A way of life unravels

September 21, 2005 

— he peace Lewis and Clark advocated began to unravel in about seven years, roughly the time it took the Americans to establish a presence in Nimiipuu country.

The first to come were fur trappers. Most tended to be independent loners; they either left the native people alone or tried to be on good terms with them.

John Clarke was an exception. When a goblet disappeared that he had used to give a ceremonial drink of wine to a chief of the Palouse tribe, Clarke hanged the Indian suspected of stealing it, even though the goblet had been returned. The Palouse spoke the same language as the Nimiipuu and shared villages with them. It was the Northwest's first recorded killing of an Indian by a white person.

The year was 1813, and the killing was the beginning of a pattern. At first they were isolated incidents, years apart. Approximately 30 Nimiipuu were killed, murdered or executed, to "set examples," between then and what would become known as the War of 1877.

The tribe's troubles increased with the arrival of Christian missionaries professing to bring the word of God. They succeeded, but their methods were brutal.

The missionaries claimed to be responding to a cry for help. Red Bear sent four Nez Perce warriors to St. Louis in 1831. They met with, among others, William Clark. They were seeking help, but no one understood their language or could make out precisely what it was they wanted.

A speech one of the warriors purportedly gave was found in the archives of the United Methodist Church at Lapwai. An eloquent account of the warriors' futile journey to St. Louis to find the "white man's book of Heaven," it closes with the words, "My people will die in darkness and they will go on a long path to other hunting grounds. No white man's Book to make the way plain. I have no more words."

How the words were translated when none of the Americans the warriors met spoke their language remains a conundrum. Some claim the speech was fabricated.

"They didn't go there for the Bible," Nez Perce historian and former tribal chairman Allen Pinkham said. "They went to learn how to communicate with written words. They wanted the technology of writing that they'd first seen with Lewis and Clark, not the Christian faith. We already knew about the Creator. We had our own faith."

Authentic or not, the warrior's speech was enough to launch Methodist minister Jason Lee and his nephew over the Rocky Mountains to Oregon, where they became the first Christian missionaries in the Northwest. Lee's "mission" in the fertile Willamette Valley became primarily one of colonizing by opening the area to emigrants. It also planted seeds of cultural and social change that continues to the present.

Lee's venture inspired Dr. Marcus Whitman and the Rev. Henry Spalding, both Presbyterians, to spread their faith. They came West together as far as Fort Boise. Whitman continued on to a site near present-day Walla Walla, Wash., where he established a mission among the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes. Spalding settled on Lapwai Creek, near the site of the Idaho town that now bears his name.

The Nimiipuu, whom the white newcomers called Nez Perce, welcomed the minister and his wife, Eliza. They gave them one of their best buffalo-hide tipis to live in until they could build a log home. The year was 1836 — 30 years after Lewis and Clark. For the once mighty Nimiipuu, arguably the best friends Lewis and Clark had on their journey, life would never again be the same.

Spalding was effective at spreading the faith. The Lapwai area today supports eight Christian denominations, with Presbyterians still the most numerous. Even they, however, question Spalding's motto and apparent guiding philosophy: "Kill the Indian, spare the man."

Vera Sonneck, the tribe's cultural resources director and a third-generation Presbyterian, categorized Spalding as "a very strict follower of the Old Testament book of Proverbs, in which people were punished by whipping and stoning. He'd have people whipped if they didn't cut their hair or get rid of their traditional garb. You conformed, and your values were changed. You weren't even allowed to speak your language in his presence."

The reverend wasted no time establishing a working relationship with his hosts, whipping those who failed to carry their share of the logs used to build his house.

With a few exceptions, Spalding had little trouble intimidating the Nez Perce, who were in awe of the seemingly miraculous power of the white people's knowledge. The new people could communicate volumes of information without speech or signs. They possessed powerful science. Deeply spiritual, many Nez Perce reasoned that only good could come from learning the white man's religion.

Some balked at the concept of religion administered with a boot and a lash. Others at least partially accepted it, and Spalding used his position as the representative of the white man's God to establish a virtual dictatorship. He administered 50 lashes to a chief who returned early from an errand because his horse had failed. A woman who hadn't embraced the new religion was whipped for leaving her abusive husband, who had. Hungry children were whipped for stealing food.

Spalding encouraged the Nez Perce to abandon their traditional modes of living and become farmers. The tribe's oral history includes stories of giving potatoes without eyes to those who offended him. When the potatoes failed to sprout, he told the would-be farmers it was their fault because they were devils. Oral history holds that he put sheep dye in melons to poison those who failed to please him.

To a people who believed in the hereafter solely as a place of peace and serenity — and whose warriors accordingly were not afraid to die — he introduced the concept of eternal damnation. He supplanted the cool waters and lush meadows of the hereafter with unending fire.

Spalding "justified himself by saying the tribe sent the warriors to St. Louis because they were seeking salvation," said Diane Mallickan, cultural interpreter at the Nez Perce National Historical Park and co-editor of "The Nez Perce Nation Divided." "If you have no concept of hell, what do you need to be saved from?"

Spalding's and Whitman's un-Christian practices in the name of Christianity were their undoing.

At Walla Walla, Whitman openly belittled the spirituality that had sustained the tribes for generations, and he fueled a land rush by recruiting emigrants who appropriated land the Indians had held for centuries. The newcomers brought, among other things, a measles epidemic that killed about half of the Cayuse. Convinced that Whitman was evil and that they were losing their homes and way of life, the survivors rebelled. Whitman's administration ended with the 1847 murders of the doctor, his family and 12 other whites.

Fearing the Nez Perce would follow suit, Spalding fled to Oregon. Fifteen years would pass before he returned to what is now the hamlet of Spalding, where a pillar of stone sacred in Nez Perce lore as Piliyeye, the first human being, was moved and converted to a monument in Spalding's honor.

He and his wife, by all accounts a kind woman whom the Nez Perce revered, are buried nearby. Theirs is the cemetery's tallest headstone. An inscription reads, in part, that they "came as the morning sun over the mountains in response to the historic search of the four Nez Perce for the White Man's Book of Heaven; they dispelled the darkness of this once benighted race and gave them the light of life. Here now they lie among the people they loved and for whom they gave themselves."

Memorial Day flowers decorated most of the cemetery's graves this year.

At Spalding's, there were none.

The Nez Perce had nothing to do with Whitman's murder and remained allies of the Americans in the Cayuse War it partially triggered. Recognizing the tribe's services dating to the time of Lewis and Clark, the government in 1855 offered a treaty. The reservation it proposed confirmed some of the boundaries of the tribe's original homeland. It totaled 7 million acres in Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

The Treaty of 1855, which tribal leaders signed that year at Walla Walla, also affirmed the right of Nez Perce people to hunt and fish in their accustomed places. No whites except employees of the "Indian Department" would be allowed to live on the reservation without the tribe's permission.

Congress didn't ratify the treaty until 1859. By then, the good will that had existed between the Nez Perce and the United States for two generations was about to be swept away. The following summer, a miner named Elias Pierce ventured onto the reservation in search of gold. His and his cronies' presence there violated the Treaty of 1855, and Nez Perce scouts ordered them to leave.

Pierce instead huddled with Chief Timothy, a Christian known to be accommodating to white men. This was the same Timothy who as a child played with the son of Sacajawea and as a man named his daughter after her. Timothy knew a way the miners could reach the suspected bonanza without encountering Nez Perce patrols. His daughter Jane volunteered to be their guide.

The girl named for the woman who had helped Lewis and Clark now helped Pierce open the door to her people's demise. Pierce found what he was looking for, and the Nez Perce quickly found themselves at the epicenter of a gold rush. They, the Army and the Indian agents assigned to the tribe did what they could to enforce the treaty, but the tide of fortune hunters was unstoppable, and the reservation was overrun. On Nez Perce land where white inhabitants were legally prohibited, a townsite was laid out in 1861. Quick as a flash in a gold pan, it became the boom town of Lewiston — population 1,200.

By 1863, the rush of events had made the Treaty of 1855 all but meaningless. The government's response: a new treaty.

The Treaty of 1863 gave the gold fields and more to the newcomers. It reduced the size of the Nez Perce Reservation from 7 million acres in Idaho, Washington and Oregon to 700,000 in Idaho. For 6.3 million acres of land, including Oregon's beautiful and politically volatile Wallowa Valley, the government agreed to pay the tribe $262,500 over time. More than half of the money was to be used to move the people from their former homes to the confines of the smaller reservation. They were given a year to go.

Virtually all of the Nez Perce signing the treaty were Christian chiefs or head men. Encouraging them to approve the deal was Spalding, who had fled Lapwai 15 years earlier but had recently returned as the reservation's superintendent of education. Omitted entirely from the negotiations were the influential chiefs of the tribe's non-Christian faction, including Old Chief Joseph and the rest of the Wallowa band whose land was being taken.

The treaty's chief signatory was Lawyer, who 58 years earlier was one of the three boys who had met William Clark and his starving men on the Weippe Prairie. Washington Territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens had finessed Lawyer's appointment as chief of the entire Nez Perce Nation, replacing the centuries-old tradition of governance of many bands by multiple chiefs.

Lawyer's elevation, his and other Christians' approval of the treaty on behalf of Christians and non-Christians alike, and exclusion from the negotiations of those whose land was being signed away drove a wedge through the tribe.

Nez Perce already living on the diminished reservation, predominantly pro-white Christians, would keep their homes and benefit from capital improvements spelled out in the treaty. Their chiefs would receive government salaries. Those living on the 90 percent of the reservation that was being taken would lose their homes and way of life. The pain of their loss and the cleft between "treaty" and "non-treaty" Nez Perce remains today.

Nez Perce Elder Mylie Lawyer, a descendant of Lawyer: "It wasn't Lawyer's doing. It was the U.S. government's doing. There were soldiers all around, and they wanted the land."

Allen Pinkham, a descendant of Red Bear, Cut Nose and Timothy: "Lawyer was a sellout."

Many tribes have a "Trail of Tears," usually involving forced removal to a reservation.

The Nez Perce have a Crimson Trail. The first blood was spilled during the gold rush launched in 1860. Seventeen years later, the trail culminated in war.

Historian-author L.V. McWhorter, who spent much of his life among the Nez Perce, asked tribal historian Wottolen in 1926 to help him summarize the Crimson Trail's 32 killings. A partial list:

• Two Nez Perce boys were hanged on suspicion of stealing a cow. The boys later were found to be innocent.

• Cattlemen hanged a Nez Perce man for stealing a cow that subsequently proved not to have been stolen.

• A settler named Larry Ott built a fence across Nez Perce Chief Eagle Robe's garden. When the chief objected to losing part of his garden, Ott shot and killed him.

• When an elderly Nez Perce man named Eemonwahtoe went to a mining camp to exchange produce for gold dust or money, a group of drunk miners attacked him. When his wife tried to help him — thinking they wouldn't harm a woman — one of the miners drove a pick through her back.

• A farmer killed a Nez Perce woman named Dacoopin for removing one of his horses from her garden.

• Two Nez Perce men, Tennawnahsut and Hemese Wahiat, were shot to death for drumming, dancing and singing as part of their traditional faith — which the government had outlawed.

Indians were punished, even killed, on suspicion alone. Whites who killed them were rarely, if ever, punished. In only one instance was a white perpetrator sentenced. In 1873, James Pickett had the distinction of being the first white man in the territory to be sentenced for killing an Indian. Pickett was found guilty of killing a Nez Perce woman and attempting to kill her husband. He was sentenced to be hanged in Boise that July. There is no record that the hanging ever took place.

Amid growing tensions in 1876, a white man shot and killed a Nez Perce who was getting the best of his companion in an argument. The setting was Oregon's Wallowa country, the home of what came to be called the Chief Joseph Band of Nez Perce. Joseph, the oldest son of "Old Joseph," was a leader of a relatively small band of Nez Perce. A man of peace, he had never been a warrior. But he was about to become the most famous figure of the so-called Nez Perce War.

The timing of the shooting couldn't have been worse. Joseph and his band had steadfastly ignored the Treaty of 1863, maintaining that they and their ancestors had lived on their land for centuries and that neither Lawyer nor anyone else at Lapwai had the right to sell it. The government, citing the treaty in which the Wallowa Nez Perce had had no part, was increasingly insistent that they leave their homes and move to the reservation. The shooting heightened tensions just as the Army and the Joseph Band were beginning a series of councils to decide the explosive issue of relocation to the reservation at Lapwai.

The councils failed. No one wanted war, but Joseph, his brother Ollokot and other chiefs were determined not to move their people to Lapwai. The army, led by Gen. Oliver Howard, was equally insistent that they go. The negotiations, held at Umatilla, Walla Walla and Lapwai in the winter and spring of 1877, were at times so heated that Howard feared war would erupt in the council chambers.

When he gave them 30 days to move their people, food supplies and livestock — an exodus that would take months under normal conditions and that flood-swollen rivers made virtually impossible — the chiefs were outraged. Caught between a flood and an invading army, however, they had little choice. Joseph's was the largest of the five non-treaty bands and it had no more than 25 warriors of fighting age.

Faced with the prospect of a war they knew they couldn't win, the chiefs reluctantly agreed to go.

Nez Perce Elder Horace Axtell's grandmother, Piwiyetamalilet, was 6 years old the day the Crimson Trail became a trail of tears.

"It was peaceful, no soldiers," he said. "It was the end of May, high-water time. They crossed the Snake River at Dug Bar. They lost quite a few cattle and horses because of the high water. She pulled her feet up high on the horse behind her mother so she wouldn't get her moccasins wet. It was a quiet ride, not many people talking.

"... When I was a boy, we had hard winters on the Camas Prairie. To pass the time, my grandmother would get out pictures and go through them. Whenever she came to the one of Wallowa Lake, she cried."

The exodus would have been more orderly if not for the need to defend the herd from cattlemen, who still were able to steal hundreds of head. The Army, in the name of keeping the peace, looked the other way.

Joseph's band joined Chief White Bird's band, also bound for the reservation, near central Idaho's Tolo Lake in the first part of June. The bands were camped there when Wahlitits, a member of the White Bird band and a son of Chief Eagle Robe, made what may have been the worst decision of his life. Vowing to kill Larry Ott for killing his father in the dispute over the garden fence, he and two other young warriors quietly left camp.

Ott, fearing an Indian attack, had fled to Florence and disguised himself as a Chinese miner. Instead, the warriors chose as their victim the miner who had driven a pick through the old woman trying to protect her husband. He was the first in a series of white victims — the numbers vary — killed over three days of raiding.

In their rush to settle old scores, a handful of impetuous warriors ignited the conflict their leaders had sacrificed freedom to avoid. Joseph and Ollokot, who weren't in camp when the rebels left on their raid, made a last plea for peace. They implored their people to wait for the Army and try to explain what happened.

News of the attacks soon reached Gen. Howard, however, and hostilities spread like fire on a dry prairie. Control had been lost.

Most Americans, when they think of the Nez Perce at all, think of the War of 1877. The popular version depicts Chief Joseph as a military genius who surrendered only after embarrassing forces of gallant but strategically outmatched U.S. soldiers. The Nez Perce version is quite different.

The first true battle was June 17 at White Bird, on the slopes of the immense canyon above the town of the same name. Joseph, Ollokot and White Bird had moved their people there to await the inevitable. Howard had boasted in a telegram that his troops would make short work of them. It was short work, but not in the way the general expected. The battle began when soldiers opened fire on Indians carrying a white flag of peace. With no alternative but to fight back, some 70 Nez Perce warriors routed a force of 100 soldiers, killing a third of them. No Nez Perce lives were lost.

Learning of the drubbing, Howard recruited a force of more than 400 and took command personally. When Howard arrived at White Bird, the Nez Perce crossed to the other side of the Salmon River, waited, and watched. When the army began the difficult crossing, the Indians rode to another crossing and doubled back. So began a deadly game of cat and mouse.

"That wasn't a war," Ollokot descendant Irvin Watters said. "It was a retreat."

The Nez Perce would retreat 1,700 miles with women, children and 2,500 horses, a flight that would consume nearly four months. They nicknamed Howard "General Day and a Half," for his habit of being about that far behind.

"My mother remembered running ahead of the army," Nez Perce Elder Beatrice Miles said. "She was about 13 or 14 then. At Big Hole, they thought they were far ahead of them and could relax a while. ... They put up some tipis and had a social time, dancing and all of the good things."

Big Hole, in today's Montana, was the site of the retreat's most gruesome battle. Col. John Gibbon's men awoke the tribe at dawn on Aug. 9 with a hail of bullets fired low into the tipis, killing sleeping men, women and children. A fleeing woman and her baby were killed with a single shot. A mother was found dead with her nursing baby at her breast, its skull crushed. Gibbon defended his men by saying some of the women were firing at them and that it was too dark to tell the difference between warriors and non-combatants.

Watters' son, O.J., tells a story he heard from his grandmother about that day:

"She had two in-laws named Charlotte Powers and Annie Pond who were young girls then, about 6 and 10. They were by the stream and hid under the roots along the bank. Some other kids hid in some tall grass. The soldiers found them and bayoneted them and hit them with their rifle butts. Charlotte and Annie saw women shot with babies in their hands."

Axtell's grandmother remembered older people "gathering up the little ones and taking them down to the creek to hide and telling them not to move. She remembered gunshots and the explosions of the cannons. ... After things quieted down, some people came and got those who were hiding. They went back to the camp, and the tipis were burning, and people were lying on the ground and people were crying. That's all she ever said about it. She didn't like to talk about it."

Rallying warriors killed 29 of Gibbon's 183 men. Nez Perce losses were estimated at about 90, including some of the best warriors. More than half of the fatalities were women and children.

At Big Hole, the Nez Perce became survivors. Their only hope was Canada, where the soldiers couldn't follow.

Each year, Lapwai High School sends students in its Nez Perce language class to visit the battlefields where they experience their history in ways impossible in the classroom. At Big Hole, students sat on the banks of the stream where their ancestors died, solemnly writing in their notebooks, adding their tears to those of their parents and grandparents.

"I didn't really understand it till now," said 15-year-old Shoshawna Simpson, a descendant of Joseph and Yellow Wolf. "... I could hear the screams and gunshots. It scared me. Now I know how they felt."

On the hillside above her, an 8,000-pound U.S. government monument memorializes those who "fought all day a superior force of Nez Perce Indians, more than a third of the command being killed and wounded."

No mention is made of the Nez Perce women and children killed and wounded.

The war ended in October in the snow-swept hills of Bear Paw, in north-central Montana two days' ride from Canada and freedom. After a disastrous cavalry charge that proved the accuracy of Nez Perce marksmen, Col. Nelson Miles opted for an infantry and artillery siege. It lasted six days and killed 27 Nez Perce, including Chiefs Looking Glass, Ollokot and Toohoolhoolzote.

A captured soldier, Lovell Jerome, was given food and a tent. Joseph, after surrendering, was wrapped in a blanket, rolled down a hill and made to spend the night in a corral with the army's horses.

Joseph was the one to surrender because most of the other chiefs had been killed. Far from that of a war chief, his role during the retreat was to watch over the elderly and the women. When White Bird and a small group of followers escaped to Canada following the surrender, Joseph was the last chief left. He became famous in part because of his eloquence, though evidence suggests that his famous surrender speech was fabricated, and because he was wrongly thought to have led the retreat and the deadly counterattacks that so embarrassed the Army.

"Joseph was never the leader of the Nez Perce and never claimed to be," tribal ethnographer Josiah Pinkham said. "Each chief had a specialized expertise or was an expert on a certain geographic area. Poker Joe was an expert on the Bitterroots, Looking Glass on the buffalo plains. The U.S. military thought it was following a military genius. It was following a lot of them."

Joseph paid a heavy price for surviving his fellow chiefs. Though he lived another 27 years, he and his followers never again were allowed to live in their beloved Wallowa country.

On their visit to Bear Paw, the Nez Perce students gathered solemnly at the place where Looking Glass fell. Previous visitors had left offerings of ribbons, tobacco and, ironically, a picture of Thomas Jefferson — father of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

"I can picture how it was now, and it makes me angry," 19-year-old Looking Glass descendant Red Wing Two Moon said. "But I think if Looking Glass could come back today, he'd be proud we survived."

Miles told the survivors they'd be sent to Lapwai, but Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman overruled him. As punishment for humiliating the Army, the Nez Perce were sent instead to reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma, where scores died of malaria and other diseases. Public sympathy pressured the government in 1885 to allow Joseph and 150 of his followers to settle on the Colville Reservation in Washington, where he died in 1904. Nearly twice as many Nez Perce of Christian faiths were sent to Lapwai.

The most famous episode in Nez Perce history, the War of 1877 was months in a story spanning centuries.

"Everyone focuses on it, and it shouldn't be the focus," Allen Pinkham said. "There's so much other Nez Perce history that needs to be explained. The war was just a blip on the radar screen."

By 1900, the tribe that numbered 6,000 at the time of Lewis and Clark had been reduced by murder, war and disease to about 1,500. Not content with the 90 percent of the reservation taken in the treaty of 1863, the U.S. commissioned a woman named Alice Fletcher in the early 1890s to allot land to tribal members on the basis of age, status and gender. The rest was given to white homesteaders.

Today, Nez Perce people own about 13 percent of the 10 percent of the reservation left for them in the Treaty of 1863.

The de-Indianization begun by Spalding continued well into the 20th century, in boarding schools where young Nez Perce were taught to shed their traditional ways.

"You were whipped, had your head stuck in a toilet or your mouth washed out with soap if you were caught speaking your language," Vera Sonneck said.

Beatrice Miles, now 89, attended the Chemawa boarding School near Salem, Ore., in about 1940.

"We had to wear uniforms and march," she said. "Those who spoke Nez Perce were punished. They put them in a room and wouldn't let them leave. We'd talk our own language at night."

Andrea Axtell, Horace's wife and a descendant of Looking Glass, was "raised thinking you were either a Christian or a heathen. We were expected to be good little Indians. It still hurts me to think about how we were expected to hide who we were."

From the proud tribe Lewis and Clark knew, the Nez Perce became a dysfunctional minority with no clear identity. The traditional spirituality that had been a mainstay of their people for centuries was outlawed. The wedge that divided their ancestors between treaty and non-treaty, Christian and non-Christian, remained an open wound. Sugar and alcohol, introduced by Lewis and Clark, were devastating to a people with no generational tolerance. That and the change from a hunting-gathering lifestyle to one of reservation confinement fueled a plethora of health, unemployment and social problems.

Today — two centuries after Lewis and Clark — the tribe's population of 3,400 is a little over half of what it was then.

"People attribute our problems to lack of ability, and that's not it," tribal chairman Rebecca Miles said. "People don't discuss the historical trauma. They attach it to the Holocaust, but not to our people. We had our Holocaust, too."

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