Joseph update and excerpt
Just a little update for a few of you who have asked. The book on Chief Joseph is coming along. My editor and I have had a bit of a time of it. He has wanted me to write a book for the New York Times crowd; I’ve wanted to write a book that shows the native people that I have a sensitivity to the issues that so infuriate them about white authors. These are two very different visions. I call it the “sushi versus salmon” wars.
But we’re coming along. I’ve decided to post my rough-out of the introduction so you can get a sense of what will be coming when the book is finally completed. I hope you find it interesting.
Searching for Joseph
Books, like children, do not always turn out like you expect.
Several years ago, I set out to write a book chronicling a journey I intended to take with my twelve year old son. The way I envisioned it, he and I would travel the route followed by Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce as they made their tragic fifteen hundred mile flight from eastern Oregon to the snow-covered plains of northern Montana. There, only forty miles from the Canadian border and freedom, Joseph realized that his women and children and elderly were too weary to travel further. Giving up his own dreams of personal freedom, he walked out onto the windswept foothills of the Bear’s Paw mountains, handed his gun to the commander of the pursuing army, and spoke the now famous words, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more, forever.” It was, to my mind, an act of selfless nobility and incredible personal honor. It represented every value I wanted to inculcate in my son as he made his way forward in search of a worthy manhood.
My publisher seemed positively disposed to the idea. But somehow, in an editorial meeting held far from me and my life, the journey of a father and son morphed and transmogrified into a biography of Chief Joseph.
It was not a mutation with which I was entirely comfortable. As I saw it, the story of Joseph had been too often told, and too often by white chroniclers, distanced forever by culture and race (not to mention, historical methodology) from an inner understanding of the man and his people.
Or, at least, this is what I had been taught by my Indian friends. And I am not one to argue this point. I have worked among Indian people, lived among Indian people, taught Indian students, sat with Indian elders, and heard the bitterness and outright anger at what they consider the cultural and spiritual appropriation of all things Indian by our dominant and endlessly avaricious white culture. “White people should not write books about Indians,” is the common mantra, and I accept it. If they don’t want books on Indians done by white people, I don’t want to do them. End of story. It’s a simple matter of respect.
So, suddenly, I was face to face with the prospect of writing a book that was going to violate a basic moral premise in which I believed very strongly. A book that had been intended to be about the journey of a boy and his father, with a man set before them as a common guide and beacon, had become a book about the beacon itself. The buffer that was going to allow Joseph to be reflected, not appropriated, was yanked away, and I was left staring into the eyes of a man whose very being had, for over a hundred years, been twisted and manipulated by American culture for fun and profit. Now I was being asked to become the latest participant in this worthy tradition.
I did not know what to do. I had already spent a great deal of time on the proposal. I did, indeed, have the greatest respect and admiration for the man. And, in all fairness, I have, over the years, been able to do about as well as a white man can do in explicating Indian issues to a non-Indian audience. Plus, I needed the contract.
So, against all better judgment, and maybe, against some forces that operate in realms I don’t understand, I agreed to the project. I armed myself with every book ever written on the subject, every monograph that could be extracted from every library I could find, every newspaper account I could dredge up from every publisher’s morgue, and began to inter myself beneath the material, hoping to read my way to the surface with some kind of understanding and potential shape to the task.
But I’m not an historian. I’m not an academic. I got my degrees because I was capable of doing so, because I like to learn, and because that was the thing to do. I’m a person of the streets, a person of the casual conversation, a “hanger arounder,” a seeker of tales. It soon became apparent to me that if this book was to have any legitimacy and authenticity, the documentary resources I was poring over were going to have to be nothing more than background and context. I needed to go to the places. I needed to meet the people. I needed to find the story, not create the story.
And so it was that I found myself several thousand miles from home, wandering through some of the most beautiful, frightening, and awe-inspiring country I had ever confronted, in search of a man I was not sure how I intended to find. It was a daunting and humbling task.
The land through which I was traveling – the land where the Nez Perce live, and Joseph was born and raised — is known as the Columbia Plateau. Now, as when the Nez Perce were first confronted by 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 in 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, this essentially roadless wilderness area is a dark and wooly terra incognita where small engine planes disappear in small poofs against inaccessible mountain sides and forest fires sweep across expanses as vast as the state of Rhode Island.
Wandering through this, I did not find those characterizations far wrong. This was, indeed, the land where Lewis and Clark had stumbled out, half starved, from the unforgiving mountains that had almost taken their lives and the lives of their men. It was, indeed, the land where a single road viable modern road was not completed across the mountains between Idaho and Montana until 1962.
It is 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 man 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 a house. It is 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 water that once roared over them making a vast inland sea. 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 former sea beds.
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 1850’s and 60’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 country. 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 by reinforcing the wood with softened ram horn attached to the wood with a glue made from salmon oil; 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 metal tools. They were the people that 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 people 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 tribe, 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.
Now, this is the twenty first century. I did not expect to find bronzed men towering over me on horseback or women running onto battlefields to attack advancing warriors with hatchets. But I did expect to find men and women who shared some of the basic characteristics of their ancestors. And I was not wrong. From my first contact, I sensed that these people were different from the other native people I have known. They did not seem wounded by the dominant American culture so much as masters of it. And I don’t mean that they had become the proverbial “apples” – red on the outside and white on the inside. Rather, they had figured out what American culture offered, and had accepted it with a kind of contemptuous indifference, as if, though it had emerged victorious, it was not quite a worthy enough adversary to merit the expenditure of any emotional or spiritual energy. To put it a different way, they seemed bigger than the cultural battle they had lost.
I don’t want to put too fine a point on this. The reservation at Spalding outside of Lewiston, Idaho – the primary Nez Perce reservation that sits on aboriginal Nez Perce land and contains the Nez Perce national historic park and museum — was the usual tragic assemblage of shacks and decaying houses with abandoned cars propped up on cement blocks. It was unemployed men hanging around a gritty cinder block supermarket, too many government vehicles and workers driving on too-dirty streets, kids wandering around in oversized jackets, too many of them smoking, too many of them too young to be doing so. But there was something else going on – something I couldn’t put my finger on – and I confronted it every time I stopped in a store or on a corner or to pick up a hitchhiker. It had to do with a willingness to meet me eye to eye – a “who are you?” that had an honest openness to the possibility that I might be a good man – not withstanding my whiteness – and that my skin color and auslander status would not necessarily be held against me. Conversations did not get shut down with one-word answers. Requests for directions did not get shunted aside with muffled “I don’t knows” followed by hurried exits. The people met me as I hoped to be met: with a cautious skepticism and a willingness to listen. In some strange fashion, I felt like I had begun to embark upon the trail of Joseph.
But none of my growing confidence and understanding prepared me for the response I would get when I mentioned the man himself. Eyes darkened. Body language changed. People glanced around as if worried that they were being observed. Some of this was, “Uh-oh, another white guy doing a book on Joseph.” But there was something deeper here, something more personal. Joseph touched a chord that resonated far below my hearing, and it was not some bright, sunlit major key harmonic.
All through the reservation I confronted this. In the National Park center at Lapwai, in the reservation headquarters town of Spalding, in the small village of Kamiah, where the strange mound of land called the Heart of the Monster marks the spot where coyote is said to have created the Nez Perce from drops of a monster’s blood. Everywhere I went, the openness and friendliness became a hooded ambivalence and reticence when the name of Joseph came up.
Confused and troubled, I drove the one hundred miles back across the Snake river Canyon and through the high, forested wilderness to Joseph, Oregon, in the Wallowa Valley where Joseph’s band once lived. Far outside any current reservation borders, Joseph is now a western single main street tourist town lined with log restaurants and massive post and beam hotels, and a plethora of boutique bronze casting foundries and their attendant galleries. Large, representational bronze sculptures lined the streets – high quality, high dollar, Charles M. Russell kinds of works, all depicting cowboy and Indian themes. The town was awash in romanticized Americana, all focused on frontier themes, all directly or indirectly related to Chief Joseph or his time. The Chieftain Visitors guide. The Chief Joseph Days Rodeo. Cowboy bronzes, Indian Jewelry. It was “the town that Joseph built,” right in the middle of the beautiful, isolated, Switzerland-like ancestral homeland of Joseph’s band. Here Joseph was not an historical figure, but a cultural icon, a brand, a hood ornament on the vehicle of American tourist enterprise. Joseph the man, and the Nez Perce tribe from which he came, were banished from this place of rafting expeditions and upscale wild west trinketry more fully than the Navajo have been banished from Santa Fe. I began to appreciate more fully some of the hooded glances that were cast at me as I had wandered through the Lapwai stating that I was setting out to do research on a book on Chief Joseph.
But it was in Colville, two hundred miles away in northeastern Washington that the issue started to become clear. Here, on the isolated, rolling hills of the Colville Reservation of the Confederated Tribes – the place where Joseph’s and the other non-Christian bands were ultimately forced to settle, I started to see into the cultural animosities and hurt that the Joseph saga had created.
While the white person’s “designer Joseph” is at Joseph and the surrounding Wallowa Valley, and the Nez Perce central cultural headquarters and historical center are at Lapwai and Spalding, here, at Nespelem, on lands shoehorned away from other tribes, the remnants of Joseph’s actual band has carved out an existence and an uneasy peace with eleven other tribes, several hundred miles from the epicenter of Joseph adulation, fame, and financial benefit. Here, also, are the bearers of the oral historical record of Joseph and his people, and many of his direct descendants. Though they feel the wounds of the historical distortion that has taken place, and the sting of the financial slight that has resulted from the appropriation of Joseph by the Lapwai branch of the Nez Perce tribe, they are not anxious to become part of the Joseph circus. But neither are they about to give away their knowledge for free.
A few stops at gas stations, and a few increasingly more circumspect inquiries later, and I was directed to some of the people in charge of the Nez Perce legacy in Nespelem, the main town on the Colville reservation. In short order I was measured, parsed, and dismissed, along with ominously coded messages about seeking contact with people without tribal approval. As if to emphasize the point, I was given a multi-page legal document that I was supposed to fill out and submit to the tribal council for consideration. It asked my purpose, my publication intentions, the names of people I intended to interview, and many other things that I don’t remember. What I do remember is that it gave the power of editorial review to the tribal council, and the ownership of copyright for anything I wrote to the tribe – both of which are impossible within the parameters of contemporary publishing. But it was classic Nez Perce – contemptuously benign, exceedingly competent, and utilizing the best of American laws and culture to achieve Nez Perce cultural ends. I was in awe of its sophistication and its capacity to block my efforts while appearing to facilitate them. Once out of sight, I crumpled it up and threw it in the wastebasket, as they knew I would. I drove out of Nespelem with my literary tail between my legs, convinced that I was involved in a hopeless, unnecessary, and fundamentally impossible venture.
But in the course of these widely separated stops and visits at these various towns and outposts in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon, something had begun to happen. My naivete, openness, and immediate willingness to apologize for my task, had begun to be met with quiet sympathy by various individuals. I’ve always liked Indian people – probably better than I like most white people – and, as I am fond of saying, those who don’t like my skin color should take it up with my mother and the milk man. I didn’t choose my skin and I didn’t choose my time and place. But I did choose the way I incline my heart. A few copies of my books as gifts, a few honest expressions of confusion and vulnerability about the task at hand, and people had begun/began to open up.
Surreptitiously, I began to be told stories. People slipped me documents. I was offered the chance to hold objects that had been owned by Chief Joseph, or had been kept in families since the great exodus of 1877. I was shown special places, private sites of deep personal significance. As much as tradition would allow, I was told stories of the Seven Drums way of belief. I was allowed to hear family histories and family versions of historical events that had been carried in memory for generations, many of which were at odds with traditional white historical accounts. People were pouring something out to me, something that lay deep within them, dormant, wounded, hungry for expression.
I took this information like one takes the most precious of gifts – almost unhappy that I now possessed it, feeling the weight of a responsibility far too great to be easily born. Most of all, I was carrying the burden of conflicting stories, conflicting truths, and conflicting dreams, and was slowly being entrusted with the task of making sense of them and presenting them to the public in a way that did honor to the material, yet did not violate the heart and spirit with which they had been given.
It was everything I had hoped, and everything I had feared. People had opened up to me. People from the Lapwai, people from the Colville; people who were Christians, people who were seven drum long house people; people from Joseph’s band, people from other Nez Perce bands; people who were “government” smooth, and people who sold salmon out of the back of rusted pickup trucks.
On porches with broken boards, in cheap restaurants over Denver omelettes, in gas stations next to stacks of Pepsi, in neat and tidy houses over cups of coffee, on street corners where men met to drink Thunderbird wine at 11 in the morning — all throughout Nez Perce country a story was being given me – a story that did not contradict all the reading and research I had been doing so much as one that leavened it with a human heartbeat.
And through it all, one thing was becoming clear. The story of Joseph as I had been led to understand it was false. Not only was the standard image of Joseph as “the Red Napoleon,” the great military leader who had masterminded and overseen the great retreat, patently inaccurate – something anyone who examined the historical record already knew — but the man himself was much more complex, problematic, and shadowy than our history books had led us to believe. The Joseph of the popular imagination was no more real, and no less constructed, than the Joseph on the signage and chamber of commerce literature from Joseph, Oregon.
The real man was, in turns, elusive, self-aware, manipulative, strong willed, and supremely honorable. He was both affable and distant. He was not a fighter but he was willing to fight. He was not a vascillator but he was willing to listen and change. He was either very vain or very quick to see the American penchant for a cult of personality and to use it to his advantage. But, above all else, he was a man of his people, and was willing to do whatever was necessary to protect them from the indignities and injustices that were being visited upon them by the government of the country that had come into their land and completely changed the world in which they lived.
All of this had resulted in a great respect and deep ambivalence toward Joseph in the hearts of the Nez Perce people. He had become bigger than their tribe in the public imagination – a violation of a deeply held Indian belief that the group is more important than the individual – and he had contributed to this, even fostered it, by his willingness to become the repository of a misplaced and ill founded adulation of all things Indian. But he had done so for the good of his people, even though his band and the others who had stood against the American government, did not represent the totality, or maybe even the majority, of the Nez Perce people. Truly, he was a conundrum to the Nez Perce. To the outside world, Joseph was the Nez Perce, and it was because of him that the national government and the American public paid any attention to them at all. But to the insider, he was a prime participant in, and maybe contributor to, the physical fragmentation and internal division of the tribe that exists up until today. He had used the American penchant for celebrity to draw attention to himself, and whether or not he intended that attention to be transferred to his people, it ended up keeping the spotlight on him rather than on the complex and tragic history that the Nez Perce had endured.
To the Nez Perce on the street, the Nez Perce sitting in the tribal council, nothing was more predictable when they saw me coming than that I was one more overly eager, slavishly solicitous white chronicler come to the reservation to do honor to the great and redoubtable Joseph. I was just one in an endless parade of white sycophants, no more insightful than the next, no more worthy than the last. That they gave me any time at all is a testament to the goodness and forebearance in their character. By rights I should have been given the back of the hand and a one way ticket out of Dodge.
Yet this is not what I got, at least not from everybody. Whatever I had come with had opened some doors. Some people had decided to trust me. Maybe they had done so because they had axes to grind. Maybe their information was apocryphal and wrong, but they believed it and were intent upon getting it heard. Maybe they were simply flattered that someone who was writing something actually wanted to talk to them. But maybe it was because they wanted someone to try again. Maybe they were hoping that this was the white man who could get it a little closer to right. Whatever the reasons, all that mattered to me was that some Nez Perce were putting their faith in me, and were willing to trust me. It was not a trust that I was willing to betray.
I worried about this issue for months. I traveled the fifteen hundred incredible miles of the retreat, taking in the wonder and difficulty of the landscape, stopping at the battle sites, giving myself over to the journey as best I could. I spent days and nights on the bleak Bear’s Paw surrender site, wandering the barren hillocks and creek beds, shivering with cold on the edge of the shelter pits that the women had dug with frying pans to protect their families from soldiers’ bullets and the snow-driven high plains Montana winds. I journeyed across the emptiness of the Dakotas where the wounded and beaten captives had been marched on their way to exile in the distant Indian territory of Oklahoma. I walked the sweltering river bottoms of Kansas and the cruel flatlands of Oklahoma where the pitiful survivors were detained and resettled like prisoners in our great, free, American land. By the end, there was not a foot of this journey that I had not traveled, or, at least shadowed, and all I knew for certain was that this was a story of a people, not the story of a man, and that, to the best of my ability, it was a story I had to tell.
I became a man obsessed. I wrote ceaselessly, thought ceaselessly, cajoled and bargained with the literary gods. But nothing worked. Effort after effort ended up in the waste basket. My publishers threw up their hands. My family gave me up for dead – at least emotionally and in terms of human presence. All I saw, all I knew, all I cared about were huddled figures walking through a historical haze. Chief White Bird, a man of seventy years, but still willing to fight. Seeskoomkee. who in his youth had lost both feet and a hand to frostbite, but who still made the journey, and fought by rolling and crawling into position. Noise of Running Feet, Joseph’s twelve year old daughter who was sent off across the snowy Montana plains without her family to escape capture. Chief Looking Glass, the complex man of compassion and arrogance whose motives for going slowly in the face of danger were never completely clear. And Joseph himself, the reluctant leader and unlikely hero, lionized and feted by the white press after the surrender, and elevated to a cultural icon while his heart broke for his lost daughter and for the hundreds who were left behind in anonymous graves. These and so many others haunted me. They became my comrades and my friends. They were not Indians to me – any more than my friends on the Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota or the Nez Perce who had spoken to me in Idaho and Washington were Indians. They were people – people who had suffered and died in one of the most tragic and unjust flights ever forced upon one people by another.
A mother who is made to kill her infant because its crying will reveal their hiding place to the soldiers has no race. She is merely a mother, and no mother who ever lived can fail to feel the heartbreak that she must have felt in the face of this horrifying decision. A family that wraps their exhausted grandfather in a blanket and sits him gently under a tree, then rides away, because they have to escape before the soldiers come, has no color. Nor does a young girl who pulls away from her mother and runs back through bullets to get her favorite doll. Or a young boy, clinging for dear life to his brother on the back of a galloping horse, while flying bullets cut off one of the braids on the side of his head.
These were the stories I knew, the people who inhabited my heart, the faces, obscured through the mists of history, who became my constant companions. That their race had been the cause of their suffering, and that their suffering separated me from them, was undeniable. But the suffering and hardship also separated me from the frightened young immigrant boys of seventeen, mustered into the army because they had no other way to get ahead in this strange, amazing country to which their families had emigrated. And the little white girl of six who lay in the bushes with a broken arm after watching her mother be raped and murdered by drunken young Nez Perce warriors.
This had gone far beyond a racial story to me, though it was that. It had become a human story, and it haunted me and would not give me rest.
Yes, I needed to tell this story, and I needed to tell it in a way that did honor to the trust that had been placed in me by so many. But I needed to tell it my own way.
I could not presume to speak as an Indian, though it was with the Nez Perce that my sympathies lay. I could not speak as an historian, because I could not bring myself to objectify events and treat them with the bloodless accuracy that a solid historical account demanded. I was too close; I cared too much; I had made too many promises to myself and others.
Yes, I was aware of the dark symmetry, where one people, hopeful, moving west to find land and freedom drove another, heartbroken, to the east away from their land into bondage. I was aware of the historical injustice of our current orgy of celebration for Lewis and Clark, while the very trail that was given their name and being prepared to take hordes of tourists was, in fact, the traditional Nez Perce trail that had been known and used for generations. I knew that the Nez Perce exodus, one of the great tragic flights in human history, had been unjustly relegated to the status of a footnote in the historical drama of the expansion of America into the west. And I knew that Joseph had been distorted, elevated, and repositioned in the American consciousness to fit the needs of a public hungry for Native American icons and noble, tragic heroes.
I knew all of this, and I knew that all of these were worthy stories to tell.
But they were not my story. They were context and perspective, and though I would do my best to make them known, they were for others to tell. For me, the journey of the Nez Perce and the struggles of Joseph would forever remain a story of human struggle, incredible in its dimension, staggering in its nobility and tragedy, played out by mostly nameless and faceless people, from whom one had risen in the minds of the white public, hungry for heroes and insistent on putting a face on historical events.
This was the story I needed to tell. I could not do otherwise. It was what the quiet Nez Perce who had shared their stories with me wanted, and this is the hope that they had placed in me.
I might not be worthy of it. I might not be capable of it. But I would attempt it. We, as a people, need to see the humanity at the core of our national experience, whether that humanity is wearing powdered wigs and coonskin caps or beaded dresses and moccasins, and I must do what I can to help bring this to pass.
So this is the story I bring to you. If, in the effort, I violate some boundaries that my Indian friends might not have me cross, I am sorry. If I fail to give adequate hearing to conflicting historical interpretations of events, I stand accused. But in the end, I take my solace and guidance from Chief Joseph’s own word: “What I have to say will come straight from my heart, and I will speak with a straight tongue. The Great Spirit is looking at me, and will hear me.” If this was the standard he set for himself, who am I to hold myself to less?Posted on: November 21, 2003knerburn