A Most Satisfactory Council


There it was: the Indians’ sacred belief in the Earth Mother, a deeply held feeling, already vitiated somewhat by some of the leaders who were trying to adjust to white culture. But Stevens could not see it. Five Crows supported Young Chief, and Peopeo Moxmox —now fighting for the valley of his ancestors, the land where his forebear, the great Yellepit, had welcomed Lewis and Clark and the British explorer David Thompson—told the commissioners that they were treating him as if he were a child or a feather. He wanted to go slower, to have time to think. “I request another meeting,” he asked. “It is not only by one meeting that we can come to a decision.”

Kamiakin, also feeling the pressure that the whites, with Lawyer’s help, were beginning to place upon him, had nothing to say. But Owhi, like Young Chief, reminded the commissioners that God had made the earth and given it to the Indians. Could the Indians now steal it and sell it? “God made our bodies from the earth. … What shall I do? Shall I give the lands that are a part of my body?” When the Yakima had finished, Stevens again asked Kamiakin to talk. It is possible that Kamiakin was thinking of the many unrepresented Columbia River bands that would be moved onto the Yakima reservation if he agreed to the treaty. He had no right to speak in their names. “What have I to be talking about?” he said to Stevens.

Now Palmer was impatient. He told the Indians he could not understand what more information they needed. He and Governor Stevens had informed them of everything the government would give them. “Can we bring these sawmills and these grist mills here on our backs … can we cause farms of wheat and corn to spring up in a day … ?” How long would the Indians remain blind? “We don’t come to steal your lands; we pay you more than it is worth.” Gold had been discovered in the Colville region, he told them. Bad men would soon be coming onto their lands. He and Governor Stevens wanted to protect them. Peopeo Moxmox had asked for another council. But there could not be another council. There was no time. “We want to help you … we want to open your eyes and give you light … we want to make you a good people. Will you receive our talk or will you throw it behind you?”

The tempo was speeding up, and the Indians could sense the hurry. Howlish Wompoon, a Cayuse, glared at Palmer. “I have listened to your speech without any impression. … The Nez Perces have given you their land. You want us to go there. … I cannot think of leaving this land. Your words since you came here have been crooked. That is all I have to say.”

For a moment Palmer tried hurriedly to answer the different objections. Then Five Crows spoke again, looking at the Nez Perces in anger. “Listen to me, you chiefs. We have been as one people with the Nez Perces heretofore. This day we are divided.” At that point, Stevens took over, maintaining the pressure on the Indians that Palmer had begun. “I must say a few words. My Brother and I have talked straight. Have all of you talked straight? … The treaty will have to be drawn up tonight. You can see it tomorrow. The Nez Perces must not be put off any longer. This business must be dispatched. …” The council then adjourned.

That night Lieutenant Kip wrote that in all the Indian camps except that of the Nez Perces there was violent confusion. “The Cayuse and other tribes were very much incensed against the Nez Perces.” But the next day, the commissioners found that the pressure was working. At the council, Young Chief suddenly began to give in. “The reason why we could not understand you,” he said to Stevens and Palmer, “was that you selected this country for us to live in without our having any voice in the matter. … Wait, we may come to an agreement. …” He pleaded, however, for more time to consider a division of the country between the whites and the Indians. He did not want to abandon his own homeland: “the land where my forefathers are buried should be mine. That is the place that I am speaking for. We shall talk about it,” and his words seemed suddenly almost begging, “we shall then know, my brothers, that is what I have to show you, that is what I love—the place we get our roots to live upon—the salmon comes up the stream—. That is all.”

He sat down, but Palmer had good news for him. The night before, as a result of the opposition by the Cayuses, Wallawallas, and Umatillas to going onto the Nez Perce reservation, the commissioners had changed their plans, and Palmer now offered them a single reservation of their own, centering on the Umatilla Valley. In a long speech aimed directly at the recalcitrant headmen, he made many new promises of things the government would do for them personally if they accepted this reservation: “We will build a good house for Peopeo Moxmox, and a good house for the chief of the Cayuses … we will plow and fence ten acres of land for Peopeo Moxmox; we will plow and fence the same for the chief of the Cayuses … we will give him [Peopeo Moxmox] … $500 in money, we will give him three yoke of oxen, wagon and two plows … we give him a salary, and also the chief of the Cayuses $500 a year in money, this to continue for twenty years—the same as is to be given to the Lawyer. …” Moreover, “you will not be required to go onto the reservation till our chief the President and his council sees this paper and says it is good, and we build the houses, the mills and the black-smith shop. … How long will it take you to decide?”