- Historic Sites
A Most Satisfactory Council
That was what the white men called it, but the Indians could see how the wind was blowing. Would they abandon the hunting grounds of their forefathers without a fight?
October 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 6
He went on. The Great Father had done wonderful things for the Indians whom he had moved to new homes. In fact, they were so happy, Stevens said, that he wanted to do the same thing for the western tribes. “This brings us now to the question. What shall we do at this council? We want you and ourselves to agree upon tracts of lands where you shall live; in those tracts of land we want each man who will work to have his own land, his own horses, his own cattle, and his home for himself and his children.” Among the Indians who were absorbing this, he was now in trouble. He may have recognized that he was moving too fast, for he checked himself and switched quickly to a long list of things he wanted to give to the Indians: schools, blacksmiths and carpenters, plows, wagons, saw mills, grist mills, and instructors who would teach them to spin, weave, make clothes, and become mechanics, farmers, doctors, and lawyers. Then suddenly it was out: “Now we want you to agree with us to such a state of things: You to have your tract with all these things; the rest to be the Great Father’s for his white children.” There must have been an awful pause, for according to the minutes, Stevens immediately reverted to his litany of gifts: “Besides all these things, these shops, these mills and these schools which I have mentioned, we must pay you for the land which you give to the Great Father,” he summed up, finally saying, “I am tired of speaking; you are tired of listening. I will speak tomorrow.”
Palmer must already have sensed that the Indians were not reacting well, for he interjected: “It is not expected that we can come together with one day’s talk; nor do we expect you can understand with what has been said all that we want. … Sometimes when people have a matter to settle, they commence way off; but as they understand each other they come together. With us, if we commenced way off, I hope we are a little nearer now, and by and by I hope we shall come quite together.” The minutes show that the Indians made no reply, and the council was adjourned until the next day.
On May 31, Stevens made another speech, repeating several times the many things the Great Father wished to give the Indians. “We want you to have schools and mills and shops and farms … there will be blankets and cloth for leggings … we want in your houses plates and cups and brass and tin kettles, frying pans to cook your meat and bake ovens to bake your bread you will have your own smiths, your own wheelwrights, your own carpenters, your own physicians and lawyers and other learned men. …” He went on, appearing as if he had a compulsion to keep talking about gifts but obviously doing everything possible to postpone coming to the main point, the acquisition of the Indians’ lands. None of what he was saying could have been helpful to him. Save perhaps for Lawyer and a few other headmen, the Indians had not the slightest interest in abandoning their own ways and adopting the white man’s culture. Few of them saw the desirability of acquiring all that Stevens was offering them, but they could see clearly that he was bargaining with promises of gifts—if they sold him what they did not wish to sell.
Eventually, Stevens changed his tack and told them that he planned to make a treaty also with their enemies, the Blackfoot tribes on the Montana plains, and end the Blackfoot menace to their buffalo-hunting parties. The Blackfeet would be friends of the western tribes, but Stevens would want the western tribes to be models for the Blackfeet and teach them how to settle down on prosperous farms like white men. This the western tribes could do to help Stevens.
He then called on Palmer, who spoke as if he did not know what to say. Launching into a talk on “the course pursued by the government towards the Indians on the other side of the mountains,” he gave a long, rambling, and distorted version of the history of Indian-white relations in the East, commencing with Columbus. It was a hodge-podge of colonial and midwestern episodes, showing, if anything, Palmer’s ignorance of what he was talking about. However, it led abruptly to a relevant point, which Palmer recognized was worth emphasizing for several moments: There had always been bad white men, frontier troublemakers, from whom the Indians had needed protection, and there were such bad men now in the Northwest scheming “to get your horses,” and do other evil things to the Indians. “It is these men … who would rob you of your property,” he said, suddenly adding a new idea, “who are giving you advice not to treat with us. Whose councils do you prefer to take? These men who would rob you, or ours who come to befriend you?” These men, he concluded, even married Indian women in order to steal the Indians’ horses. “All such men need watching … who are your friends, such men, or myself and my brother [Stevens] who have come here to act for your good?” On that note, the council adjourned till the next day.
But the council did not meet the next day, “as the Indians,” Lieutenant Kip wrote, “wished [time] to consider the proposals.” It is obvious that in the private meetings among the headmen, the purpose of the white commissioners was clear to all, and Kamiakin and Peopeo Moxmox must have found it easy to muster support for their policy of opposition. The talk of history, presents, and other matters that had clothed the commissioners’ central point—their hope that the Indians would give up some of their country—must, in fact, have angered men like Kamiakin, who would have characterized it as the glibness of crooked tongues.