A Most Satisfactory Council

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Although the arrival of Stevens’ agents in the interior in the spring of 1855 was thus half expected, it caused confusion and disunity among the tribes over what to do. The purpose of the meeting was not told to them, but they were certain that they would be asked to sell some of their lands. Concern spread from band to band, and hurried intertribal councils were called. Kamiakin, a Yakima leader who had welcomed Catholic priests on his land but treasured fiercely his independence and freedom, urged the tribes to refuse to sell any of their country to the whites and to unite in resistance if the refusal should lead to war. Other Yakimas, including two rival leaders, Owhi and Te-i-as, did not wish to give up land either, but they were more timorous than Kamiakin and feared an American attack. Peopeo Moxmox, the elderly headman of the Wallawallas, leaned toward support of Kamiakin. But he had been a long-time friend of fur traders and had served with Frémont during the conquest of California in the eighteen forties. Although a white man had murdered his son and had gone unpunished, Peopeo Moxmox had no hatred for Americans and wanted no war; he agreed that the Indians should resist, but he believed they could fend off Stevens peaceably by persuasive arguments in the council.

Cayuse headmen, including Five Crows and Young Chief, were more fearful. They wanted no land-surrendering treaty, but they and their people had been badly hurt after the killing of the Whitmans, and they hoped for no further fighting with the Americans. A small and fragmented tribe since their punishment, they looked for leadership to the Nez Perces, the most powerful tribe in the interior, numbering at the time more than 3,000 people. But they, too, were divided. The majority was led by a man named Lawyer, a former buffalo hunter converted to Christianity by Protestant missionaries and appointed by government agents as head chief of the tribe. The appointment was contrary to tribal tradition, which recognized the autonomy of every band under its own headman, and it rankled many Nez Perces. Some headmen, like Timothy and Utsinmalikin, were staunchly loyal to Lawyer: others, like Old Joseph (father of the later and celebrated Chief Joseph), James, Metat Waptass, and Red Wolf, sometimes accepted Lawyer as spokesman for all and sometimes did not. A great hunting and war leader, Looking Glass (father of one of the fighting leaders of the Nez Perce war of 1877), had little use for Lawyer and frequently opposed him. Ever since the killing of the Whitmans, the Nez Perce headmen had tugged and pulled over whether to help the other tribes resist the Americans or to be friendly with the whites and keep their own villages and people out of trouble. Lawyer, firmly convinced that the Indians would have to adopt the white men’s ways and accept American domination if they were to survive, had counselled friendship, or at least neutrality, and had so far prevailed. But Looking Glass now angrily supported Kamiakin and was ready to fight the Americans if necessary; many of the other Nez Perce leaders were not quite sure what to do.

As May approached, the headmen of all the tribes gradually came to agreement: they would meet Stevens and listen, at least, to what he proposed. Then it would be seen whether the choice, after all, was sell or fight.

The proposed council site was on the Walla Walla River near the present city of the same name, about midway between the Yakima River country of Kamiakin’s people and the center of the Nez Perce nation near present-day Lewiston, Idaho. Joined by Joel Palmer, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon, who had jurisdiction over the Oregon bands called to the council, Stevens and a large entourage, including a guard of forty-seven soldiers from The Dalles, journeyed up the Columbia past basalt cliffs and barren plains to the Walla Walla River. On May 21, the party reached the council grounds, where an advance group had erected tents, a log storehouse to hold presents tor the Indians, and two arbors of poles and boughs, one to serve as a council chamber, the other, according to Stevens’ son and biographer, Hazard, “as a banqueting-hall for distinguished chiefs, so that, as in civilized lands, gastronomy might aid diplomacy.”