Thursday, April 13, 2017

Another Nez Perce book

Oregon Public Radio’s Dave Miller interviewed Daniel Sharfstein, author of the latest Nez Perce book, Thunder in the Mountains, yesterday on his “Think-Out-Loud” program. That came right on the heels of my reading David Osborne’s just released novel, The Coming, which is the Nez Perce story with William Clark’s Nez Perce son at its center.

Daytime Smoke, William Clark’s Nez Perce son
We know, by the way, that a Nez Perce woman bore Clark a son, Halaftooki (Daytime Smoke), and that he became a tribal elder who hoped his mixed heritage would insulate him from growing conflicts between Indians and white miners and settlers. When conflict broke out, however, he joined the non-treaties, and, as far as I know, died in captivity. Osborne’s book is a fine retelling of that story, with fictional characters and events scattered among the real ones to get Daytime Smoke from birth through the War.

But I digress. This new book, according to Miller’s interview with Sharfstein, follows the pre-Nez Perce career of O.O. Howard in the Civil War and as head of “The U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands,” popularly known as the “Freedmen's Bureau,” established in 1865 to assist freed slaves in the reconstruction era.  Follows him to Portland, describes lectures on the Civil War he gave there (a general’s retirement program), and then describes Joseph’s prewar meanderings among the Cayuse, Umatilla, and white settlers of the Grande Ronde Valley.

Examination of the Nez Perce—and especially of the Nez Perce War—is a small industry. My friend, Mike Andrews, who grew up in La Grande, has read a lot of it, and wonders what kind of patterns there are, and why the burst of new books NOW. William Vollman’s The Dying Grass, a 900 page novel with footnotes!, came out less than two years ago; Osborne’s book a couple of months ago; and T.J. Stiles, in Portland recently to talk about a new biography of Custer, announced that his next book is Joseph.

Mike asks why all the Nez Perce books; I think the more specific question might be why all the Chief Joseph books. Joseph was handsome at a time when photography was new; Joseph had a proper Christian name people could pronounce. The Nez Perce had kicked the army’s butt during the War, and as that could not have been accomplished by a bunch of ignorant heathens, Joseph must have been a military genius, the “Red Napoleon,” as the newspapers called him. And this last of the Indian wars was indeed reported by Eastern newspapers. As Joseph learned as his people were transported from Bismarck by train after surrender, the new telegraph had played a part in the War. His surrender speech and later eloquent speeches about his lost homeland, the white man’s forked tongues and rules, and requests for fair treatment, would be published, and he would be photographed.

Although early books called it Chief Joseph’s War, later books pointed out that Joseph was never a war chief—but Looking Glass and his brother Ollokot, who had been war chiefs, were dead at Bears Paw, White Bird crossed to Canada, and it was Joseph who surrendered.

And Joseph, the diplomat, who would lead his people in captivity for eight long years in the “hot country,” and, eventually, after meetings with Congress and Presidents, badgering of generals and politicians, and astute lobbying of the local and national Presbyterians, lead them back to the West.

As some one—or many—have said, history is often more about the time it is written in than the time it is written about. I would like to line up all of the Nez Perce books –455 titles now in our SAGE Library System—and see what patterns emerge.

More importantly, what histories might our times call for?

I’ve heard much about Joseph’s War, the Nez Perce War, Indian wars; it might be time to look at Indian diplomacy, at patience and endurance amidst chaos, at survival against all odds, at revival of culture and language in an electronic age, at purpose and will and heroism off the battlefield that have kept the Nez Perce, and Indian peoples across North America, alive.

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