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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
At any rate, when the council convened again on June 2, Palmer knew that the Indians’ opposition was hardening, and he made a more forthright appeal to them, stating that, “like grasshoppers on the plains,” the white settlers were coming to this country, and no one would be able to stop them. It simply could not be done, any more than one could “stop the waters of the Columbia River from flowing.” But the land, like the air, the water, the fish, and the game, was “made for the white man and the red man,” and that was why the commissioners wished to have the Indians choose the lands they wanted to keep for themselves before the settlers arrived. “We did not come here to scare you or to drive you away, but we came here to talk to you like men … if we enter into a treaty now we can select a good country for you; but if we wait till the country is filled up with whites, where will we find such a place? … If we make a treaty with you … you can rely on all its provisions being carried out strictly.”
When Palmer was done, Stevens announced that the time had come for the Indians to be heard. There was a pause. “We are tired,” said Five Crows, the Cayuse —half-brother of the Nez Perce Joseph. Palmer assured him that the whites had nothing more to say, and Five Crows then spoke briefly. The Father in Heaven had made the earth, and had made man of earth, but he had given man no gardens to plow, he pointed out to the commissioners—a comment on Stevens’ talk about turning the Indians into farmers.
He was followed by Peopeo Moxmox, who was bursting with anger. “We have listened to all you have to say, and we desire you to listen when any Indian speaks. … I know the value of your speech from having experienced the same in California.” The memory of his son’s murder, never punished, flooded through his mind, but it would have meant nothing to Stevens or Palmer, who were unacquainted with the episode of ten years before. “We have not seen in a true light the object of your speeches … you have spoken in a round-about way. Speak straight. I have ears to hear you, and here is my heart. … You have spoken in a manner partly tending to evil. Speak plain to us. …”
The session ended tensely. The old Wallawalla had been blunt. Moreover, he had embarrassed Lawyer by stating that he knew Craig was putting pressure on the Nez Perces for an immediate answer, without giving them time to think. “The whole has been prearranged,” he said.
What happened among the Indians that evening will probably never be clear. Long after the entire council was over, Stevens claimed that Lawyer had come to his tent alone after midnight. The Nez Perce chief said he had just learned that during the day the Cayuses had formed a plot to massacre all the whites at the council, and that the Yakimas and Wallawallas were now about to join them. The conspirators did not trust the Nez Perces, said Lawyer, and he announced to Stevens, “I will come with my family and pitch my lodge in the midst of your camp, that those Cayuses may see that you and your party are under the protection of the head chief of the Nez Perces.” Lawyer did move into Stevens’ camp, but his story, if indeed that is what he told Stevens, is questionable. Stevens made no mention of it in the contemporary records of the council, and the Indians have always laughed at his later report of the plot. They have insisted that there was no such plan, that Lawyer would not have been so stupid as to move his family to the site of an intended attack, and that more likely the truth of what had happened was that after Peopeo Moxmox’s speech, many of the Nez Perces had turned against Lawyer, and he had left his people for his own safety.
There is no doubt that Lawyer was in a difficult position and that he was frightened. On Monday, June 4, when the council reconvened, Stevens called on him to talk. He spoke in a confused manner, trying not to offend Stevens, but at the same time attempting not to arouse the ire of his Indian listeners. After posing somewhat as an intermediary, and telling Stevens that the Indians were poor and did not want to lose their lands, he pleaded, “There are a good many men here who wish to speak. Let them speak.”
But no one had much to say. Kamiakin stated that he was afraid of the white man; Utsinmalikin said he agreed with Lawyer; Stickus, a Cayuse normally friendly to the Americans, asked Stevens to speak plainly; and Peopeo Moxmox demanded that the commissioners mention the specific lands they were talking about. “You have spoken for lands generally. You have not spoken of any particular ones.” Then Tipyahlanah Ka-ou-pu—"the Eagle of the Morning Light"—rose to review the history of Nez Perce relations with the white men, telling the commissioners of a “brother” whom the Astorian fur traders had hanged many years before “for no offense” at the mouth of the Palouse River. “This I say to my brother here that he may think of it,” he said bitterly. He also told them of the Hat, “my Father,” who had gone to the States with a missionary in 1837 and had been killed during the trip by Sioux Indians, though the missionary had been spared. “His body was never returned … this is another thing to think of.”