- 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
When the Eagle of the Morning Light sat down, no other Indian wished to speak, and Stevens rose hesitantly to answer Peopeo Moxmox’s question and make clear the specifics of the treaty. Feeling his way carefully, he announced that he had two reservations in mind, one in the Nez Perce country from Oregon’s Blue Mountains to the Bitterroots of Idaho and from the Palouse River to the Grande Ronde and Salmon rivers, and the other in the Yakima country between the Yakima and Columbia rivers. On the first reservation he proposed that the Spokans, Cayuses, Wallawallas, and Umatillas move in with the Nez Perces, and on the second reservation he hoped to gather all the tribes and bands along the Columbia River from The Dalles to the Okanogan and Colville valleys far in the north. Both schemes had been carefully worked out and were already delineated on maps which he showed the Indians. He did not, however, tell them his purposes, which were to select lands for them that no white man yet wanted, and to clear all the areas that the settlers were already eyeing or entering or that he would have to secure for the building of a railroad and wagon routes. Thus, he planned to have the Indians vacate regions like the Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Colville valleys, as well as the Spokan and Palouse countries and the Yakima River valley through which his projected northern railroad would run.
He spent the next two days explaining the reservations more fully, tracing their boundaries on his map, and describing the payments the government would give the tribes for their lands. But he made little headway. With the exception of Lawyer and a few of the Nez Perce headmen whose homelands would be untouched because they would be part of the Nez Perce reservation, the Indians reacted coldly and with bitterness. “There is evidently a more hostile feeling towards the whites getting up among some of the tribes,” Lieutenant Kip noted on one of the evenings, adding that when he and Lieutenant Gracie attempted to visit the Cayuse camp, a group of young warriors stood in their way and motioned them to leave.
In addition to having to surrender much land, none of the tribes liked the prospect of being forced to live together like a single people. Few of the Columbia River bands that were supposed to move in with the Yakimas were even present at the council, and no one could speak for them. But the Yakimas wanted none of them on their lands. Similarly, the Cayuses, Wallawallas, and Umatillas had no intention of moving onto Nez Perce lands, and few of the Nez Perces looked forward to welcoming them. Spokan Carry, merely a witness at the council, sat glumly, worrying about how to inform his people that they would have to join the Nez Perces; Joseph and Chief Plenty Bears, Nez Perce leaders from the Wallowa and Grande Ronde River districts, were concerned that they would have to sell their parts of the Nez Perce domain.
Lawyer conferred privately with the commissioners at night and, after ascertaining that he would receive added benefits and payments befitting his position as head chief, he worked on Spotted Eagle, James, Red Wolf, Timothy, and some of the other Nez Perce headmen and won their approval of the treaty. On June 7, he got up in the council meeting and again played the role of politician and diplomat for Stevens, making a long speech about the history of Indians and white men. In the course of it, he amused everyone with a recital of the story of Columbus and the egg, which the missionaries must have taught him, and then, inadvertently perhaps, revealed that Jim Simonds, a Delaware Indian who lived with the Nez Perces, had related to them how the white men had come steadily pushing against the Indians all across the continent, and now “they are here.” In closing, he expressed his approval of the treaty, but reminded Stevens that the Indians were poor people, and begged him to “take care of us well.”
The spokesmen for the other tribes were smouldering. All of the Cayuses made known their opposition to abandoning their own country and moving in with the Nez Perces. Young Chief, a Cayuse who had already lived through many crises, was angry. What Lawyer could see well, “us Indians” could not see. “The reason … is I do not see the offer you have made us yet. If I had the money in my hand then I would see … I wonder if this ground has anything to say? I wonder if the ground is listening to what is said? … I hear what this earth says. The earth says, God has placed me here. The earth says that God tells me to take care of the Indians on this earth. The earth says to the Indians that stop on the earth, feed them right. God named the roots that he should feed the Indians on. The water speaks the same way: God says, feed the Indians upon the earth. The grass says the same thing: feed the horses and cattle. The earth and water and grass say, God has given our names and we are told those names. Neither the Indians or the whites have a right to change those names. The earth says, God has placed me here to produce all that grows upon me … The same way the earth says it was from her man was made. … God said, you Indians who take care of a certain portion of the country should not trade it off unless you get a fair price.”