come like grasshoppers—and they were. 

Old Joseph did not sign the new treaty in 1863, but left Lapwai and came back to the Wallowas. He lived until 1871 or 72, long enough for the Civil War in the East to end, for the surveyors to come into the valley, long enough to see the first grasshoppers, but not to see the War that would drive his people away. His sons, Young Joseph and Ollicot, would have to deal with the swarms and the armies—released now from that other War—who would come to take the Wallowa country from them.

# # #

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Fear of Indians


I keep trying to write about “assimilation,” because I know that Alvin considered it—the ways in which the white power structure has “zigzagged,” as he put it, with policies and actions aimed at “making Indians stop being Indians and turn themselves into Whites”—crucial to understanding the history of America. But I keep finding gems of understanding that seem to precede the concepts of assimilation, and extermination for that matter.

And this week it is fear, and not physical fear of Indians, though I am sure that those scrawny Dutchmen and Englishmen who came ashore on the Atlantic  Coast  in the early 1600s had some of that kind of fear and trepidation, but a deeper kind of fear. Alvin described it in a speech on “Fisheries and Native American Rights” given at the University of Michigan in April of 1979, and later published in The Indian Historian, Vol. 12, No. 2, Summer 1979.

Along the Atlantic Coast… the Dutch and English traders and settlers carried on the legacy of the Spaniards and immediately established the heritage of misunderstandings, stereotypic thinking, and conflicts that still pervade White-Native American relations within the United States. The first of these again, was that the Indians, being different, were inferior. But that inferiority often translated into fear, the religious and cultural fear that the wilderness man, the Indian, with his free, seemingly simple, and unChristian way of life would corrupt the European settler and the society the European had come to erect in the New World.

He goes on to deal with issues of land and natural resources, which are what we generally think about when we think about westward expansion and the displacement of Indians, but he puts this “religious and cultural fear” first, and that is worth thinking about.

I think it was in Ben Franklin’s writings about Indians that he talks about the Indians who have been taken in by whites most often wanting to go back to tribal ways, while the occasional white taken in by Indians sometimes did not want to return to white settlement.  I know that the French trappers were encouraged to blend with Indians, and many did so. (Some of the English trappers did as well, but theirs was a more measured blending. The HBC forbid intermarriage, though some of its prominent factors openly practiced it.)

“The French were more benign [than the Spaniards]. Though many of them also viewed the Indians as inferiors, in fact as children of nature, and converted and asserted dominance over them, the dynamics of the fur trade demanded dependent, but relatively content, Indian fur suppliers… the French made the greatest efforts to see the world as the Indians saw it.”

And of course it was the French philosopher, Jacque Rousseau, who famously talked about the “noble savage.”

Peter Rindisbacher, War Dance
Pictures are worth a thousand words, and another character Alvin wrote about, Peter Rindisbacher, the boy artist who arrived on the Canadian prairie in the1820s and made the first painting impressions of Fox and Cree and Chippewa, paintings that were turned into lithographs and widely distributed in Europe, has over 100 pictures that are worth 1000 words each. (“The Boy Artist of Red River” in American Heritage, February 1970, and The Artist Was a Young Man, a 1970 book.)

It was the handsome, vigorous Indians that earlier artists had brought to Europe that put thoughts into Rousseau’s head and fear into white Christian hearts. Rindisbacher, the first portraitist of the Plains, continued the unease. How could they be that way without the Gospel? Do we have it right?

The traditional way to strengthen faith among many religions is to send practitioners among the unfaithful and untouched, to preach the Gospel (or the Koran or the sacred text and/or beliefs of any evangelical religion). So it is a short step to say that this cultural and religious fear was early translated into the missionary movement in the New World, first informally, but gradually becoming more institutionalized and substantial.  Assimilation, extermination—that is what followed.

# # #

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Shadow Catcher




The name came to Edward S. Curtis from Indians, who were the subject of his life work—a twenty volume study in words and pictures of The North American Indian. The title of Tim Egan’s fascinating new biography is Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: the Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.

It must have been easier for the ones with firm beliefs and intentions, the purists: the original Europeans who thought the indigenous peoples on the new continents were less than human and best used as slaves, and, if worked to death or killed, of no moral consequence; the northern Europeans who started on the Atlantic seaboard and drove Indians west with diseases and superior weapons, duplicity, and sometimes savagery; and those on all fronts who thought and said that the best Indians were dead Indians.  Col. John Milton Chivington, who engineered the Sand Creek Massacre of friendly Cheyenne and Arapaho in 1864, said it this way: “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! ... I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill Indians.”

Another group of purists was—and is—the saviors, the biggest number Christian missionaries. The Franciscans under Father Serra, beginning in 1769, set up a string of 21 missions in California, and the good father is said to have converted over 5,000 Indians. He has been beatified for this work, but there is strong opposition to the final step of Sainthood from Indians and Indian advocates who argue that he and his missions were responsible for the enslavement, torture, and death of thousands of California Indians. Some have called what happened in California genocide—Josephy, in 500 Nations, hedged only slightly, saying that the history of the California tribes "was as close to genocide as any tribal people had faced, or would face, on the North American continent."

Further north—almost a century later—President Grant turned over the administration of Indian reservations to Christian missionaries. Missionaries, from early French priests accompanying fur traders to the Whitmans and Spaldings at Walla Walla and Lapwai, had been active from the beginning of white settlement in converting Indians, but it was Grant who, in Josephy’s eyes, caused the biggest breach in the separation of church and state in our history in giving over the administration and control of Indians to churches. These true believers, like their earlier Spanish counterparts, believed that they knew what was best for the Indians, and outlawing music, dance, clothing, and spiritual rituals was good because it was to the Indians’ benefit.

To be fair, there were and are missionaries who saw grayer shades, who sometimes have helped to keep Indians and Indian culture alive—some few helped Curtis.

And there is another associated group—possibly for much of our nation’s history the dominant group, made up of a few dedicated Samaritans and a silent majority of the population, which has promoted assimilation as the way of survival for Indians. Their mantra: kill the Indian to save the man. Examining “assimilation”—killing the “Indianness” is what Josephy called it—is now a major part of my work at the Josephy Library.

But today I am thinking about the white men and women who engaged the Indians as equals, and the Indians on the other side who also pinned their hopes on a relationship of equals, and how they have struggled—and still struggle. Tim Egan outlines a Curtis life that runs from poverty to great success as the finest portrait photographer in the land. Curtis consorts with the rich and famous from Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt to J.P. Morgan, and sets off on a quest to present the American Indian as he and she were—still were in many places in Curtis’s time—in their own highly developed physical and spiritual cultures. 

The curve in the book—and I think maybe in Curtis’s life, came with his intense examination of Plains Indians and the Battle of the Little Big Horn. After going over and over the battlefield with Crow Indian scouts who had been there, he learned that Custer was not a hero, but when he tried to tell the true story he was rebuffed on all fronts, finally by President Roosevelt himself, who said against all evidence that Curtis presented that his account was “highly improbable.” What he meant is that the nation needed Custer as a hero—and not Curtis as a truthteller.

Curtis’s good friend and for many years chief Indian informant, Alexander Upshaw, a Crow who went to the Carlisle Indian School and married a white woman, the man who had worked the Custer battlefield and talked with Curtis and the scouts endlessly, died under questionable circumstances in a jail cell in the wake of this work.

Curtis lived to old age, but died almost destitute, his thousands of photographs and the first movie ever to feature an all-Indian cast mortgaged to the Morgans and others to keep him alive and taking pictures. Scrambling among the assimilationists and fighting against and trying to avoid the purists, Curtis, and before him his great friend, Alexander Upshaw, paid steep prices. But their work survives—and so, against all odds, do the Indian peoples they celebrated.

Alvin Josephy on Curtis: http://www.americanheritage.com/content/splendid-indians-edward-s-curtis

# # #