Race in America

I don’t know where I first heard or read that history books are often more about the time they are written in than the time they are written about. Several new books on Indians, and specifically the Nez Perce, support the idea.

O.O. Howard and Chief Joseph

I’m only 80 pages into the Vanderbilt professor Daniel Sharfstein’s just published Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard and the Nez Perce War. The first pages take us from the Civil War to Howard’s tenure as head of the Freedmen’s Bureau and responsibilities for the care of four million freed slaves. An early agonizing account follows General Howard, newly appointed head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, as he is dispatched to South Carolina by President Andrew Johnson; his task is to tell freed slaves who had been given “forty acres and a mule” by General Sherman that they must return the land to their former masters. This is a book Read The Article

Another Nez Perce book

Oregon Public Radio’s Dave Miller interviewed Daniel Sharfstein, author of the latest Nez Perce book, Thunder in the Mountains, yesterday on his “Think-Out-Loud” program. That came right on the heels of my reading David Osborne’s just released novel, The Coming, which is the Nez Perce story with William Clark’s Nez Perce son at its center.

Daytime Smoke, William Clark’s Nez Perce son

We know, by the way, that a Nez Perce woman bore Clark a son, Halaftooki (Daytime Smoke), and that he became a tribal elder who hoped his mixed heritage would insulate him from growing conflicts between Indians and white miners and settlers. When conflict broke out, however, he joined the non-treaties, and, as far as I know, died in captivity. Osborne’s book is a fine retelling of that story, with fictional characters and events scattered among the real ones to get Daytime Smoke from birth through the War.

But I digress. This new book, according to Read The Article

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

History counts


It’s an old saw—you learn by teaching. This fall I am teaching a class for the Oregon State University Ag program on the Eastern Oregon U campus in La Grande. The class is “Ecosystems and Pacific Northwest Tribes.”  We looked briefly at the pre-Columbian Americas and the impacts of contact—the “Columbian Exchange”—and then moved on to the pre-contact Northwest (realizing that such a designation is loaded with post-contact geography), the impacts of the fur trade, missionaries, treaties, and settlers, and finally now, are looking at how the region’s ecosystems are working today.
We read a few chapters of Charles Mann’s 1491, a wonderful essay, “People of the Salmon,” by Richard Daugherty in Josephy’s America in 1492, and bits and pieces on the fur trade, treaties, missionaries, and Oregon tribes. This week our reading was the Klamath chapter from First Oregonians, and our guest speaker was Jeff Oveson, long-time executive
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The most famous Indian in America


Note: We just completed a four week examination of the “Wallowa Country: 1855-1900” at the Josephy Center. Teaching is new to me, but four high school juniors and a fine group of eighteen older history buffs, curious newcomers to the Wallowa, and serious students of Indian affairs led me to learn and organize what I am learning as I try to follow Alvin Josephy’s intellectual and emotional  life journey in Indian America. Much has been written about the Nez Perce War and about Chief Joseph; less about his attempts to return to the Wallowa Homeland at War’s end.


There was a time when Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce was the most famous and (mostly) admired Indian in the land.
At the surrender at Bear’s Paw, after the siege and forty miles short of the Canadian border and Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph and his remnant band of Nez Perce and allies
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Alvin and Grace: Nez Perce and settlers in the Wallowa Country

Grace Bartlett left Reed College in 1932 to marry a Wallowa Country rancher. She worked on the ranch, raised children, and apprenticed with Harley Horner, the unofficial county historian at the time. With Horner and on her own, she wrote for the Oregon Historical Quarterly, the Wallowa County Chieftain, the Walla Walla Union Bulletin, and once, on the sockeye salmon, for Sunset Magazine.

When Alvin’s big Nez Perce book came out, Grace quibbled with his descriptions of early people and events in the Wallowas. Alvin told her to “write it,” and she did. In the wonderful and, I am beginning to believe, unique, The Wallowa Country 1867-1877, published in 1976, 11 years after The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest, Grace detailed the 10-year transition of the Wallowa Country from Indian to white occupation.

We learn about the early “open” winter (much like this one) when the whites first brought stock into the Read The Article

Josiah Red Wolf: Nez Perce War vet–and musician

I was digging through the small—and often most interesting—pieces of literature that Alvin collected along the way to his books and work as an advocate for Indians and the earth. Among the conference reports, ethnographic studies, newspaper clippings, and student papers was an article from Westways magazine, September 1977 by M. Woodbridge Williams, “Legacy of Survival.” The piece recounts a 1970 meeting with Josiah Red Wolf, at that time the lone survivor of the Nez Perce War. (When Alvin began his research in the early 50s, there were three: Red Wolf, Albert Moore, and Sam Tilden.)
Angus Wilson, one-time tribal chair and a good friend of Alvin’s, accompanied Woodbridge. Josiah was 98 at the time, but he and Wilson soon had an animated conversation going in Nez Perce—Wilson had to get him off an agitated rant on the treaties.
Red Wolf had been just five years old during the War, had spent a year at Leavenworth and
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