Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé

Perhaps my greatest disappointment with Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
is the lack of coverage of the Cherokee Trail of Tears, perhaps the greatest injustice done to Indians in our long, sordid history of dealing with Native Americans. That said, it is a stunning condemnation of the racism and greed that drove the whiteman’s treatment of American Indians. I suspect if I’d read it before attending college that I would not have signed up for ROTC and certainly wouldn’t have signed up for the Armor branch, the heir of the cavalry.

I must admit that as I grew older and learned more about Geronimo, and seen through the lens of my Vietnam experiences, I saw him, at best, as a seriously flawed “hero.” Dee’s work certainly reinforces that ambivalence.

If I still believed in heroes, regrettably I don’t, Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé would probably best fulfill that role. He was a defensive warrior, one who refused to sign away his people’s rights, but was wise enough to know that he could not stand and fight.

Like the Cherokee, the Nez Percé had a long peaceful history with the whites, managing not only to coexist but to successfully adapt and trade with each other:

IN SEPTEMBER, 1805, when Lewis and Clark came down off the Rockies on their westward journey, the entire exploring party was half-famished and ill with dysentery-too weak to defend themselves. They were in the country of the Nez Percés, so named by French trappers, who observed some of these Indians wearing dentalium shells in their noses. Had the Nez Percés chosen to do so, they could have put an end to the Lewis and Clark expedition there on the banks of Clearwater River, and seized their wealth of horses. Instead the Nez Percés welcomed the white Americans, supplied them with food, and looked after the explorers’ horses for several months while they continued by canoe to the Pacific shore.

Thus began a long friendship between the Nez Percés and white Americans. For seventy years the tribe boasted that no Nez Percé had ever killed a white man.

But white men’s greed for land and, gold finally broke the friendship.

And for those who’ve read the rest of the book, all that follows is all too familiar. Racism and greed are a deadly combination, as Americans should know all too well by now

Chief Joseph’s Nez Percés were given a short reprieve after he petitioned Washington:

He petitioned the Great Father, Ulysses Grant, to let his people stay where they had always lived, and on June 16, 1873, the President issued an executive order withdrawing Wallowa Valley from settlement by white men.

Faced with mounting pressure from settlers and gold seekers, Grant’s executive order was soon rescinded:

Meanwhile, white settlers were encroaching upon the valley, with their eyes on the Nez Percé land. Gold was found in nearby mountains. The gold seekers stole the Indians’ horses, and stockmen stole their cattle, branding them so the Indians could not claim them back. White politicians journeyed to Washington, telling lies about the Nez Percés. They charged the Indians with being a threat to the peace and with stealing the settlers’ livestock. This was the reverse of the truth, but as Joseph said, “We had no friend who would plead our cause be- fore the law council.” Joseph knew now that he had no alternative. To defend the valley with less than a hundred warriors was impossible. When he and his subchiefs returned home they found soldiers already there. They held a council and decided to gather their stock immediately for the move to Lapwai. “The white men were many and we could not hold our own with them. We were like deer. They were like grizzly bears. We had a small country. Their country was large. We were contented to let things remain as the Great Spirit made them. They were not, and would change the rivers and mountains if they did not suit them.”

Unfortunately for Joseph and his people, their departure was not meant to be peaceable.

While they were camped in the canyon, a small band of warriors slipped away one night, and when they returned the Nez Percés could no longer claim that they had never killed a white man. The warriors had killed eleven, in revenge for the theft of their stock and for being driven from their valley.

Like many another peace-loving Indian chief, Joseph was now trapped between the pressures of the white men and the fury of his desperate people. He chose to stay with his people. “I would have given my own life,” he said, “if I could have undone the killing of white men by my people. I blame my young men and I blame the white men . . . . I would have taken my people to the buffalo country [Montana] without fighting, if possible.”

It’s hard to imagine how an honorable chief could have done otherwise, even though his choice doomed his tribe. What followed, though, was a victory of sorts, as Joseph led his on a three-month-long retreat, covering 1,700 miles fending off attacks by vastly superior Army units, finally meeting defeat 70 miles from the Canadian border:

On the night of August 9, the One Who Limps (Colonel Gibbon) brought up a mixed column of local volunteers and mounted infantrymen and concealed them on a hillside overlooking the Nez Percé camp on Big Hole River. As dawn approached, the volunteers asked Gibbon if they should take prisoners during the attack. Gibbon replied that he wanted no Indian prisoners, male or female. The night air was cold, and the men warmed themselves by drinking whiskey. At first daylight several were drunk when Gibbon gave the command to attack. The infantry line began firing volleys, and then charged the Nez Percé tepees. It was a cavalry charge ordered by Bear Coat Miles, whose Indian scouts a few hours earlier had picked up the trail of the Nez Percés. Riding with the charging cavalry were the thirty Sioux and Cheyenne scouts who had been bought by the Blue- coats at Fort Robinson, the young warriors who had turned their backs on their people by putting on soldier uniforms-an action which had precipitated the assassination of Crazy Horse.

The thunder of six hundred galloping horses made the earth tremble, but White Bird calmly posted his warriors in front of the camp. As the first wave of pony soldiers swept clown upon them, the Nez Percé warriors opened with deadly accurate fire. In a matter of seconds they killed twenty-four soldiers, wounded forty-two others, and stopped the charge in a wild scramble of plunging horses and unsaddled troopers. “On the fifth day,” Joseph said, “I went to General Miles and gave up my gun.”

Joseph is often remembered for his eloquent surrender speech, as quoted by Dee, even though it has been suggested that the speech was probably embellished by the translator, Lt. Wood:

He also made an eloquent surrender speech, which was recorded in the English translation by Lieutenant Charles Erskine Scott Wood, and in time it became the most quoted of all American Indian speeches:

Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men [Ollokoti is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food; no one knows where they are-perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.

Although he gained fame through his tribe’s remarkable retreat and his oft-quoted speech, Joseph was never allowed to return to his homeland as he thought he had been promised by General Miles when he surrendered:

Bureaucrats and Christian gentlemen visited them frequently, uttering words of sympathy and writing endless reports to various organizations. Joseph was allowed to visit Washington, where he met all the great chiefs of government. “They all say they are my friends,” he said, “and that I shall have justice, but while their mouths all talk right I do not understand why nothing is done for my people . . . . General Miles promised that we might return to our own country. I believed General Miles, or I never would have surrendered.”

Although some survivors were permitted to return to their reservation at Lapwai:

Chief Joseph and about 150 others were considered too dangerous to be penned up with other Nez Percés, whom they might influence. The government shipped them to Nespelem on the Colville Reservation in Washington, and there they lived out their lives in exile. When Joseph died on September 21, 1904, the agency physician reported the cause of death as “a broken heart.”

I could spend the next week or two summarizing similar incidents related in Dee’s powerful indictment, but it’s time for me to move on. It’s been a painful read, stirring old memories that are probably best not forgotten, while reminding me why I originally began this blog as a protest against America’s invasion of Afghanistan. While listening to My Top Rated songs on my iPod yesterday I was reminded of an earlier entry I wrote about Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes.”

This is painful reading about a dark time in American history, but it is one that we must examine if we are to truly understand ourselves and avoid past mistakes.

Geronimo !

One of my greatest childhood heroes was Geronimo, though I’m not sure why.

I do know that my favorite childhood toy was my Fort Apache set, even though it looks very little like the real Fort Apache, not to be confused with the set built for John Ford’s Fort Apache starring John Wayne, my favorite series of westerns as a child. In fact, it wasn’t until I returned from Vietnam at twenty five that I lost my taste for John Wayne westerns. Sadly, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was probably the most influential movie in my life.
My best friend in the fourth and fifth grade was a full-blooded Apache who suffered from polio. As a result, we spent hours and hours playing with our combined cowboy and Indian sets, often arguing over who got to control the Indians and who was left manning the fort.

I also vaguely remember reading a biography of Geronimo in a series of orange-bound books that described famous, heroic Americans. Even then, I knew enough about the injustices Indians suffered at the hands of the white men to admire the last Indian chief to surrender.

Not surprisingly, the real life story as told by Dee Brown is considerably more complex than the one I constructed in my head, but even now it leaves me with ambiguous feelings. In a chapter entitled “The Last of the Apache Chiefs,” Brown introduces Geronimo by stating that the Apaches living on the reservation:

… heard that Geronimo and his band were raiding their old enemies, the Mexicans, and were accumulating large herds of cattle and horses. In the spring Geronimo brought these stolen livestock up to New Mexico, sold them to white ranchers, and bought new guns, hats, boots, and much whiskey. These Chiricahuas settled down in a hideout near their Mimbres cousins at the Ojo Caliente agency, where Victorio was chief.

Hardly the image of a hero, unless one is an admirer of outlaws like Billy the Kid or Jesse James, and I’m not. Unfortunately, it’s a pattern that Geronimo seemed to repeat.

Even whites who sympathized with the Indians and tried to protect them from themselves and from hostile settlers who wanted their land, viewed many of the Apache leaders as “outlaws:”

Although simpático, Clum had never learned to think as an Apache, to make himself into an Apache, as Tom Jeffords had done. He could not understand the chiefs who resisted to the bitter end. He could not see them as heroic figures who preferred death to the loss of their heritage. In John Clum’s eyes, Geronimo, Victorio, Nana, Loco. Naiche, and the other fighters were outlaws, thieves, murderers, and drunkards too reactionary to take the white man’s road. And so John Clum left the Apaches at San Carlos. He went to Tombstone. Arizona, and founded a crusading newspaper, the Epitaph.

Clum was not the only agent to be sympathetic to the Apache’s plight. Amazingly enough even some hardened Indian fighters could change their viewpoint:

To bring order out of chaos, the Army again called on General George Crook, quite a different man from the one who had left Arizona ten years earlier to go north to fight the Sioux and Cheyennes. He had learned from them and from the Poncas during the trial of Standing Bear that Indians were human beings, a viewpoint that most of his fellow officers had not yet accepted.

On September 4, 1882, Crook assumed command of the Department of Arizona at Whipple Barracks, and then hurried on to the White Mountain reservation. He held councils with the Apaches at San Carlos and Fort Apache; he searched out individual Indians and talked privately with them. “I discovered immediately that a general feeling of distrust of our people ex isted among all the bands of the Apaches,” he reported. “It was with much difficulty that I got them to talk, but after breaking down their suspicions they conversed freely with me. They told me . . . that they had lost confidence in everybody, and did not know whom or what to believe; that they were constantly told, by irresponsible parties, that they were to be disarmed, that they were to be attacked by troops on the reservation, and removed from their country; and that they were fast arriving at the conclusion that it would be more manly to die fighting than to be thus destroyed.” Crook was convinced that the reservation Apaches “had not only the best reasons for complaining, but had displayed remarkable forbearance in remaining at peace.”

Early in his investigations he discovered that the Indians had been plundered “of their rations and of the goods purchased by the government for their subsistence and support, by rascally agents and other unscrupulous white men.” He found plenty of ev idence that white men were trying to arouse the Apaches to violent action so that they could be driven from the reservation, leaving it open for landgrabbing.

Despite his success, or perhaps because it, Crook was criticized for being too soft on the Apaches:

For more than a year General Crook could boast that “not an outrage or depredation of any kind” was committed by the Indians of Arizona and New Mexico. Geronimo and Chato vied with each other in the development of their ranchos, and Crook kept a watchful eye on their agent to see that he issued adequate supplies. Outside the reservation and the Army posts, however, there was much criticism of Crook for being too easy on the Apaches; the newspapers that he had condemned for dissemi nating “all sorts of exaggerations and falsehoods about the In dians” now turned on him. Some of the rumor mongers went so far as to claim that Crook had surrendered to Geronimo in Mexico and had made a deal with the Chiricahua leader in order to escape alive. As for Geronimo, they made a special demon of him, inventing atrocity stories by the dozens and calling on vigilantes to hang him if the government would not. Mickey Free, the Chiricahuas’ official interpreter, told Geronimo about these newspaper stories. “When a man tried to do right,” Geronimo commented, “such stories ought not to be put in the newspapers.”

Little surprise that in such an atmosphere peace was not to last. Unfortunately, there seems to be little heroic about Geronimo’s last stand:

After the Corn Planting Time (spring of 1885), the Chiricahuas grew discontented. There was little for the men to do except draw rations, gamble, quarrel, loaf, and drink tiswin beer. Tiswin was forbidden on the reservation, but the Chiricahuas had plenty of corn for brewing it, and drinking was one of the few pleasures of the old days that was left to them.

On the night of May 17, Geronimo, Mangas, Chihuahua, and old Nana got fairly well drunk on tiswin and decided to go to Mexico. They went to see Chato to invite him to go along, but Chato was sober and refused to join the party. He and Geronimo had a bitter quarrel, which very nearly ended in violence before Geronimo and the others departed. In the group were ninety two women and children, eight boys, and thirtyfour men. As they left San Carlos, Geronimo cut the telegraph wire.

Many reasons were given by both white men and Apaches for this sudden exodus from a reservation where everything apparently had been running smoothly. Some said it was because of the tiswin spree; others said that the bad stories going around about the Chiricahuas made them fearful of being arrested. “Having been placed in irons once before when the band was shipped to San Carlos,” Jason Betzinez said, “some of the lead ers determined not to undergo such treatment again.”

Geronimo later explained it this way: “Sometime before I left, an Indian named Wadiskay had a talk with me. He said, ‘They are going to arrest you,’ but I paid no attention to him, knowing that I had done no wrong; and the wife of Mangas, Huera, told me that they were going to seize me and put me and Mangas in the guardhouse, and I learned from the American and Apache soldiers, from Chato, and Mickey Free, that the Americans were going to arrest me and hang me. and so I left.”

Geronimo’s flight had disastrous effects for everyone around him:

As a result of Geronimo’s flight, the War Department severely reprimanded Crook for his negligence, for granting unauthorized surrender terms, and for his tolerant attitude toward Indians. He immediately resigned and was replaced by Nelson Miles (Bear Coat), a brigadier general eager for promotion.

Little wonder that Geronimo is considered such a hero when you consider the forces that were raised to capture him and his warriors:

Bear Coat took command on April 12, 1886. With full support from the War Department, he quickly put five thousand soldiers into the field (about one third of the combat strength of the Army). He also had five hundred Apache scouts, and thousands of irregular civilian militia. He organized a flying column of cavalrymen and an expensive system of heliographs to flash messages back and forth across Arizona and New Mexico. The enemy to be subdued by this powerful military force was Geronimo and his “army” of twenty four warriors, who throughout the summer of 1886 were also under constant pursuit by thousands of soldiers of the Mexican Army.

In the end it was the Big Nose Captain (Lieutenant Charles Gatewood) and two Apache scouts, Martine and Kayitah, who found Geronimo and Naiche hiding out in a canyon of the Sierra Madres. Geronimo laid his rifle down and shook hands with the Big Nose Captain, inquiring calmly about his health. He then asked about matters back in the United States. How were the Chiricahuas faring? Gatewood told him that the Chiracahuas who surrendered had already been shipped to Florida. If Geronimo would surrender to General Miles, he also would probably be sent to Florida to join them.

Geronimo and his people’s punishment for their crimes certainly seemed to outweigh the crimes themselves:

And so Geronimo surrendered for the last time. The Great Father in Washington (Grover Cleveland), who believed all the lurid newspaper tales of Geronimo’s evil deeds, recommended that he be hanged. The counsel of men who knew better pre vailed, and Geronimo and his surviving warriors were shipped to Fort Marion, Florida. He found most of his friends dying there in that warm and humid land so unlike the high, dry country of their birth. More than a hundred died of a disease diagnosed as consumption. The government took all their children away from them and sent them to the Indian school at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and more than fifty of their children died there.

Despite scholarly arguments to the contrary, such punishment certainly sounds like genocide to me. It’s hard to imagine a worst punishment than having children torn away and sent thousands of miles away to be stripped of their heritage. Of course, that’s the viewpoint of someone who required students to compare and contrast Lord of the Flies with When the Legends Die.

As if that wasn’t sad enough, even those Apaches who had opposed Geronimo and who stayed on the reservation were equally punished:

Not only were the “hostiles” moved to Florida, but so were many of the “friendlies,” including the scouts who had worked for Crook. Martine and Kayitah, who led Lieutenant Gatewood to Geronimo’s hiding place, did not receive the ten ponies promised them for their mission; instead they were shipped to imprisonment in Florida. Chato, who had tried to dissuade Geronimo from leaving the reservation and then had helped Crook find him, was suddenly removed from his rancho and sent to Florida. He lost his land allotment and all his livestock; two of his children were taken to Carlisle, and both died there. The Chiricahuas were marked for extinction; they had fought too hard to keep their freedom

The Sand Creek Massacre

As I mentioned yesterday, I first learned about the Sand Creek Massacre from the movie Soldier Blue. To this day I can remember a stunned audience who sat silent after the most graphic images of violence most of us had ever seen. Wikipedia describes the movie as an “American Revisionist Western.” I suppose for someone raised on John Ford and John Wayne movies, it would be “revisionist,” but if the author is somehow suggesting that the massacre is misrepresented in the movie, Dee Brown’s work suggests that the massacre may have been even worse than depicted in the movie, and that’s barely believable.

The most chilling part of Brown’s depiction of the massacre isn’t in the description of the massacre itself, but rather in his well-documented description of the events that led up to the massacre and the events that followed it.

Certainly what happened stemmed largely from the words and actions of the governor of the Colorado Territory, John Evans who had

… issued a second proclamation “authorizing all citizens of Colorado, either individually or in such parties as they may organize, to go in pursuit of all hostile Indians on the plains, scrupulously avoiding those who have responded to my call to rendezvous at the points indicated; also to kill and destroy as enemies of the country wherever they may be found, all such hostile Indians.” The hunt was already on for all Indians not confined to one of the assigned reservations.

When Cheyenne chiefs tried to meet the governor to negotiate an honorable peace, he didn’t even want to meet with them:

Finally Wynkoop had to beg the governor to meet with the Indians. “But what shall I do with the Third Colorado Regiment if I make peace?” Evans asked. “They have been raised to kill Indians, and they must kill Indians.” He explained to Wynkoop that Washington officials had given him permission to raise the new regiment because he had sworn it was necessary for protection against hostile Indians, and if he now made peace the Washington politicians would accuse him of misrepresentation. There was political pressure on Evans from Coloradans who wanted to avoid the military draft of 1864 by serving in uniform against a few poorly armed Indians rather than against the Confederates farther east. Eventually Evans gave in to Major Wynkoop’s pleadings; after all, the Indians had come four hundred miles to see him in response to his proclamation. 12

If Brown didn’t document his book so well with direct quotations and footnotes identifying the sources of the quotations, the skeptical reader would be tempted to dismiss his work as mere propaganda.

Like Young Goodman Brown, most of us want to believe in the inherent goodness of our forefathers, want to believe the history that we were taught as young students in high school. None of us want to believe that our forefathers trafficed with the devil himself.

Even better, Brown tries not to paint all whites with the same brush:

Not all of Anthony’s officers, however, were eager or even willing to join Chivington’s well-planned massacre. Captain Silas Soule, Lieutenant Joseph Cramer, and Lieutenant James Connor protested that an attack on Black Kettle’s peaceful camp would violate the pledge of safety given the Indians by both Wynkoop and Anthony, “that it would be murder in every sense of the word,” and any officer participating would dishonor the uniform of the Army.

Chivington became violently angry at them and brought his fist down close to Lieutenant Cramer’s face. “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians!” he cried. “I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians.” 19

Soule, Cramer, and Connor had to join the expedition or face a court-martial, but they quietly resolved not to order their men to fire on the Indians except in self-defense. (In a public speech made in Denver not long before this massacre, Colonel Chivington advocated the killing and scalping of all Indians, even infants. “Nits make lice!” he declared.)

Of course, in attempting to save the reputation of some of the officers, he makes the regimental commander, Chivington, an even darker character.

Instead of describing the atrocities himself, Brown relies on the description of two witness:

Robert Bent’s description of the soldiers’ atrocities was corroborated by Lieutenant James Connor: “In going over the battleground the next day I did not see a body of man, woman or child but was scalped, and in many instances their bodies were mutilated in the most horrible manner-men, women, and children’s privates cut out, and I heard one man say that he had cut out a woman’s private parts and had them for exhibition on a stick; I heard another man say that he had cut the fingers off an Indian to get the rings on the hand; according to the best of my knowledge and belief these atrocities that were committed were with the knowledge of J.I. Chivington, and I do not know of his taking any measures to prevent them; I heard of one instance of a child a few months old being thrown in the feed- box of a wagon, and after being carried some distance left on the ground to perish; I also heard of numerous instances in which men had cut out the private parts of females and stretched them over the saddle-bows and wore them over their hats while riding in the ranks.” 25

Even whites in power who realized what an injustice had been done to the Cheyenne were unable to help them and ended up doing precisely what Evans and Chivington wanted to do. When the Indians protested their expulsion from their homelands:

“It will be a very hard thing to leave the country that God gave us,” Little Raven said. “Our friends are buried there, and we hate to leave these grounds. There is something strong for us-that fool band of soldiers that cleared out our lodges and killed our women and children. This is hard on us. There at Sand Creek–White Antelope and many other chiefs lie there; our women and children lie there. Our lodges were destroyed there, and our horses were taken from us there, and I do not feel disposed to go right off to a new country and leave them.”

the agents replied:

James Steele answered: “We all fully realize that it is hard for any people to leave their homes and graves of their ancestors, but, unfortunately for you, gold has been discovered in your country, and a crowd of white people have gone there to live, and a great many of these people are the worst enemies the Indians-men who do not care for their interests, and who would not stop at any crime to enrich themselves. These men are now in your country-in all parts of it-and there is no portion where you can live and maintain yourselves but you will come in contact with them. The consequences of state of things are that you are in constant danger of being imposed upon, and you have to resort to arms in self-defense. Under the circumstances, there is, in the opinion of the commission, no part of the former country large enough where you can live in peace.” – –

Deja Vu All Over Again

No flowers or birds today, just a depressing article. In it, an American general decided that prisoners could be tried without defense counsel because they “had no legal rights.” 1.700 enemy combatants were held as prisoners under primitive conditions “although they were accused of no other crime than having been born” enemies of America.

As part of a mass execution of 38 prisoners, two enemy prisoners were wrongly hanged despite orders from the President ordering them to be spared. The official responsible declared, “It was a matter of regret that any mistakes were made,” but “I’m sure they were not made intentionally.”

Later, two combatants who had fled to a foreign country were kidnapped by American agents, drugged and secreted back to America to stand trial and, ultimately, be executed.

Sound familiar? Grabbed right from today’s headlines?

That was certainly my first thought when I read the chapter entitled “Little Crow’s War” in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the story of the uprising of the Santees, woodland Sioux, in Minnesota after the United States government failed to pay annuities to them and agents would not give them food promised under treaty rights. The insurrection was triggered when four young Indian braves raided a nearby farm and ended up killing the farmer and his family. The rest, unfortunately, is all too familiar.

Those Indians left alive after the uprising were banished to Crow Creek, a reservation on the Missouri River where more than 300 of the 1,300 Santees sent died the first winter.

Perhaps the most chilling paragraph in the entire piece, at least if you consider our current situation is this one:

Among the visitors to Crow Creek that year was a young Teton Sioux. He looked with pity upon his Santee cousins and listened to their stories of the Americans who had taken their land and driven them away. Truly, he thought, the nation of white men is like a spring freshet that overruns its banks and destroys all who are in its path. Soon they would take the buffalo country unless the hearts of the Indians were strong enough to hold it. He resolved that he would fight to hold it. His name was Tatanka Yotanka, the Sitting Bull.

If the best predictor of the future is the past, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, our current operations in the Middle East don’t bode well for our future. Somewhere there’s a future enemy leader watching our actions and waiting for his time.

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