Living on Stolen Ground

Above the Clearwater: Living on Stolen Ground is Bette Lynch Husted’s memoir of growing up on a dirt-poor, white, family farm in Nez Perce Indian country in Idaho. Their meagre plot had once—and long—been Indian country. Nez Perce Reservation lands were reduced by 90 percent from those promised in an 1855 Treaty in an 1863 Treaty. The Allotment Act, which sought to put individual Indians on Individual parcels of land, declared “surplus lands” open to white homesteaders. Whites gobbled up 90 million more acres of Indian land, That, as I recall, was the origin of the Lynch farm.

One can argue that all North American lands—or most—were stolen from Indians. There were some direct “sales,” and early treaties between tribes and the fledgling US government provided compensation and the promise of continuing educational, medical, and economic support for tribal people. As the US moved west, treaty promises were routinely broken, and removal and assimilation legislation, always advertised as being in the interest of the Indians, gobbled up the land and turned it over to homesteaders, railroads, and land grant universities. The “Indian best interests” has left Indians today picking up the pieces and the strands of lost lives and livelihoods.

Land has been at the core of a deep cultural misunderstanding from the beginning. In a book that accompanied an exhibt on Treaties at the National Museum of the American Indian, Kiowa writer Scot Momaday argues that treaties were, for Indians, oral instruments of promise. They were celebrations of peace and friendship in answer to past conflict; the most outstanding historial example being the “Great Law of Peace” promulgated by Deganawida of the Mohawk in 1142. The Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Six Nations, or the Haudenosaunee, were still abiding by it when the US government was formed.

For the Euro-Americans, treaties were, from the beginning, written instruments aimed at land acquisition. Indians had no concept of individual private ownership of land; Euro-Americans did not understand communal ownership, more accurately the non-ownership of land lent to current occupants by the creator. The two sides, oral and written, peace and property, slid past each other in misunderstanding from the beginning.

The land I live on, the Wallowa Country of northeast Oregon, was taken from the wal’wá·ma band of the Nez Perce twice. The Wallowa was part of the greater Nez Perce Reservation established by the Nez Perce Treaty of 1855. An 1863 treaty, after gold was discovered and whites had flooded the reservation, dimished it by 90 percent. The Wallowa was part of the 90 percent—the first takeaway.

Old Joseph and other chiefs refused to sign this Liars Treaty, and Joseph came home to continue life as before. But the land was surveyed and homesteaders began settling. Old Joseph passed away, and his son, Young Joseph, hinmato·wyalahtqit, assumed leadership.

In March of 1873, hinmato·wyalahtqit and his brother, ollokot, were summoned to Lapwai for a meeting with Indian Agent John Monteith and Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon T.B. Odeneal. Odeneal was worried about the ongoing Modoc War, and, fearing that the Nez Perce might stage an uprising, suggested that Joseph and Ollokot move to Umatilla; they refused, and explained again that they had not signed the 1863 Treaty giving up the Wallowa.

In negotiations, both parties agreed to an East-West division of the Wallowa, meaning the Indians would have the Snake and Imnaha rivers, Joseph Creek, and Wallowa Lake, which would accommodate seasonal rounds of hunting, fishing, and gathering, The settlers would have the more agriculturally friendly western half.

But when President Grant’s signed executive order came back from Washington, the division was North-South, with the Indians getting the north half, which included most of the settler claims. Joseph was disappointed, but I think finally grateful that he had a president’s signature on an agreement saying that some of the Wallowa was his.

The executive order also meant that the country was closed for new settlement in 1873—another reason for Joseph to go along. The government appraised settler improvements—”87 settlers and 2 corporations,” with $67,000 worth of improvements.

But no funds came to buy settlers out, the Modoc War ended, and the Executive Order was rescinded in 1875. Some historians say that the change from an East-West division to North-South was a clerical error. My guess is that it was a purposeful change that would make the proposal unacceptable to whites and/or Indians.

And the Wallowa was stolen for a second time from the wal’wá·ma band of the Nez Perce Indians.

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