A Most Satisfactory Council


The line between distrust and hostility was a thin one. Stevens had come to the council certain that “a few determined spirits, if not controlled, might embolden all not well disposed, and defeat the negotiations. Should this spirit be shown,” he wrote in his journal, “they must be seized; the well affected would then govern in the deliberations.” Still, he was an optimist, certain that he could win over men like Peopeo Moxmox without using force. Palmer and some of the others were not so sure. And if it came to force, forty-seven troopers were slim security against several thousand Indians. There was always Lawyer, however, who Stevens understood would keep the Nez Perces friendly to the Americans. Through him Stevens counted on a large force of native allies. The governor cultivated the Nez Perce chiefs and at a banquet for thirty of them piled their tin plates to the brim “again and again.” A mess was maintained for them throughout the council, “and every day was well attended.”

Before the council started, a number of other Indians arrived, including members of several bands that lived along the Columbia, a headman of the Palouses who reported that his people “were indifferent to the matter,” and Spokan Garry, a Christianized Spokan leader from northeastern Washington who came as an observer. Altogether, some 5,000 Indians had finally gathered. On the morning the council was to begin, the commissioners visited Lawyer, who was in great pain from an old wound he had received helping American trappers fight Gros Ventres at Pierre’s Hole in southeastern Idaho more than twenty years before. While they were with Lawyer, Utsinmalikin appeared and told the commissioners that Peopeo Moxmox, Kamiakin, and the Cayuses had asked him and two other Nez Perce chiefs to come to their camp for a council. He claimed he had rebuffed them angrily. “Why do you come here and ask three chiefs to come to a council, while to the head chief [Lawyer] and the rest you say nothing?” he reported having said. The news confirmed to the commissioners that the malcontents were already at work plotting some conspiracy; but it seemed evident also that the friendly Lawyer was still in firm control of the Nez Perces, and there were as many of them as of all the other Indians together.

The council began on the afternoon of May 29. The minutes of the proceedings are astounding to read. The transparency of the speeches of Governor Stevens and Superintendent Palmer is so obvious that it is a wonder the commissioners could not realize the ease with which the Indians saw through what they were saying. One must assume either that their ignorance of the Indians’ mentality was appalling or that they were so intent on having their way with the tribes that they blinded themselves to the flagrancy of their hypocrisy. It was so clear to the Indians, however, that it soon placed Lawyer and the friendly Nez Perce headmen in an awkward position, undermining their ability to cope with the Indians who were opposed to selling their lands; finally even Palmer, more attuned to Indian reactions than Stevens, became embarrassed and realized the harm that was being done.

The council met in iront of an arbor erected near Stevens’ tent. Stevens and Palmer sat on a bench, and the Indians gathered around them on the ground in a large circle. The chiefs sat in the front row, with about a thousand of their people ranged behind them. As the white men spoke, William Craig and the other interpreters translated each sentence to Indian criers, who announced it in loud voices to the assemblage. After the interpreters were sworn in on the first day, it began to rain and the council was adjourned. The next day Stevens opened the proceedings with a speech, praising the individual tribes for their friendship to whites and for their accomplishments in adopting some of the ways of life of the white man. “I went back to the Great Father last year to say that you had been good, you have been kind, he must do something for you ,” he told the Indians. Getting to what that “something” was took him through a long and tortuous explanation. There were bad white men, he said, who made trouble for Indians. But east of the mountains, the Great Father had taken measures to protect his Indian children from the bad white men. He had guided the red men “across a great river into a fine country,” where he could take care of them, away from the troublemaking white men. Stevens even named the Great Father, Andrew Jackson, although he omitted references to the coercion, misery, starvation, and deaths of the “trail of tears” that marked the enforced removal of Indians from their homelands east of the Mississippi. But some of the northwestern Indians were not as uninformed as he thought they were. Delawares, Iroquois, and plains Indians had been telling them for fifteen years of what had happened to the eastern Indians. As they sat and listened to Stevens, the Governor was already beginning to lose ground.