|Joseph’s Last Visit, 1900. Photo by Frank Reavis|
There were 50 photos in the recent Josephy Center exhibit of pre-WW II images from the Wallowa Country. Seven of the images feature Indians, and, it occurs to me, capture a great deal of white misunderstandings of and ambivalence toward Indians over the last 500 years. The photos all date from about 1895-1930, less than one generation in that long history that unravels with amazing consistency over more than a dozen.
The most salient feature of our photos is that they were all taken after 1877, after the Wallowa Band Nez Perce were removed from this land, chased across Idaho, Yellowstone, and into Montana; lied to about return; sent to Leavenworth and the “hot country”; and returned to the Northwest—but not to the Wallowa—in 1885. Many descendants of the band remain in exile on the Colville Reservation in north central Washington to this day.
So what do the photos tell us?
First, that Indians continued to come into the Wallowa after the War and removal of the Wallowa Band. Who were they? It’s complicated, as our Euro-American history books, when they tell Indian stories at all, speak in terms of leaders and whole tribes, rather than the complex networks of families, bands, and relationships across geography and time. When they touch on Indians at all, they do so by “chiefs”—Pontiac, Tecumseh, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Joseph. How many of us can attach tribes, bands, and geography to them?
The relationships between and among Plateau Indian tribes and bands were always fluid. The Nez Perce, and their Walla Walla, Umatilla, and Cayuse cousins traveled from Celilo in the west to the buffalo country in the east, north and south from the Spokan to the Paiute. Sometimes they stayed for months—or maybe years. Sometimes they settled elsewhere; they intermarried. I’m told that some Nez Perce had fishing places on the Willamette River through such marriages.
Other bands of Nez Perce visited the Wallowa country before the War, and traveled from Lapwai and surrounding areas into the Wallowa to hunt, fish, and gather, and eventually to work for wages in the harvests after 1877. And the “usual and accustomed places” (off-reservation lands still available to the tribes) for those activities outlined in the 1855 treaties were still valid in the 1863 “liars’ treaty.” Although it is unlikely that these Indians could read the treaties, many family groups would have kept to seasonal travels as they had done for generations, sometimes dealing with white settlers along the way.
Although the core of Wallowa Band—those who had followed Ollokot and Joseph and other chiefs through the war, were living on the Colville Reservation from 1885 forward, descendants—some who did not go to war; others who had made it to Canada or had just wandered on return from the hot country, settled, and married elsewhere—would have been scattered on the reservations of the inland Northwest, a scattering that continues to this day.
A photo in the exhibit called “Last Camp of the Nez Perce” at Wallowa Lake shows a dozen tipis with fence and buildings in the background. Another shows a batch of tipis at the Enterprise fairgrounds, with a few white people in nice clothes visiting an Indian camp where some of the men wore traditional “stovepipe” headdresses, and yet another of an Indian family, circa 1895, was taken in a studio, maybe in La Grande, by G. W. Mackey. He put his name and “Traveling Artist” on this beautiful family photo. Indians—Nez Perce and their cousins—used some white technology to celebrate themselves. And yet they traveled and lived in traditional ways as much as possible here, as they must have across the entire country. How else do we account for the fact of their survival as Indians?
There’s a photo of Indian women combing children’s hair, taken about 1907. Frank Reavis, a photographer who had married A.C. Smith, the old mountain man’s daughter, noticed the humanity and normalcy of an Indian family. And a photo of the 1931 graduating class at Flora has one of the five students wearing gloves obviously Indian-made. It reminds me of many stories of white settlers saving hides for Indians, who would trace their hands and feet and make custom gloves and moccasins. Sally Goebel brought in a well-worn pair of beaded gloves her grandmother’s size that would have been from this era.
In the years between the 1885 return from the Hot Country to Nespelem and 1900, the Dawes Allotment Act had taken more Indian lands across the country, and Joseph had refused the offer of an allotment in Lapwai. Laws allowing Indian agents to restrict drumming and dancing and even the wearing of regalia had blossomed. As had the boarding school movement, possibly the harshest of the assimilationists’ weapons, with its kidnapping of young students, hair cutting and outlawing of Indian languages.
The historical record matches our photos. The War is in 1877. The return to the Northwest, but not to the Wallowa, is in 1885, when fear of a pan-Indian uprising was rife with some. In 1887 Wallowa County broke away from Union County. And, ironically, that year the name “Joseph” was legally adopted for a town that had been variously called Lakeside, and Lake City. That they would choose that name just ten years after the eviction of the man and his band is numbing. But it was not unusual. As Indians were being displaced, Indian names were being adopted across the land, and romantic notions of Indians were making there way into popular culture, from “Indian” motorcycles to “Pontiac” cars.
Yet the turn of the twentieth century was a low point for actual American Indians. The assimilationists seemed to have carried the day. To be generous to them, to Colonel Pratt of Carlisle, Alice Fletcher and the Allotment Act, and Edward Sheriff Curtis, the photographer, the assimilationists had a real fear that Indians would literally be killed if they did not assimilate. So Fletcher would document Plains Indian culture, and Curtiss would take photos in sacred places and traditional dress of hundreds of Indians across the continent—“Vanishing Indians,” they called them, glad they had museum-saved the peoples.
The most poignant photo in our exhibit is one of Chief Joseph—Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt—on his last visit to the Wallowa, in 1900. He came with Indian agent James McLoughlin, with a translator named Edward Ruibin and with the intention of buying back a small piece of the Homeland. He was of course rebuffed. The expression on his face as he looks into the camera and the white world, seems to say all of it—weariness, rejection, and yet a remaining dignity, the inner knowledge that he had given everything he had and acted honorably in the worst of circumstances.
Today, Indians are re-learning languages and remembering food and culture across the country, and the Nez Perce and their Plateau cousins, from reservations and cities across the region, come to dance and sing in the arbor and pray in the new longhouse at the homeland grounds near the town of Wallowa. The photos in our exhibit, and especially the one of Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, are not of vanishing Indians, but of a people and culture still with us, and still watching us.
See most of the show and the photos mentioned here:
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