Through Indian Eyes

Years ago I asked Otis Halfmoon, an enrolled Nez Perce who was working as an interpreter for the Nez Perce National Historical Park, to come to Wallowa County and give a talk on the Nez Perce War. I don’t remember now why I asked him to address that particular topic, but I do remember his response.

It was in the upstairs room at the Community Church in Enterprise, and over 100 people, many of them old timers who had never shown up for a Fishtrap event in the past, climbed the stairs, harboring their own ideas, stories, and questions of the Nez Perce and sometimes of their own white settling ancestors.

Otis started it off by saying that he couldn’t tell the story of the Nez Perce War, that what he could tell was his own family’s stories of that chapter in tribal life. He began with the old woman, Watkuweis, who had been helped by whites while escaping slavery by another tribe. “Do them no harm,” she told the tribal council who had been considering how to handle Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery.

History would have played out differently had the old woman not appeared and the Nez Perce taken the whites’ guns and horses, or refused to guide them, let them perish in the mountains. And, according to Otis, his family members had often speculated on that—as I imagine have many Nez Perce and members of other tribes over the years.

In his early years as a historian of Indians, Alvin Josephy longed for Indians to join him in the work. He talked about Indians with a foot in each world, in the tribal world and in the world of the educated white, and thought that the important Indian stories, the ones misconstrued and forgotten by white historians, might get written down by them. As time went on he saw that individual Indians were reluctant to speak for Indians, and sometimes reluctant to speak on behalf of or “for” their own tribes.

The patient, always listening Alvin learned to deal with that. When Stephen Ambrose wrote his story of Lewis and Clark, Undaunted Courage, Alvin reviewed it for the New York Times. A fine accounting of things, he said, but again from the White point of view. Why didn’t someone ask the Indians what they thought of the Corps of Discovery.

Eventually, Alvin did. In his last book, one he had talked about and that had taken shape over decades (he first traveled Lewis and Clark’s route himself for Time Magazine in 1955), he found nine Indian elders and writers whose people had lived along the trail, and asked them to say what they had to say about Lewis and Clark.

I remember talking with one of the writers shortly after the publication of Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes. I intimated that I was a little disappointed in one of the chapters. “You don’t understand,” she said, her finger in my chest. “Alvin asked us to say what we wanted to say about Lewis and Clark, what each of us as individuals and members of our tribes had to say–history, family stories, the impacts on our tribes. He did not ask us to say what you white people wanted to hear.”

I thought about the 500 Nations of North America, and the 2000-2500 languages and cultures of the Americas at Columbus’s arrival that Alvin had noted in Indian Heritage of America in 1968. How Alvin chided Americans for thinking there was one Indian Language. How he spent his life giving voice to as many Indian stories–through Indian eyes–as he could find.