Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The most famous Indian in America



Note: We just completed a four week examination of the “Wallowa Country: 1855-1900” at the Josephy Center. Teaching is new to me, but four high school juniors and a fine group of eighteen older history buffs, curious newcomers to the Wallowa, and serious students of Indian affairs led me to learn and organize what I am learning as I try to follow Alvin Josephy’s intellectual and emotional  life journey in Indian America. Much has been written about the Nez Perce War and about Chief Joseph; less about his attempts to return to the Wallowa Homeland at War's end.


There was a time when Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce was the most famous and (mostly) admired Indian in the land.

At the surrender at Bear’s Paw, after the siege and forty miles short of the Canadian border and Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph and his remnant band of Nez Perce and allies from other bands and tribes who had joined in the Nez Perce War were told by General Miles that they would be taken to Fort Keogh, 500 miles away. They were told that they would winter at Keogh, and then be allowed to return to their homeland.

Joseph’s brother, Ollokot, and most of the young warriors were dead. Women and children were hungry and cold. White Bird and a few others actually would make it to Canada, and Joseph and the other able-bodied could have done so, but they would have had to leave women, children, and the wounded behind. Joseph would not do that.

And that, I think, is the point at which his fame—and the story of Joseph as the leader of the Nez Perce people—begins to grow.

At War’s the generals needed the story of a brilliant opponent to make their own war efforts worthy. The Indian survivors were truly hungry and cold and distraught over the loss of people and land. And if not the military genius that the generals and a growing public made of him—the “Red Napoleon”—Joseph soon proved himself brilliant as a speaker and leader of his people in exile.

On the 500 mile ride to Fort Keogh, Joseph and Miles became closer, and Miles promised again to help Joseph return to his homeland. Of course the next chapter in the story is the next in the litany of broken promises: the Nez Perce are not to winter at Fort Keogh, but to be moved to Bismarck in Dakota Territory, where there is a railhead and it will be easier to keep them supplied. And then it is Leavenworth and Baxter Springs and Indian Territory (further removed from Sitting Bull and White Bird in Canada, though this is not what they told Joseph). No hanging—which Miles had also promised—but no return to his homeland either.

In Bismarck Joseph and Miles were both greeted as heroes and feted with dinners (the Bismarckians seemed interested in being part of a drama that was being covered by the national press rather than supporters of either of its combatant factions). And Joseph learned about the press—and the telegraph, and he began to tell the story of broken promises.

He would tell that story at Fort Leavenworth and Baxter Springs and in Washington D.C. He would tell it to commissioners and Congressmen and Presidents. He would gain sympathy of Presbyterian ministers and congregations, ally even with Christian Nez Perce—old adversaries sent from Lapwai to convert the non-treaty and traditional religionist Joseph Band while they were in exile. His words would appear in the leading magazines of the day, Harpers and North American Review.

And eventually, after almost eight years in exile, Joseph and the remaining Indians—many died in captivity—would be allowed to return to the Northwest. But not to the Wallowa—118 would go to live among the mostly Christian and mostly treaty Nez Perce at Lapwai in Idaho; Joseph and 150 followers to Colville, to live among Indians of other tribes and languages. Joseph continued his efforts at return to the Wallowa.

But East and West are different, and the country was changing rapidly. In 1885, Western landholders were still at odds with Indians, still homesteading on land recently held by Indians. And stories of the Nez Perce War and even Custer’s defeat were not distant. The newspapers and politicians ranted against Nez Perce return. And Indian accommodations—bands and tribes thrown together with no notion of historical relationships—were hard. It was not easy for the Nez Perce at Colville.

Joseph made two trips east, continuing his audiences with Congressmen, bureaucrats, and Presidents. From War’s end through exile and the move to Colville, Joseph was the most famous, respected Indian in the land. In the first years at Colville, the eastern press, intellectuals, and the churches continued to lament his treatment and promote his cause. But in two trips to the Wallowas, the last in 1900, he was told that no land would be given him, no land sold to him.

By 1900 the West was overrun by white settlers, the Indians tucked away in mostly hard places. The “hostiles” had been killed or put away: Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull were dead; Geronimo had surrendered and appeared in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.  Even Joseph took his turn with Buffalo Bill, accompanying him to the parade in New York City at the dedication of Grant’s Tomb.

On his last trip to the Wallowa, in 1900, an Indian commissioner came along—and reported back against Joseph’s return. The country, he said, was fully inhabited and being well used by whites. The local paper reported that “considerable sport was made of the man” when he said he wanted some land by his father’s grave near Wallowa, at the Lake, and in the Imnaha country. The homeland dream was no longer a cause célèbre of eastern intellectuals, no longer a fear of Western settlers. Joseph’s star and his hopes had risen and been buoyed by an enthusiastic nation, but that nation had passed him by.

On September 24, 1904, Joseph made a last New York appearance:  the New York Sun said that “With the death of Chief Joseph, the famous leader of the Nez Perces, the United States has lost its most celebrated Indian.”

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Afterword:  Although I have picked up pieces of information about the years of exile and attempts at return in other places—Joseph’s famous and widely published speech on his 1879 visit to Washington D.C.; Steve Evans’ excellent Voice of the Old Wolf, which tells the story of Nez Perce friend and chronicler Lucullus McWhorter; local newspaper files, etc.—the last 120 pages of Kent Nerburn’s Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce is the best synopsis of the post-war years that I have found.

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