Introduction to Chief Joseph continued

The following is a continuation of the Introduction to my forthcoming book, Chief Joseph and the flight of the Nez Perce. The actual book copy may differ slightly. Please read this as a continuation of the October 15th entry.

I first encountered the story of Chief Joseph fifteen years ago when I was working on the Red Lake Indian Reservation in the woods of northern Minnesota. I had been hired to lead a group of students in collecting the memories of the tribal elders.

My students were good, caring people who wanted to do right by their parents and grandparents. But they had no context from which to work. Many were poor readers, and few knew anything about their own tribal history, much less the history of other tribes in America. In order to understand what their grandparents and great grandparents had experienced, they needed to learn something about the past of the native peoples who have lived on this land.

I knew I could not give them standard textbooks, nor did I want to. Instead, I wanted them to learn from the voices of native peoples, without the intervening interpretive lens of non-native authors or a non-Indian teacher. So I decided to put together a small book containing the words of Indian leaders and thinkers. I was confident that, with careful research and proper framing, I could create something that would educate the students and prepare them for the undertaking before them.

set about my task with cautious determination. I read through old documents and parsed arcane anthologies. I looked at old treaties and old diaries. I found voices, common and obscure, and collected them together into a document that seemed to represent the best of Indian expressions about what it meant to be a native person on this American continent.

The students were fascinated, but I was transfixed. In these native voices, I discovered a clarity of thought and dignity of expression that far surpassed anything I had ever encountered. It was as if I was hearing the most measured, well-thought, and heartfelt oratory of which a human being is capable. It brought to mind the comment of the famous western sculptor, Frederick Remington: “There is a dignity about the social intercourse of old Indians which reminds me of a stroll through a winter forest.”

And the story that touched me most deeply was the story told by Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce in a long, heart-rending speech, given to an assemblage of dignitaries in Washington, D.C., in 1878.

In his words I caught a glimpse of the true tragic dimensions of the Native American experience since the arrival of the European on these shores, and of a quality of heart and dignity of spirit that we, as a nation, are poorer for having lost. Here was a man who embodied all that I believed about compassionate leadership, and the kind of person I could gladly hold up as a model of a worthy manhood to my students or my son.

Over the next fifteen years I continued to work on Indian issues. I published several books, continued to work with Indian people, speak on Indian subjects, and continued to learn. It was more than an interest; it was almost a calling. In my corner of northern Minnesota, where nature dominates over culture, and the presence of the first people is strong, I grew, day by day, to believe that it is in the native people of this continent that some fundamental truth is vested. And all of this served only to deepen my respect and admiration for the man whose words I had transcribed for my students those fifteen years before.

So, when the opportunity arose to do a book on chief Joseph, I was excited. But I was also apprehensive. My time among native people had shown me that there is little they hold in greater disdain than non-natives dabbling in Indian issues for fun and profit. I did not wish to be the next person in this unsavory tradition. Still, I believed that Joseph was a man whose life and character should be better known, and whose story was important – even central – to an understanding of who we as a nation are and who we might yet be. I wanted that story to be told – honestly, accessibly, and with compassionate sympathy. So I accepted the challenge.

The task was daunting. I could not claim to see through a native person’s eyes, but neither did I wish to write a bloodless, analytical, history. I wanted the story to have a heartbeat, and I wanted it to be done in such a way that native people who read it would say, “Yes, this wasichu, this Soyapo, this jamokaman, understood. This white man has done a good job.”

So I armed myself with every book I could find, every monograph that could be extracted from every library I could access, every newspaper account I could dredge up from every publisher’s morgue, and every personal testimony, both native and white, that existed in every archive, and interred myself beneath the material, hoping to read my way to the surface with some kind of understanding.

But, try as I might, something was wrong. Though the story was becoming clear, it was not coming to life. I was missing something essential. I needed to find a way to bring the reader closer to the heartbeat of the man and his experience. I needed to go to Nez Perce country, meet the people, feel the pulse and lifeblood that lay beneath all my research.

And so it was that I found myself several thousand miles from my home, wandering through some of the most beautiful, intimidating, and awe-inspiring country I had ever confronted, in search of a man I did not know how to find. My hope was to hear the story of Joseph from the Nez Perce themselves, and to feel the presence of the earth that they held so dear. For I knew that no Indian can be understood apart from the land of his or her birth, and that to understand Joseph, I needed to understand the heart and spirit of the land from which he had come.

This land — the Nez Perce called their own; the land where Joseph was born and raised — is known as the Columbia Plateau. Now, as when the Nez Perce first encountered Lewis and Clark, this great broad continental shoulder between the Cascades and the first outcroppings of the Rockies is almost unknown to the general population.

It is “fly over” country, a blank spot on the map, a transition zone meant to be shot through or over or across by the fastest, most expeditious means possible. A few names might strike a momentary shiver into the hearts of people familiar with the West – Selway-Bitterroot wilderness, Hells Canyon, River of No Return, even northern Idaho itself. But to anyone other than smoke jumpers and the smattering of residents who call the isolated cities and towns home, this essentially roadless wilderness area is a dark and wooly terra incognita where small engine planes disappear in small poofs against inaccessible mountainsides and forest fires sweep across expanses as vast as the state of Rhode Island.

Wandering through this landscape, I did not find those characterizations to be far wrong. It was a land of hillsides so vertical that a man must climb them on all fours, of the deepest gorge on the North American continent, where a person standing on the top looks down over a mile to a tiny silver ribbon of water that, in fact, is a cataract roiling over boulders the size of houses. It was a land of sudden precipices, of high mountain meadows and cobalt blue lakes, of bald, dun-brown hills that roll like rumpled carpet until they disappear into a hazy, purple horizon.

Everywhere I went I was overwhelmed with the presence of the forces that created this landscape. The dry rivercourses with cataracts larger than Niagara, now only echoes of the water that once roared over their surface. Mountains shoved up on impossible angles, a tectonic wreckage stretching for miles and covered now with endless expanses of dark green forest. Dried lava flows. Deep, impassable river gorges that cut like knife wounds into the flesh of the land. Rolling, grass-covered beds of long forgotten seas.

I drove through these misted valleys, high mountain meadows, and dizzying gorges with something approaching awe. I could not help but feel a hint of what the white soldiers of the 1860’s and 70’s – fresh recruits from somewhere back east or foreign-born young boys trying to make their way in the new country – must have felt in the presence of this landscape. It was a sensation bordering on terror – a terror of scale, of vastness, of indifference; of knowing that you could be swallowed up in this land and disappear without a trace.

These were spaces of such greatness and emptiness that a wrong turn and an hour of walking could get you so lost and so far from rescue that your loudest cries for help could go unheard by another human being, your signal fires and gunshots to draw attention could be washed into silence by the rustling of the trees and the great, empty howlings of the wind. There was no doubt in my mind that the bones of many soldiers and trappers and miners lay unburied on these forbidding hillsides, and will remain there undiscovered forever. And the thought that settlers dragged their wives into this country, and told them to set up households in rude shacks and rough-hewn cabins made me shudder with a kind of shapeless dread.

Yet this was the land the Nez Perce called home. It was the place where they developed the most dominant culture in the native Northwest, ranging out from their home villages on the Plateau as far as the Pacific Ocean to the west and the pipestone quarries of Minnesota to the east. It was on their trails that Lewis and Clark fumbled their way across the mountains from buffalo country; in their canoes and with their guarantee of safe passage that the Corps of Discovery made its way down the Columbia toward the great western sea.

These were the people who felt such confidence in their life and ways that they opened their hearts and minds to anything brought in from the outside. They were the people who figured out how to make the strongest and most accurate bows of any native people; who learned how to geld horses using sharpened rocks, and could do so with such precision that Lewis and Clark said their facility at the task exceeded that of white men with their finely honed knives. They were the people who would make a cradle board with a hundred thousand beads on it, who would swim across the ice-laden Salmon River every day all winter to keep their bodies strong.

They were the tribe whose men often stood well over six feet while the American soldiers of the same era were averaging five feet six or five feet seven inches in height, whose women owned the lodges and food sources of the people and were empowered to sell them for their own profit, while white women of the time were told to subjugate themselves to the will of their husbands and submit to them in all things under the control of God and man.

I was in a land of giants, and, like every white interloper since the time of Lewis and Clark and the fur traders, I had to either grow to meet the experience or shrivel to my quivering, domestic scale, and turn tail and run. In spite of strong inclinations to the contrary, I decided to grow into the task. I would traverse this landscape, meet the people, take the chances at rejection and downright hostility, speak the truth, show my heart, and see what emerged.