He Had Sharper Eyes
The old man’s eyes were clouded with age, but his vision had not failed. “My son,” he told the strong young man who held his feeble hand, “my body is returning to my Mother Earth. My spirit is going very soon to see the Great Spirit Chief. When I am gone, think of your country.”
There had been more such advice and instruction about dispensation of his property in that final message from father to son, from an old headman to a young one, who both used the same white name: Joseph. “You are chief of these people. They look to you to guide them. Always remember that your father never sold his country. You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home,” the old man said in a rasping voice. “A few years more and white men will be all around you. They have their eyes on this land.”
Already the weight of responsibility had settled upon the heir; he had spoken for his father at council and had become the recognized leader of the Wallowa Band of the Ni-mii-pu, the Nez Percé, as the whites called them since the first French-Canadian trappers saw the dentalia shell ornaments in their noses.
As his father’s breath and spirit fled, Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt absorbed the final words deep into his soul: “Never sell the bones of your father and your mother.”
The Nez Percés believe they were created by Coyote as he cut and ripped apart the monster living in the Columbia River Basin, then used pieces and parts of the monster’s body to create the tribes of the Cayuse, Umatilla, Walla Walla, Spokan, and others. When Coyote got to the heart, all that was left of the monster, the heart had turned to stone and became a bump on the land at Kamiah, beside the river that eventually took the name Clearwater. Coyote had nothing left except the blood upon his paws, which he washed with water. Drops of this water touched the soil and the Nez Percés believe their tribe emerged from the blood spatters. They call themselves The People---Iceyeeye niim Mama’yac: The Children of the Coyote.
Coyote gifted them with strength and wisdom. They would rise above the other tribes in the region by developing power and intellect and wealth. When the horse was introduced into their lands in the early 1700s, they were not content to simply ride the animal; instead, they watched nature’s cycles and took steps to improve the breed, castrating inferior animals and breeding strong stallions to fertile mares. Their horses, the forerunners of the Appaloosa breed, had strength and speed and marvelous colors ranging from blacks and browns to pure white, with spotted rumps and deep-barreled chests. They became war horses---wealth, and mobility, for a nation.
With the horse the Nez Percés spread across their lands, separating into bands that ranged through the Columbia Basin from the central and northern mountains of Idaho and western Montana to the valleys of northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington. There were many leaders, wise men who had learned from their grandfathers, as was their tradition, or sometimes from fathers and uncles. There were strong, brave young men and women who herded the horses, made periodic forays to the buffalo country along the Yellowstone River far to the east, and gathered the nutritious camas lily from the prairies where it grew in natural flower beds that shimmered like a lake when the blue flowers were in full bloom from July through September. In early spring they collected misshapen white kouse roots from other meadows and netted, speared, or trapped salmon during the annual runs when the fish swam up the deep waters of the Columbia to the swift flows of the Snake, Clearwater, and Salmon rivers that crisscrossed Nez Percé lands.
But times were not always so tranquil. The Nez Percés had enemies, including the Shoshones, called Snakes by white men, who made their homes in southern Idaho and western Wyoming, and the Blackfeet from the country along the Canadian border in north-central Montana. Sometimes the enemies came into Nez Percé country, attacked the People, and took captives. Such was the fate of one woman abducted by enemy raiders and taken far to the north and east. After much time away from her people she gave birth to a child, then escaped her captors and began making her way back to her village. The child died on the journey, but the woman, now called Watkuweis (Returned from a Far Away Country), safely reached her homeland.
This woman’s experiences had great meaning for the young explorers William Clark and his co-captain, Meriwether Lewis. When their Corps of Discovery struggled across the Bitterroot Mountains in 1805, subsisting on horseflesh and little else, Clark and some of his men walked out of the deep forest and onto a high plateau area, the Weippe Prairie, on September 20, and saw Indian lodges across the open country. Clark wrote in his journal: [At] the distance of 1 mile from the lodges, I met 3 Indian boys, when they saw me [they] ran and hid themselves.” He stopped his horse where the youths had crouched, handed his gun to one of his men, and then searched through the tall grass until he found two of the boys. Clark said he gave them “small pieces of ribin & Sent them forward.” The boys fled to the village of fifteen or so lodges made of poles set in a conical shape and covered with bark mats. Soon a man approached the explorers and ushered them into a lodge where they were fed buffalo meat, dried salmon, berries, and roasted camas roots, which Clark thought tasted like onion when made into bread or soup.
Before the explorers actually reached the Nez Percé village, arguments had broken out among the People. Some suggested that the interlopers should be killed, but the former captive, Watkuweis, now an old woman, spoke in Clark’s behalf. She told her people how the whites she had met near the Great Lakes to the east had helped her during her years of captivity. She argued for the safety of the exploration party. Her people listened, fed Clark and his men, and later assisted the explorers as they made their way down the high plateau and steep mountainside to the fast current of the stream Clark and his men thought the Indians called the Kooskooske, the koos keich keich---clear water.
Alongside the Clearwater River, Clark found the village of headman Twisted Hair, to whom he presented an Indian peace medal bearing the face of President Thomas Jefferson. Meriwether Lewis, meantime, traveling behind Clark with some other members of the Corps of Discovery, also eventually reached Weippe Prairie, where he handed out more tobacco, trinkets, medals, and two American flags. Lewis and his party also descended the mountain and soon joined Clark at Twisted Hair’s village. They remained there until October 7, during which time they felled massive Ponderosa pines and learned from Nez Percé men how to burn and scrape the logs and turn them into dugout canoes. They left their animals in the care of men from Twisted Hair’s village, pushed the canoes into the Clearwater, and began the last leg of their journey to the western rivers---the Snake and the Columbia---and eventually to the Pacific Ocean.
The Indians watched over the horses and goods the explorers left behind and the next year, when the captains returned to the Nez Percé camp on the Clearwater, they found welcome and assistance once again. Because they had departed their dreary, damp winter camp at Fort Clatsop on the Oregon coast earlier in the spring than they should have, the explorers arrived among the Nez Percés too early in 1806 to continue traveling east---the tribesmen told them they could not cross the rugged Bitterroots for many days because snow was too deep in the high country and there would be no grass for the horses. The Corps of Discovery thus waited at the Nez Percé village until the season advanced enough for them to venture on.
“Those people has shown much greater acts of hospitality than we have witnessed from any nation or tribe since we have passed the rocky Mountains,” Clark, in his shaky syntax, wrote in his journal, “...in short be it spoken to their immortal honor it is the only act which diserves the appellation of hospitality which we have witnessed in this quarter.”
Lewis also remarked on the Nez Percé hospitality, citing the promise of one tribal elder who told them “the whiteman might be assured of their warmest attatchment and that they would alwas give them every assistance in their power; that they were poor but their hearts were good.”
The dominant tribe in the region had made a clear and distinct choice: It would do no harm to white people and would provide them assistance.
Of course, the tribal leaders of 1806 had no inkling how many whites would eventually come tracking across the nation and into Nez Percé country.
David Thompson, a thirty-one-year-old geographer and mapmaker, introduced the Montreal-based fur-trading North West Company to the Nez Percés in 1807 when he established Kootenai House on the Upper Columbia in southern British Columbia. The trading post was far north of Nez Percé territory but not too distant from one route the tribe regularly took along the Clark Fork River to hunt buffalo in Montana. At Kootenai House Thompson exchanged tobacco, awls, and guns manufactured in London and Birmingham, England, for beaver and bear furs, horses, and dried salmon brought in by the Nez Percés.
In New York in 1808, German immigrant John Jacob Astor founded the American Fur Company, eventually sending two parties to the Pacific Northwest. One group sailed on his ship, the Tonquin, with a cargo of trade goods, traveling around Cape Horn to the mouth of the Columbia, where the Astorians established a fur-trading post. At the time the Tonquin departed New York, Astor agent Wilson Price Hunt scouted overland routes to the Columbia. His party dumped its canoe into the raging whitewater of the lava-lined walls of the Snake River on the Idaho--Oregon border and they survived by eating mountain goats and beaver as they struggled along the steep, rock-strewn Snake canyon to the Salmon River, where some Nez Percés found them. As with the Lewis and Clark party, the Indians fed and provisioned the Astorians before sending them on their way.
Astor’s toehold on the Oregon coast soon collapsed and he sold out to the Nor’ Westers, soon to be in a cutthroat competition with Hudson’s Bay Company, the powerful British fur-trading operation. In 1821, the French and British companies merged into one fur powerhouse: the Hudson’s Bay Company.
In 1832, Captain Benjamin L.|E. Bonneville, a thirty-seven-year-old French-born West Point graduate, reached Nez Percé lands. He had served in the army in New England, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Missouri before taking leave to explore the West, intending to assess the strengths and weaknesses of Indian tribes and determine the potential for American trade and settlement. He led the first wagons west of the Continental Divide, following an Indian and game trail similar to the return route Astor’s overland party had used in 1812.
Bonneville crossed the Divide at South Pass, a wide sagebrush-covered opening in the mountains in central Wyoming, and met a party of Nez Percés on the Upper Salmon River in Idaho. He asked the Indians to join his party in a hunt, but they declined, according to Warren Angus Ferris, a trapper traveling with Bonneville, because “it was a sacred day to them, and the Great Spirit would be angry should they devote it to hunting.” In a later encounter, Bonneville castigated the Nez Percés for not retaliating against the Blackfeet who had raided them. “Unless you rouse yourselves from your apathy and strike some bold and decisive blow,” he lectured, “you will cease to be considered men, or objects of manly warfare.” A Nez Percé spokesman replied that they did not seek revenge because they had “a heart for peace, not for war.”
Bonneville entered the Nez Percé homeland, the Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon, a year later and invited the Wallowa Band to begin trading furs with the Americans. The Indians, however, were reluctant to break their ties with the Hudson’s Bay Company.
The Indians of the Columbia Basin first came into contact with Christian missionaries in 1825 when the chiefs of the Kutenai and Spokan tribes each allowed a son to be taken to the Red River Mission in Canada, where they would be educated at a missionary school. The boys, given the names J. H. Pelly and Nicholas Garry but better known as Kutenai Pelly and Spokan Garry, learned to read and write, studied geography and how to cultivate and harvest crops, and, of course learned about the white man’s religion. When they returned to their homes with a Hudson’s Bay Company expedition in 1829, they carried with them leather-bound copies of the King James Bible, a New Testament, and the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer. Once reunited with their own people, they talked about the Men of God. Spokan Garry, whose father had died while he was at Red River, rose to prominence as he traveled through the Columbia River Basin telling the tribes about Jesus, the Ten Commandments, and the concepts of hell and heaven. Because he often read from his Bible and used it during his preaching, the Cayuse, Nez Percé, and Flathead tribes* who lived there soon considered the book to have a supernatural message. For them status depended on power, which could be obtained by success on the battlefield or in hunting. Power also came from the spirit world, so the message Spokan Garry shared seemed a direct link.
In the spring of 1830, the Hudson’s Bay Company took five more young boys to the Red River mission for instruction. Among them were two Nez Percés, Ellice, the grandson of powerful war chief Red Grizzly Bear, who had met Lewis and Clark, and another boy. Significantly, the nephew of Cayuse leader Young Chief also made his way to Red River. This boy was related to the Nez Percés, as his father was a half brother to the Wallowa Band member who became Joseph’s father. Sending this boy to the mission brought status to Young Chief and may explain in part why Joseph’s father later became one of the first Nez Percé converts to Christianity.
The Nez Percés were not content to watch other tribes make connection---and therefore gain influence---with the powerful book and the message that the men of God could bring to them and so decided to take the initiative. Four tribesmen left their secure villages in 1831, traveling with some Flathead allies over mountains, across desert-like lands, and along rivers, making a two-thousand-mile journey through unknown territory to ask for their own religious teachers. In St. Louis they found assistance from an old ally, William Clark, then Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Louisiana Territory.
Although Clark assisted them, St. Louis took its toll. Two of the Nez Percés developed fevers and died in the city. A third died en route home of “disease which he had contracted in the civilized district”; so wrote the artist George Catlin, who had painted a portrait of the man just days before his death.
The fourth Nez Percé emissary, Rabbit Skin Leggings, accompanied fur traders back to the West in 1832, arriving in time for the trappers’ trade fair, called rendezvous, in Pierre’s Hole, southwest of Yellowstone National Park. After the rendezvous he joined a party of Nez Percés as they moved north to hunt buffalo. During evenings in camp Rabbit Skin Leggings told his new companions about his adventures in St. Louis. In March 1833, his buffalo-hunting band engaged in a fight with enemy Blackfeet and he was killed. His companions carried stories of Rabbit Skin’s journey to the Nez Percé lodges, sharing them during storytelling sessions in winter camp.
All this happened before the birth of the child who would become Chief Joseph.
To understand Joseph as boy and man requires understanding a lasting influence on his life, the Christian missionaries who ventured out to Nez Percé country with a single “mission”: to tear the Indians from their ancient beliefs, “civilize” them, and make them farmers rather than hunters and gatherers. The first Christian to reach their homelands was the Reverend Samuel Parker, who along with Dr. Marcus Whitman rode horses from the Missouri River to the 1835 rendezvous held on the Green River in northwestern Wyoming. Parker, a fifty-six-year-old Congregational minister and former Ithaca, New York, teacher, could be arrogant, but he also respected Indians and believed they were the equals of white people. Whitman, from Wheeler, New York, was thirty-three, an unmarried, hardworking, and dedicated Presbyterian missionary-physician.
To travel west the two men joined a fur company brigade as it brought supplies to the annual trapper rendezvous. After learning of the desire for more missionaries in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and western Montana, Whitman returned east with the fur brigade, while Parker, aged and ailing, continued on with a party of Nez Percés to find suitable locations for the missions. They took a route following the Continental Divide north, then struck west across central Idaho on a trail the Indians had followed on hunting and trading expeditions for generations.
While with the Nez Percés, Parker wrote in his journal that the people were “truly dignified and respectable in their manners and general appearance...cheerful and often gay, sociable, kind and affectionate...kind to strangers, and remarkably so to each other...scrupulously honest in all their dealings, and lying is scarcely known. They say they fear to sin against the Great Spirit, and therefore, they have but one heart, and their tongue is straight and not forked.”
At that early date, when few whites had ventured even close to the Nez Percé homeland, Parker made a surprising notation in his journal saying “learned diplomats” would need to deal with the “deep and intricate questions” related to land ownership. He wrote that “my private opinion [is] that the Indians have a priority of claim.” He also spoke of the Nez Percé leadership and society: “Probably there is no government upon earth where there is so much personal and political freedom, and at the same time so little anarchy.” He added: “I can unhesitatingly say, that I have no where witnessed so much subordination, peace, and friendship as among the Indians in the Oregon Territory. The day may be rued when their order and harmony shall be interrupted by any instrumentality whatever.”
While Samuel Parker was getting his first taste of Nez Percé life, Dr. Marcus Whitman returned to New York. There he recruited other missionaries to head west, married twenty-seven-year-old New Yorker Narcissa Prentiss, a judge’s daughter who had herself been accepted into the missionary field, and arranged for supplies and transportation back to the West. In the spring of 1836, the Whitmans were joined by a frail Eliza Spalding, who rode in a Dearborn wagon and on her own sidesaddle accompanying Henry, her Presbyterian missionary husband, to what would become their own missions, the first established within the Nez Percé and Cayuse nations.
The Whitmans and Spaldings, traveling with fellow missionary William Gray, a twenty-six-year-old cabinetmaker the mission board had appointed to serve as a mechanic and helper, accompanied a fur trade caravan to rendezvous. Afterward, with Nez Percé guides, they brought their wagon over the Bear River Divide, along the Wyoming and Idaho boundary, making steep ascents and harrowing descents on a route no wagon had ever traveled. At Fort Hall, the Hudson’s Bay post that trader Nathaniel Wyeth had established in 1834 on the Portneuf River of southeastern Idaho, Whitman modified the wagon into a two-wheeled cart. From this point, Eliza Spalding and Narcissa Whitman rode their sidesaddle horses to the mission sites Parker had chosen for them.
The Whitmans established themselves at Waiilatpu---the Place of the Rye Grass---to serve the Cayuses whose territory lay north and west of Nez Percé lands. Henry and Eliza Spalding turned back to the east, eventually following the Clearwater River to its confluence with Lapwai Creek. There they established a mission they called Lapwai, known to the Indians as the Place of the Butterflies. It lay up the stream in the heart of Nez Percé country at a site long used as a tribal winter camp. There were few living trees at the site, but ample wood for heating and cooking from the hundreds of trees washed down the river each spring and that piled up on the riverbank where the stream curved, widened, and slowed.
The Nez Percés, who had long hoped men of God would venture to their country, believing the Christians had great power that they would share with the People, helped erect the first mission buildings for the Spaldings. They cut logs in forests miles away, hauled them by hand to the mission site, and stacked them into walls. They gathered rocks and mortared them into fireplaces in new buildings, built a sawmill and a gristmill, and broke soil for gardens. They began attending church services, and when Eliza opened schoolbooks adults came to learn, bringing their children with them.
One of the first Nez Percé converts to Christianity was the Wallowa headman Tuekakas. He was rechristened Joseph and eventually Spalding gave him a New Testament version of the Book of Matthew written in the Nez Percé language. The book became one of Joseph’s most prized possessions, one that he treasured for many years before he realized that the whites had certain ideas about his people’s lands that troubled him.
In those disturbing years, Old Joseph, as Tuekakas became known, had the present and future of his people in his mind as he watched the Spaldings at their Christianizing work and later saw Marcus Whitman leading the first white-topped wagons through the country. “I was a boy then,” Old Joseph’s son later said, “but I remember well my father’s caution. He had sharper eyes than the rest of our people.”
Copyright © 2006 by Candy Moulton