White Men Writing about Indians

Nez. Perce Reservations: 1855, 1863, 1873

I’ve been writing Josephy Library blog posts for ten years, telling stories of lies, outrages, and omissions regarding Indians in American history. From time to time, I’ve thought I should make a book, comb and clean the posts up a bit, sometimes combine a couple or three of them, write a few new episodes in my own growing understanding of a broader and more inclusive American history.

When I mentioned this to a publisher friend, he told me that Indian stories are indeed in demand, but people want to hear from Indians themselves, not from white interpreters. I stepped back from the book idea, but have continued to post on this blog, and I continue to bring Indians and their stories to the Josephy Center where I work. In fact, we recently put up an exhibit on “Nez Perce Treaties and Reservations From 1855 to Present.”

I worked hard on the exhibit, tested ideas and language with elders, and had the constant help of Nez Perce descendent David Liberty. David has hard feelings about the Treaty of 1863, and wanted a place to say so, and to advocate for its annulment. We also asked three Nez Perce artists, Kellen Trenal, Phil Cash Cash, and Kevin Peters, to respond to the treaties with their art. Their beautiful work is incorporated in the exhibit.

But still, I’m a white man. Is it right for me to write stories and curate exhibits about Nez Perce/Indian history and culture?


Here’s an answer and a reason: I am in a stream of white men and women who have written critically about American history—because we, Euro-American white people, are the ones who wrote the treaties, broke the treaties, made the laws that forced assimilation and land loss, insisted on our religion, and in all other ways dispossessed a continent of 500 Indian nations. And we kept records! The treaties, laws, and court rulings are in documents and books. The meeting minutes that attended treaties, the accounts that accompanied Indian removal, and the orders that demanded that the Nez Perce leave the Wallowa, are all in writing.

White warriors wrote accounts of their battles, sometimes praising their Indian adversaries. And close accounts were kept on spending; we know which treaty obligations were met and which were not. Maps of reservations and reservation diminishments are easily available; we know, for instance, that Indians lost about 90 million acres with the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887, which sought to make Indians individual land owner-farmers.

Two recent books of American history, written by white men and featuring Indians, leap to mind. Claudio Saunt’s Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory, is a vivid account of the ten brutal years of Indian Removal. It’s a damning title, and he means it. The Cherokee, Choctaw, Cree, Seminole, Potawatomi, and other tribes still living east of the Mississippi in 1830 were driven—in wagons, boats, horseback, and on their feet–to a vague Indian Territory. Saunt documents the stealing of Indian lands through the machinations of Southern slave-holding cotton farmers, Northern capitalists, politicians and Indian haters in excruciating detail. A hundred pages of notes; white men kept records.

Blaine Harden’s Murder at the Mission: A Frontier Killing, Its Legacy of Lies, and the Taking of the American West, is a recent and powerful re-interpretation of the standard Euro-American history of four missionaries—Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and Henry and Eliza Spalding—who came to live and preach among the Cayuse and the Nez Perce.

Whitman was totally unsuccessful at missionizing, so sought to fill the Walla Walla valley with white settlers. Eliza—the most empathetic one of the four—and Henry did convert hundreds of Nez Perce. But Henry was never a popular man with church or government authorities, and when measles, the murder of the Whitmans, and the Spaldings’ subsequent rescue by a Catholic priest and relocation west of the mountains left Henry without prospects, he promulgated a string of lies about the Whitmans and the Indians that helped recruit settlers to the Northwest and establish and fund Whitman College. Harden explores a rich trove of white-written history and journalism that has been there but ignored and denied by people in power, and, just as importantly, he interviews Cayuse descendants today about the continuing impacts of this legacy of lies.

Our current exhibit on Nez Perce treaties and reservations is really the story of Euro-American actions—sometimes friendly, holding out hope for accommodation and sharing, sometimes hostile and conniving, but always taking land. Indians are in the stories, resisting as they can, and only, with supreme diplomatic and fighting skills and fierce attention to old promises and the land itself, surviving and thriving from 1855 to the present day.

At the exhibit opening, Artist Kellen Trenal asked us to listen to the treaty words aloud, as his ancestors were forced to do, reading from the highlighted treaty words displayed on a framed rawhide he’d painted and beaded.

The Nez Perce, and Indians across the Americas, have survived a flood of white words. It’s time to listen to them, but time for white self-understanding and confession too.

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  1. Why do you continue to use the word Indian? Why not indigenous or Nez Perce or nimiipuu?

  2. Thanks for the question, Laura. Most Indian people I know refer to themselves as Indian. Native American–or more often just “Native” works as well. And always the primary identification is with a tribe or band–Cayuse-Nez Perce; Lakota, etc. I always listen for the identifications from the people I am with. Indigenous is left to the academics in my experience, or when talking about relationships with peoples from other places, e.g. Hawaiians, Maoris… But it is always ok to ask..

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