A Most Satisfactory Council

PrintPrintEmailEmail
On May 24, the first Indians arrived—some 2,500 Nez Perces from more than fifty villages extending from the forested foothills of the Bitterroot Mountains in Idaho to the Wallowa Valley in northeastern Oregon. When about a mile distant from the council grounds they halted, and the leading men, including Lawyer, Joseph, James, Utsinmalikin, Metat Waptass, Red Wolf, and several others, rode forward with William Craig, a former mountain man who had been living with the Nez Perces and serving as their agent, to be formally introduced to Stevens and Palmer.

Then, as the chiefs dismounted and joined the commissioners’ party in a reviewing group at the council’s flagpole, the rest of the Nez. Perces started toward them and circled the pole. They made a colorful sight, “a thousand warriors,” wrote Hazard Stevens, drawing on his father’s journal, “mounted on fine horses and riding at a gallop, two abreast, naked to the breech-clout, their faces covered with white, red, and yellow paint in fanciful designs, and decked with plumes and feathers and trinkets fluttering in the sunshine.” They put on a series of equestrian displays for the commissioners, “charging at full gallop … firing their guns, brandishing their shields, beating their drums, and yelling their war-whoops,” and then, after a war dance, filed off to a location a half mile away that had been selected for their camp. Stevens was pleased by the grand show, but he missed part of its significance. It was the Indians’ way not only of according him a salute, but of demonstrating that they were strong and unafraid, and expected to be treated as a powerful people.

Still, some of the most important Nez Perces were not there. Looking Glass and many of the tribe’s ablest warriors and hunters were in the buffalo country. Stevens must have been delighted to receive that information. In the absence of Looking Glass, there was less chance of his encountering difficulty with the more tractable head chief, Lawyer, who in his opinion was “wise, enlightened, and magnanimous … head and shoulders above the other chiefs, whether in intellect, nobility of soul, or influence.”

To the members of the council who were meeting the missionary-educated Nez Perces for the first time, Lawyer and his people were remarkable Indians. “There is an odd mixture of this world and the next in some of the Nez Perces,—an equal love for fighting and [religious] devotion, the wildest Indian traits with a strictness in some religious rites which might shame those ‘who profess and call themselves Christians,’ ” wrote Lieutenant Lawrence Kip, a member of Stevens’ military escort. “They have prayers in their lodges every morning and evening—service several times on Sunday—and nothing will induce them on that day to engage in any trading.” Later, after the council began, Kip was impressed when he learned that “two or three of the half-civilized Nez Perces, who could write, were keeping a minute account of all that transpired at those meetings.” Nevertheless, there was still a gap between those friendly Indians and the whites. When Lieutenant Archibald Gracie, who commanded the military escort, strove to test Lawyer by asking him if he would welcome having Gracie make a brief visit to the Nez Perces’ country, the head chief evaded the question and then answered only, “Perhaps so.” It was a measure of the narrow line Lawyer was trying to walk between accommodating the whites and retaining his hold over his people, but Lieutenant Gracie did not recognize it.

When the Cayuses, Wallawallas, and Umatillas arrived, they were less friendly than the Nez Perces, and, Hazard Stevens wrote, “went into camp without any parade or salutations.” Peopeo Moxmox reflected the deep distrust of these tribes by sending word to Stevens that they had brought their own provisions with them and did not want any from the whites. Even the messenger refused to accept any tobacco for his chief, “a very unfriendly sign,” and rode off muttering, “You will find out by and by why we won’t take provisions.” Soon afterward, Young Chief and several of the other Cayuse leading men rode into Stevens’ camp and, refusing to smoke, “shook hands in a very cold manner.” Nevertheless, Stevens wrote in his diary, “The haughty carriage of these chiefs and their manly character have, for the first time in my Indian experience, realized the descriptions of the writers of fiction.”

Fathers Eugene Chirouse, who had a mission in the Walla Walla Valley, and Charles Pandosy, who had one among the Yakimas, also appeared, reporting to Stevens that all the Indians they knew, except Kamiakin, were well disposed toward the whites. Some Indians had told them, “Kamiakin will come with his young men with powder and ball.” Stevens added Kamiakin to a list of potential “malcontents,” as he called them, that included Peopeo Moxinox and Young Chief; but when the Yakima leader arrived with his brother Skloom, Owhi, and a number of warriors, he shook hands in a friendly manner and sat down for a smoke, although he refused tobacco from the commissioners.

The day before the council opened, Peopeo Moxmox, having insisted that he, Young Chief, Lawyer, and Kamiakin do all the talking for the Indians, asked Stevens for more than one interpreter, “that they might know they translated truly.” When Stevens agreed to the request, the old Wallawalla chief looked around the area at young Nez Perces who loitered about and said with scorn, “I do not wish my boys running around the camp of the whites like these young men.”