The “Roaming Nez Perce” on a level playing field

Our national founding documents talk about all men being created “equal,” and many see the history of the country as a gradual expansion of “all men” to include black men—14th Amendment, 1868; women—19th Amendment, 1920; and, in 1924, when they were finally given citizenship in the country that had swallowed up their native lands, Indians.

But maybe we should look at the playing fields rather than the players. Granting citizenship to former slaves didn’t stop the immediate advent of Jim Crow and a century of Southern white control of the playing field—the buses, educational and political systems; the rich lands and rich parts of the economy; it took Civil Rights and voting legislation in the 1960s to get African-Americans tenuous seats at the political and economic tables. And it took Title 9—in 1972—to get women voters into medical and law schools, and, in gradually increasing numbers, into public office. (Although famous for its impact on sports, Title 9 said that any educational programs that used federal money had to be equally available to women.)

The Indian issue is even more complicated, because they were here first, and the immigrant white Europeans wanted/needed their land. According to a new book, Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, in the earliest days, before nationhood, when Indians had land and power, and the English, French, and Dutch had goods, guns, and diseases, treaties were negotiated among peers. And through the War of 1812, when the English and the new Americans vied for Indian support, there were two serious efforts to construct Indian states. But the English and French retreated from America, and the Indians were left on their own—tribe to tribe to tribe—to deal with an advancing white, mostly Anglo-American, population gobbling up their lands. Treaties became one-sided, and quickly abandoned by American power brokers when more land was “needed”—or gold discovered. The playing field grew slippery—but tilted always white.

Anglo-American “Manifest Destiny” was the intellectual cover for filling the continent, and once America had filled up, coast to coast, and had attached Alaska and Hawaii, the great consolidation and sorting out of its residents began: The Civil War; Reconstruction and Jim Crow; and the “Indian Wars” in the West. Anglo-Americans were joined by German, Scandinavian, Italian, Polish, and eventually Asian immigrants. Chinese were imported to help build railroads—and “excluded” when their labor was no longer needed. Slaves were freed—and left in economic bondage as sharecroppers until they too joined the Great Migration North and West. Indians were shunted to the side, on reservations—remnants of their former lands, or forcibly placed on lands totally removed from their original lands, but lands that seemed worthless or of less value to expanding Euro-Americans.

Our Wallowa lands came late to this American saga; the Nez Perce here lived as they had for millennia through the early days of the nation, gladly found and adapted the horse to their cultural practices of seasonal migration, their roamings over great portions of the lands between the Rockies and the Cascades. But fur traders found them, and before them the diseases that passed from them tribe to tribe until in the 1780s great numbers of Indians vulnerable to white diseases died of them before they saw the white carriers.

The fur traders did come, and then the missionaries, the settlers, and the gold seekers. The 1855 Treaty, which left room for a northern railway route, but left the Nez Perce plenty of land, including the Wallowa, had to be rewritten when gold was discovered in Idaho. The 1863 Treaty reduced Nez Perce lands by 90 percent, but as there was no gold in the Wallowa, Chief Old Joseph just refused to sign the treaty and came home.

Not miners, but white stockmen, having had a bad year in the Grande Ronde Valley, spotted grass and brought their stock. Chief Young Joseph was welcoming, thought there was plenty of land for whites and Indians; but of course, more whites came, and the level playing field tilted white. President Grant, in a last-ditch effort at fairness to a people who had always treated whites fairly, thought the Wallowa could be evenly divided, and in 1873 proposed leaving half of the it to the “Roaming Nez Perce of the Wallowa Valley.” The growing white population weighed in, responded with a petition signed by over 200 men—and Grant rescinded his treaty revision. Then there was war, and Indian exile from this homeland.

In an alternative history on more level ground, we might be living in a United States which included the Indian states of “Lenape”—of the Delaware; and of “Tecumseh,” of Shawnee and related tribes in the upper Ohio.

And the Nez Perce would still have a home in the Wallowa.

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