One of the pleasures of working in this Josephy Library is coming across material that is relevant today, and that might have been hidden from view for years or decades. So, on and off since Alvin Josephy’s death—almost 20 years ago!—I have poked at a story he told me about a project he had undertaken that did not result in a book.
History’s a complicated mosaic, and the more I read and hear from Indian elders, the more complicated it gets. But also, more interesting. Historians have tales to tell, arguments to make, which means that they sometimes miss the nuances—or even the major protagonists—in their stories. In the texts I grew up with, diseases were missing, climate was missing, and in almost all cases in American history, Indians were missing. They were a sidebar, friendly at first in sharing foods, then hurdles overcome as the nation moved across a continent. Fortunately, new histories are giving us old and neglected stories of the trials of Indians, Blacks, Latinx and Asians—and recounting their contributions to the current world.Read Rich’s Post →
In the fall of 1971, just months into my life in the Wallowas, my mind muddled with the Peace Corps and Washington D.C. lives I’d only recently left, I got a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in the mail from Barb, my old Peace Corps partner. Her note said she was working in a bookstore in Sun Valley, and thought the book was “great but terribly maddening.”
Amidst coronavirus and Black Lives Matter, President Trump has done what the news media and the public couldn’t seem to get to—bring attention to American Indians. Concocting something with the Republican governor of South Dakota, Trump is engineered a Fourth of July celebration at Mount Rushmore, site of the mountain carvings of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt. There’s been a ten-year lapse since the last such celebration due to forest fire danger—but not this year.Read Rich’s Post →
Which president, which time?
|President Ulysses S. Grant|
Indian trails of tears are littered with Presidential lies. We could pick almost any one, but why not take the hero of the Civil War and the man on the $50 bill. He had some interesting dealings with the Nez Perce, so I am somewhat familiar with President Grant’s “Peace Policy” and stated attempts to do better by Indians than had his predecessors.
The Nez Perce had signed a treaty with the nation in 1855 that left them much of their traditional homeland, including the Wallowa Country. In 1863, gold was found on that reservation in Idaho, so the government negotiated a new treaty, centered in Lapwai, Idaho, which reduced the size of the reservation by about 90 percent. Old Joseph and the chiefs of several other Nez Perce bands did not sign, and Joseph went back to the Wallowas, where no gold had been discovered, and where he was briefly left alone.
Grant was elected in 1868. The Wallowa Country, which had been surveyed with the 1863 treaty (during the Civil War!), got its first white settlers in 1871, about the time that Old Joseph died and his son became the band’s headman. The first settlers and Indian hosts tried to get along, though fences and seasonal migrations immediately brought conflict.
Encouraged by the Presbyterian Indian Agent John Montieth (the Peace Policy gave tribal administration to the churches), knowing that Joseph’s Band had not signed the 1863 treaty (and that no Wallowa gold had been found) President Grant proposed a new treaty in 1873, giving the Indians half of the Wallowas. The government went so far as appraising improvements on the way to buying out settlers.
It of course didn’t happen—the “Proposed Reservation for Roaming Nez Perce Indians in the Wallowa Valley of Oregon” died when Indians did not build picket fences and “settle down” on the land and new settlers came into the Valley. The end of that series of broken promises was the Nez Perce War of 1877.
But here’s a new one I just learned about Grant’s dealing with Indians. The article in the March issue of the Smithsonian Magazine is titled “Ulysses S. Grant Launched an Illegal War against the Plains Indians, Then Lied About It.” And here are a couple of pertinent quotes:
“He had no legal reason for seizing the Black Hills, so he invented one, convening a secret White House cabal to plan a war against the Lakotas. Four documents, held at the Library of Congress and the United States Military Academy Library, leave no doubt: The Grant administration launched an illegal war and then lied to Congress and the American people about it. The episode hasn’t been examined outside the specialty literature on the Plains wars…
“In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that the Lakotas were entitled to damages for the taking of their land. The sum, uncollected and accruing interest, now exceeds $1 billion. The Lakotas would rather have the Black Hills.”
And they would rather not have a pipeline either, but that is another series of lies. Here’s the link to the full story on Grant, the Sioux, and Custer:
According to the NY Times, there have been over 30 film crews capturing the events at Standing Rock. Some of them have been there continuously for months; others have moved in quickly for a few weeks to get a story.
A friend who has been there says that the elders have taken charge, that film crews, young environmentalists, veterans—supporters of the Sioux water protectors who have come for whatever reasons—have all listened to local elders and found wisdom and humble roles for their own participation. Or they have moved on.
The issues at Standing Rock have to do with water, and with sovereignty. The calls by North Dakota politicians and government agency workers for abiding by the “rule of law” and respect for “private” property are ironic at best! The Army Corps of Engineers has high-handedly taken land from the Sioux and ignored or abrogated treaties with impunity in its march along the Missouri and its tributaries for decades.
From a recent article in the Washington Post: “Originally, according to the law passed by Congress in 1889, the tribe’s territorial boundary stopped at the low water level mark on the east bank [of Lake Oahe], giving it ownership of the water and river bed. After building the dam, the Army Corps seized strips of land on either side of the river. Those strips are the areas in dispute now, giving the Army Corps a central role in letting Energy Transfer Partners complete the line, or not.”
This long-standing assault on Indian treaty rights—and on Indian Sovereignty as defined by Justice Marshall in the 1830s!—has echoed across the country continuously from the first signings of treaties. Standing Rock is just the latest and currently biggest story, but other recent and ongoing disputes have involved the Garrison Dam, also in North Dakota, the Kinzua Dam in Pennsylvania, and Pyramid Lake in California.
It’s interesting to note that in all of these cases treaty rights and water are tied together. The big gifts from Standing Rock to the entire country might just be the attention to clean water and the involvement of the environmental community in the issue. With hard work and a little luck, the environmental community that has awakened in the Dakotas might follow Indian eyes to the uranium polluted water on the Navajo Reservation and the water fights between tribes and commercial water bottling companies that dot the Western landscape.
“Cool, Clear Water,” as the Sons of the Pioneers sang it, will—or should—continue to be in the news beyond Indian Country as well. It turns out that Flint, Michigan is not the only place in our country with a lead in the water problem. CNN says that 5,300 water systems in the US are in violation of lead rules, and The Guardian claims 33 cities with Flint-like problems. One New Jersey news source claims that 11 of her cities have lead problems worse than Flint’s!
The elders at Standing Rock are teaching us the value of strong wills and just causes; against almost insurmountable odds, the Indians at Pyramid Lake taught all Nevadans to love their Lake again and celebrate the return of the Lahontan cutthroat trout. The Indians on the Umatilla teach us that the first of the “first foods” is water.
Let’s listen together in the New Year to the wisdom of Indian elders, and listen for and celebrate the sounds of cool, clear water.
# # #
There’s no word from Standing Rock in the New York Times or on CNN today. Indians slip into the national news on occasion—and then, on most occasions, slip out as quickly.
Both CNN and MSNBC did report yesterday about an oil spill from another pipeline just three hours from Standing Rock. The spill happened more than a week ago, on December 5. According to CNN,
“State officials estimate 4,200 barrels of crude oil, or 176,000 gallons, have leaked from the Belle Fourche Pipeline in Billings County. Of that amount, 130,000 gallons of oil has flowed into Ash Coulee Creek, while the rest leaked onto a hillside, said Bill Suess, spill investigation program manager at the North Dakota Department of Health.”
Had it been in New York or Pennsylvania, the Times would have had someone on it, and it would not have slipped away from its reporters in just a day. In North Dakota and elsewhere in Indian Country, such national attention is fleeting.
The most recent reports I find in national news from Standing Rock give the government forces a chance to explain their actions. North Dakota’s Congressman Kevin Cramer has taken every opportunity, including an op-ed space in the Wall Street Journal, to criticize the protestors for disrespecting “private property rights,” and the Obama Administration for ignoring the “rule of law” for “political expediency.”
Indians, and especially the Sioux, could school the Congressman on the rule of law and political expediency! Here’s a brief statement from the National Archives:
|Wounded Knee – 1890|
“The Black Hills of Dakota are sacred to the Sioux Indians. In the 1868 treaty, signed at Fort Laramie and other military posts in Sioux country, the United States recognized the Black Hills as part of the Great Sioux Reservation, set aside for exclusive use by the Sioux people. In 1874, however, General George A. Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills accompanied by miners who were seeking gold. Once gold was found in the Black Hills, miners were soon moving into the Sioux hunting grounds and demanding protection from the United States Army. Soon, the Army was ordered to move against wandering bands of Sioux hunting on the range in accordance with their treaty rights. In 1876, Custer, leading an army detachment, encountered the encampment of Sioux and Cheyenne at the Little Bighorn River. Custer’s detachment was annihilated, but the United States would continue its battle against the Sioux in the Black Hills until the government confiscated the land in 1877. To this day, ownership of the Black Hills remains the subject of a legal dispute between the U.S. government and the Sioux.”
I get a glimpse today of what Alvin Josephy must have felt like time and again as he tried to bring the Indian Story to the American public. Looking for his own books in bookstores, he often found them with the “dinosaurs and the insects.” “Indians don’t have history and biography,” he would say. “They have anthropology and ‘natural’ history.”
Which did not stop him from using all the tools at his disposal—his editorial perch at American Heritage; his relations with Knopf Publishing; his standing as an award winning Marine Corps journalist in the Pacific in WW 2—to bring real Indian history and biography, real Indian voices, to the American Public.
I realize that in many ways, now that I sit in my own perch at the Josephy Library, the Sioux were often involved in his truth telling. A long article he prepared for National Geographic did not, due to editorial changes, get published. And I am still looking for a book-length Sioux manuscript he once told me was still publishable. Nevertheless, how he followed events in Sioux Country and what he did publish is substantial:
There was the “Custer Myth” in Life Magazine in 1971, the story of a visit to the Little Big Hole Battlefield with some Indian friends during the time that Alvin served as a technical advisor for the film, “Little Big Man.” In 1971, Josephy pointed out, government interpreters at the National Park site were still calling Custer a hero and the Indians savages!
In 1973, just two years later, and only weeks after the Indian-FBI confrontation on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Alvin published “Wounded Knee and All That: What the Indians Really Want,” in the New York Times. He included a grizzly burial photo of the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee of over 300 Sioux—many, including women and children, were killed in their tipis by Hotchkiss machine gun fire.
And then, in 1990, on the 100th anniversary of the first Wounded Knee, he wrote its historical account for a book published by the Buffalo Bill Historical Center: Wounded Knee: Lest We Forget. I’d suggest that Congressman Kramer, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple, other government and pipeline officials, and especially environmental activists concerned about water and Indian treaty rights, read this brief account of how the Indians standing at Standing Rock came to be there.
Email me to get a pdf of this essay.
|Mass grave at Wounded Knee|