Another Nez Perce Book

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 Read The Article

Disease, religion, and the “here and now”


Smallpox didn’t rate a line in the ‘Western Civilization textbook that I used in 1961—The Course of Civilization, by Strayer, Gatzke, and Harison.  In fact, the Plague, or Black Death, which some now think wiped out a third of Europe’s population in the mid fourteenth century, gets less than a page. Ironically, the disease is credited with preceding and influencing “bloody peasant rebellions…, senseless civil wars,” and “the witchcraft delusion,” in which “innocent men and women were falsely accused of practicing black magic.”
Prior to Alfred Crosby’s linking biology to traditional history, I guess that was par for the course: history was wars and politics; disease was for the biologists and epidemiologists to discover and discuss, and poets to mourn. Mention was brief and, like the Salem Witch Trials, a sideshow left to novelists and preachers to explore.
Even without the plague, life in medieval Europe—for the more than 80 percent
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The Whitman Massacre—a Truer History


Some days I just want to shout at Alvin—Is this what you meant?
After a few years wrestling with his writing and remembered conversations, poking through the books and journals he left to the Josephy Library—the Oregon Historical Quarterlies are gold mines!—and reading “new” historians Crosby and Mann, I might be getting a grasp on what Alvin meant by “leaving the Indians out of American History.”
They are, Alvin said, always a “sideshow,” helpers and combatants in first European colonization of the “new” (to Europeans) world, allies and enemies in early confrontations with British settlers, obstacles to be overcome on the path to settling the North American Continent, and always, by some Euro-Americans, people to be looked after, cared for as children on their way to civilization as their own cultures naturally vanished. Indians have rarely been treated as primary actors in the historical narrative, agents on their own behalf and/or cooperators
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More on Nez Perce gardens and fur traders


I argued against missionary Spalding as the original source of Wallowa Nez Perce gardens in my last blog post, went on a laborious journey through Spokane House, Spokane Garry, the Church of England, and the fur trade as alternative sources of seeds and irrigation techniques. And then got onto the thought that this all happened with people and players—Hudson’s Bay, the North West Fur Company, David Thompson—who end up being on the Canadian side of history, so do not get attention in standard USA history books.

I think that last line is quite true, but my circuitous argument about Spokane Garry and his time at the Red River School under the Anglicans probably was too much. Friend and long-time historian of the fur trade John Jackson—Children of the Fur Trade—made it all simpler in a brief response to my post:

“The curmudgeon can’t resist pointing out that the early Nor’westers
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