Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Friendship and freedom; Indian and White

Young Joseph’s Monument, Nespelem
This weekend a Nez Perce friend handed me a copy of a letter, written in 1940, by Walter Copping, a white man who had been a storekeeper at Nespelem, Washington. The letter writer says that Chief Joseph died in the fall of 1904 while most of the Nez Perce were gone picking hops, and that the funeral was on June 20, 1905, when there were again few Nez Perce around and he and some Indians of “other tribes” were made pallbearers. He was sure of the date, because he wrote it in his “Masonic Monitor.” He explains that when the Indians came back from hop picking that year they had another ceremony, and adds that there was a third ceremony, which Professor Meany and railroader Sam Hill attended, and at which a monument was placed at the grave site. He gives no date for this third memorial.

The man talks easily of languages—English, Nez Perce, Chinook, and it is not clear from the addressee and the names of husbands and wives that he mentions who exactly was Indian and who was white. He simply had been asked by someone to write down his memories of Joseph, and his response had been delayed—“If I wasn’t the world’s worst letter writer you would have heard from me long ago.” But he goes on to write like a good neighbor and friend would write—sometimes humorous, always respectful.

“I remember that Joseph used to come into the store and sit on the counter for an hour or two at a time and would not talk very much.. When he would talk he would speak to me in Nez Perce and if I did not know what he said he would explain in Chinook to me. He would help me to learn the Nez Perce…. I liked Joseph very much and thought he was a very fine man. Was a large  (about 240# and 6’3” tall) and a fine looking fellow.”

I just finished reading Daniel Sharfstein’s Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard and the Nez Perce War. It’s a good book, and I will write more about it, but what strikes me now, as I read this letter and think of the friend who gave it to me, is how good, curious, and moral Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce were before, during, and after the War of 1877, and how utterly clueless of their own prejudices the white politicians and generals were.

The Indians were, from the arrival of Lewis and Clark, trying to understand these new people with the upside down faces. What were they looking for? What did they have to trade? What did they need? How many of them were there? What foods did they eat? What did they do with cloth, leather, steel, seeds, cattle, horses? What was their religion? And how did it fit their lives?

The whites, on the other hand, were confident in their own superiority and in their God-given right to take land not being efficiently “used’ by the Indians.

There were of course many exceptions: the fur traders who took Indian wives and adopted many Indian attitudes; the many white women, children, and men who had, from New England west, “gone native” to a place where women seemed to have more say and the social and religious demands were less restrictive; and Eliza Spalding, who, alone of the Spalding-Whitman contingent, seemed to genuinely like Indians, who learned their language and invited them into her home.

But most whites, and especially the male Anglo-Americans of political power who would eventually declare “Manifest Destiny,” were mostly dismissive of Indians, at their worst brutal towards them. The “best” of the whites thought the Indians’ only hope was assimilation—missions, boarding schools and Allotments in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “termination” and urban relocation in the 1950s the final rush at it.

In Sharfstein’s book, Joseph is constantly trying to understand white laws and ways, and trying to put his own case in those terms. Howard is a stubborn assimilationist: the Indians needed Christianity, farms, and education.

Joseph’s requests were simple and straightforward:

“We ask that the same law shall work alike on all men…. Let me be a free man—free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself….”

I sense from this letter that for occasional moments, at a white man’s small store in Nespelem, Washington in 1900, Joseph and the storekeeper felt equal as friends. The freedoms Joseph dreamt of, were, of course, never realized.

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