William Vollman’s new novel, The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce War, is getting rave reviews. I have it, have glanced at the first few pages and looked at the extended notes and acknowledgements—and hoisted the 1350 page and what must be five-pound volume—but have not begun reading it. I am waiting for a five or six hour piece of time to take the plunge—seeing it and reading reviews having convinced me that I cannot do it justice or give myself an honest go at it in bedtime snatches.
But I have been thinking about it, and thinking about how the Nez Perce story captured Alvin Josephy 65 years ago and continues to capture writers and readers 138 years after the Nez Perce War put it on the front pages of New York newspapers. So this is a quick—pre-Vollman book-read—meditation on the enduring and captivating nature of the Nez Perce Story.
1. The Nez Perce came to national consciousness with Lewis and Clark, an iconic event in American history. And, according to accounts, they saved the Corps of Discovery—from wrong routes across the mountains and starvation—and impressed the Captains with intelligence, physical appearance and stature. According to the explorers, the Nez Perce also impressed with their horsemanship—European-Americans could not match the Indians with gelding technique and selective breeding.
2. Many of the Nez Perce did convert to Christianity, and they did not turn on their missionaries as the Cayuse and others turned on the Whitmans. (I credit this to chance: the Nez Perce got Eliza Spalding, the only one of the first four missionaries who invited Indians into her home and bothered to learn their language. Her husband, Henry Spalding had a temper in the name of the Lord, and the Whitmans, in my reading, were distant and mean. And of course measles visited the Whitmans and the Cayuse and not the Spaldings and their Nez Perce hosts.)
3. This conversion gave one band of Indians—what would become the lead non-treaty band—a Christian name, “Joseph.” It was a name the public could pronounce and relate to; it was not “foreign” like Toohoolhoolzote, and not an unlikely name translation like White Bird or Looking Glass. It was your brother’s or father’s name.
4. The Nez Perce were strong and smart. A lawyer friend says that a careful reading of the 1855 treaty, a treaty that resulted in only one tribe getting its own reservation, shows skilled negotiators. And Looking Glass’s arrival at the Walla Walla treaty site from buffalo country, which occurred after the other chiefs and tribes were assembled and is commemorated in the Gustav Sohon drawing, must have been palpable in its demonstration of power and dignity.
5. The Nez Perce War is recent; some call it the “last” Indian war. As Joseph discovered after the War in North Dakota, by 1877 trains and telegraphs moved people and messages across the land, and photographers documented events. The Nez Perce War was covered by the eastern press. And when Joseph passed away in 1904, New York newspapers announced the death of America’s “most famous Indian.”
6. Nez Perce Country. The lands of the Nez Perce, from the Wallowas north and east, across the Grand Ronde and Snake River canyons, are rugged and, in comparison to most traditional Indian lands, unchanged from the eons of Indian occupation. One can approximate the 1200-mile Nez Perce fighting retreat in a car, but foot or horseback one can make it—and some do, even today, across the same landscape with most of the 1877 landmarks.
7. The Euro-American ambivalence towards Indians: From the first meetings in Jamestown and New England, new settlers’ attitudes towards Indians were confused and confusing. Settlers depended on tribes for survival, did not understand or want to understand different cultures, feared what was different, admired what was different, but in any case wanted the land, the beaver pelts, the tobacco, fish and the whales. Indians were paraded in front of European courts. There were white women who were captured by Indians, and, in some cases, did not want to return to their own; and white men—think of the fur traders, who happily married Indian women and in many ways became natives; and there were also Indians who demonstrated that they could learn white ways. When the Nez Perce evaded American armies, Joseph—who, as historians have labored to show was not a war chief—was depicted as the “Red Napoleon.” Our advanced armies could not have fallen victim to uneducated savages! He must be brilliant. The Nez Perce gained supporters in the Eastern Press.
I’ll stop at 7—the number of drummers at a traditional ceremony. And this one, number 8 it would be, is primarily a white issue, because most importantly, the Nez Perce War came near the end of 200 years of growing white dominance of the continent, and has raised and continues to raise feelings of guilt for injustices done the Nez Perce people—and to all Indians. The guilt is accompanied by admiration for Indian courage in the face of mistreatment, and astonishment that Indians have survived.
Now I think I am ready to start reading Vollman.
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