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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
In May and June, 1855, some 5,000 aroused and suspicious Indians of many of the largest and most powerful tribes of parts of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho met with white negotiators in the Walla Walla Valley of southeastern Washington in one of the biggest and most dramatic Indian treaty councils ever held.
The meeting had been called by Isaac I. Stevens, an impatient, politically ambitious West Pointer and Mexican War veteran who had arrived in the Northwest in 1853 as the first governor of the newly created Washington Territory. In addition, he was the territory’s Superintendent of Indian Aftairs and the leader of the most northerly of four Pacific Railroad Survey groups dispatched by the War Department to find the most feasible route for a railroad to the Pacific.
A dynamo of a man, still only thirty-seven years old, Stevens saw all three of his jobs complementing each other toward a single grand end. As a governor who wanted to build up the population and prosperity of the territory, he was intent on winning congressional approval for the railroad route he had charted from St. Paul to Puget Sound. That meant clearing the Indian owners away from the proposed route: buying what part of their land he wanted, tucking the natives away on reservations, and ensuring the safety of the right of way for railroad builders and travellers. At the same time, the Indian cessions would increase the territory’s public domain and make land available for more settlers. Stevens bore no ill will against Indians, and even fancied that he admired and respected them. But as an instrument of advancing American civilization, he had a job to accomplish, and with a flair for publicity, he expected to win notice in the national capital for what he would achieve.
During the winter of 1854-55, Stevens concentrated on the area west of the Cascades, where the demands of the settlers for land were the most urgent. In four land-purchasing treaties—which he forced on the Indians in rapid-fire succession by promises, cajolery, threats, and fraud—he permanently extinguished native title to almost the entire country bordering Puget Sound. Then he turned his attention to the territory east of the Cascades, sending agents to tribes in that region to make arrangements for a treaty-making council to be held at the end of May, 1855.
Few whites yet lived in the vast interior of eastern Washington, northeastern Oregon, and northern Idaho, but already the country was marked by conflict and unrest. It was inhabited by great horse-owning tribes, including the Yakimas, Klickitats, Palouses, Nez Perces, Umatillas, Cayuses, Wallawallas, and Spokans, as well as by many bands that lived along the Columbia River and its tributaries. Large numbers of the horse owners roamed long distances eastward to hunt buffalo on the plains, but in their home villages all the tribes shared a plateau culture that was based on such foods as fish, roots, and small game.
Lewis and Clark had been the first white men in this country, and for many years after the explorers’ departure, the natives had gotten on peaceably with British and American fur traders. Missionaries had entered the region in the eighteen thirties and pioneer settlers, on their way to the lower Columbia, had passed through it after 1841. The increasing numbers of whites had frightened the Indians. The Cayuses, for example, when struck by measles in 1847, feared a white plot to wipe them out; they turned on their missionaries, the Marcus Whitmans, and murdered them (see “Murder at the Place of Rye Grass” in the August, 1959, AMERICAN HERITAGE).
In a punitive expedition, Americans from the WiIlamette Valley had moved impetuously up the Columbia, hitting many tribes and embroiling much of the interior area in war. By 1850, the whites had withdrawn again to the west side of the Cascades, but great damage had been done. All the inland tribes were uneasy, certain that the Americans woidd return and take their land away from them. When Isaac Stevens had gone through the country in 1853, exploring for a railroad route, the alarm had risen, and rumors had flown from tribe to tribe that the new American “chief” was going to seize their lands. Then, during the winter of 1854-55, reports of the coercion of the Puget Sound tribes had come from anguished Indian friends west of the Cascades.
Although the arrival of Stevens’ agents in the interior in the spring of 1855 was thus half expected, it caused confusion and disunity among the tribes over what to do. The purpose of the meeting was not told to them, but they were certain that they would be asked to sell some of their lands. Concern spread from band to band, and hurried intertribal councils were called. Kamiakin, a Yakima leader who had welcomed Catholic priests on his land but treasured fiercely his independence and freedom, urged the tribes to refuse to sell any of their country to the whites and to unite in resistance if the refusal should lead to war. Other Yakimas, including two rival leaders, Owhi and Te-i-as, did not wish to give up land either, but they were more timorous than Kamiakin and feared an American attack. Peopeo Moxmox, the elderly headman of the Wallawallas, leaned toward support of Kamiakin. But he had been a long-time friend of fur traders and had served with Frémont during the conquest of California in the eighteen forties. Although a white man had murdered his son and had gone unpunished, Peopeo Moxmox had no hatred for Americans and wanted no war; he agreed that the Indians should resist, but he believed they could fend off Stevens peaceably by persuasive arguments in the council.
Cayuse headmen, including Five Crows and Young Chief, were more fearful. They wanted no land-surrendering treaty, but they and their people had been badly hurt after the killing of the Whitmans, and they hoped for no further fighting with the Americans. A small and fragmented tribe since their punishment, they looked for leadership to the Nez Perces, the most powerful tribe in the interior, numbering at the time more than 3,000 people. But they, too, were divided. The majority was led by a man named Lawyer, a former buffalo hunter converted to Christianity by Protestant missionaries and appointed by government agents as head chief of the tribe. The appointment was contrary to tribal tradition, which recognized the autonomy of every band under its own headman, and it rankled many Nez Perces. Some headmen, like Timothy and Utsinmalikin, were staunchly loyal to Lawyer: others, like Old Joseph (father of the later and celebrated Chief Joseph), James, Metat Waptass, and Red Wolf, sometimes accepted Lawyer as spokesman for all and sometimes did not. A great hunting and war leader, Looking Glass (father of one of the fighting leaders of the Nez Perce war of 1877), had little use for Lawyer and frequently opposed him. Ever since the killing of the Whitmans, the Nez Perce headmen had tugged and pulled over whether to help the other tribes resist the Americans or to be friendly with the whites and keep their own villages and people out of trouble. Lawyer, firmly convinced that the Indians would have to adopt the white men’s ways and accept American domination if they were to survive, had counselled friendship, or at least neutrality, and had so far prevailed. But Looking Glass now angrily supported Kamiakin and was ready to fight the Americans if necessary; many of the other Nez Perce leaders were not quite sure what to do.
As May approached, the headmen of all the tribes gradually came to agreement: they would meet Stevens and listen, at least, to what he proposed. Then it would be seen whether the choice, after all, was sell or fight.
The proposed council site was on the Walla Walla River near the present city of the same name, about midway between the Yakima River country of Kamiakin’s people and the center of the Nez Perce nation near present-day Lewiston, Idaho. Joined by Joel Palmer, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon, who had jurisdiction over the Oregon bands called to the council, Stevens and a large entourage, including a guard of forty-seven soldiers from The Dalles, journeyed up the Columbia past basalt cliffs and barren plains to the Walla Walla River. On May 21, the party reached the council grounds, where an advance group had erected tents, a log storehouse to hold presents tor the Indians, and two arbors of poles and boughs, one to serve as a council chamber, the other, according to Stevens’ son and biographer, Hazard, “as a banqueting-hall for distinguished chiefs, so that, as in civilized lands, gastronomy might aid diplomacy.”
On May 24, the first Indians arrived—some 2,500 Nez Perces from more than fifty villages extending from the forested foothills of the Bitterroot Mountains in Idaho to the Wallowa Valley in northeastern Oregon. When about a mile distant from the council grounds they halted, and the leading men, including Lawyer, Joseph, James, Utsinmalikin, Metat Waptass, Red Wolf, and several others, rode forward with William Craig, a former mountain man who had been living with the Nez Perces and serving as their agent, to be formally introduced to Stevens and Palmer.
Then, as the chiefs dismounted and joined the commissioners’ party in a reviewing group at the council’s flagpole, the rest of the Nez. Perces started toward them and circled the pole. They made a colorful sight, “a thousand warriors,” wrote Hazard Stevens, drawing on his father’s journal, “mounted on fine horses and riding at a gallop, two abreast, naked to the breech-clout, their faces covered with white, red, and yellow paint in fanciful designs, and decked with plumes and feathers and trinkets fluttering in the sunshine.” They put on a series of equestrian displays for the commissioners, “charging at full gallop … firing their guns, brandishing their shields, beating their drums, and yelling their war-whoops,” and then, after a war dance, filed off to a location a half mile away that had been selected for their camp. Stevens was pleased by the grand show, but he missed part of its significance. It was the Indians’ way not only of according him a salute, but of demonstrating that they were strong and unafraid, and expected to be treated as a powerful people.
Still, some of the most important Nez Perces were not there. Looking Glass and many of the tribe’s ablest warriors and hunters were in the buffalo country. Stevens must have been delighted to receive that information. In the absence of Looking Glass, there was less chance of his encountering difficulty with the more tractable head chief, Lawyer, who in his opinion was “wise, enlightened, and magnanimous … head and shoulders above the other chiefs, whether in intellect, nobility of soul, or influence.”
To the members of the council who were meeting the missionary-educated Nez Perces for the first time, Lawyer and his people were remarkable Indians. “There is an odd mixture of this world and the next in some of the Nez Perces,—an equal love for fighting and [religious] devotion, the wildest Indian traits with a strictness in some religious rites which might shame those ‘who profess and call themselves Christians,’ ” wrote Lieutenant Lawrence Kip, a member of Stevens’ military escort. “They have prayers in their lodges every morning and evening—service several times on Sunday—and nothing will induce them on that day to engage in any trading.” Later, after the council began, Kip was impressed when he learned that “two or three of the half-civilized Nez Perces, who could write, were keeping a minute account of all that transpired at those meetings.” Nevertheless, there was still a gap between those friendly Indians and the whites. When Lieutenant Archibald Gracie, who commanded the military escort, strove to test Lawyer by asking him if he would welcome having Gracie make a brief visit to the Nez Perces’ country, the head chief evaded the question and then answered only, “Perhaps so.” It was a measure of the narrow line Lawyer was trying to walk between accommodating the whites and retaining his hold over his people, but Lieutenant Gracie did not recognize it.
When the Cayuses, Wallawallas, and Umatillas arrived, they were less friendly than the Nez Perces, and, Hazard Stevens wrote, “went into camp without any parade or salutations.” Peopeo Moxmox reflected the deep distrust of these tribes by sending word to Stevens that they had brought their own provisions with them and did not want any from the whites. Even the messenger refused to accept any tobacco for his chief, “a very unfriendly sign,” and rode off muttering, “You will find out by and by why we won’t take provisions.” Soon afterward, Young Chief and several of the other Cayuse leading men rode into Stevens’ camp and, refusing to smoke, “shook hands in a very cold manner.” Nevertheless, Stevens wrote in his diary, “The haughty carriage of these chiefs and their manly character have, for the first time in my Indian experience, realized the descriptions of the writers of fiction.”
Fathers Eugene Chirouse, who had a mission in the Walla Walla Valley, and Charles Pandosy, who had one among the Yakimas, also appeared, reporting to Stevens that all the Indians they knew, except Kamiakin, were well disposed toward the whites. Some Indians had told them, “Kamiakin will come with his young men with powder and ball.” Stevens added Kamiakin to a list of potential “malcontents,” as he called them, that included Peopeo Moxinox and Young Chief; but when the Yakima leader arrived with his brother Skloom, Owhi, and a number of warriors, he shook hands in a friendly manner and sat down for a smoke, although he refused tobacco from the commissioners.
The day before the council opened, Peopeo Moxmox, having insisted that he, Young Chief, Lawyer, and Kamiakin do all the talking for the Indians, asked Stevens for more than one interpreter, “that they might know they translated truly.” When Stevens agreed to the request, the old Wallawalla chief looked around the area at young Nez Perces who loitered about and said with scorn, “I do not wish my boys running around the camp of the whites like these young men.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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?”
The new promises had their effect. The Wallawalla, Cayuse, and Umatilla spokesmen were won over, and Peopeo Moxmox promised to go on the reservation as soon as his new house was built. Stevens was delighted, and ordered the treaties prepared for signature. Only Kamiakin and the Yakimas still held out. But suddenly, wrote Lieutenant Kip, “a new explosive element dropped into this little political caldron. Just before the Council adjourned, an Indian runner arrived with the news that Looking Glass, the war chief of the Nez Perces, was coming.” It is probable that both Lawyer and Stevens were thrown into confusion. Stevens recovered quickly. “I am glad Looking Glass … is coming,” he announced. “He is a friend of Kamiakin … he has come away from the Blackfeet … let his first glance be upon you sitting here. When he is close by two or three of us will go and take him by the hand and set him down by his chief in the presence of his friend Kamiakin. Let us now have Kamiakin’s heart.”
The Yakima’s reply, at last, was one of submission. But it indicated that he had received a dressing down from the other Yakima chiefs, Te-i-as and Owhi, who had told him that they intended signing the treaty. The significance of what he had to say was apparently not noticed by Stevens and Palmer. Let the Americans settle down by the Yakima Valley wagon route, Kamiakin said. Let them settle about the road so that the Indians may go and see them. “I do not speak this for myself; it is my people’s wish. Owhi and Te-i-as and the chiefs. I, Kamiakin, do not wish for goods for myself. The forest knows me. He knows my heart … I am tired. I am anxious to get back to my garden.”
So Kamiakin capitulated, and after him Joseph, Red Wolf, and Skloom spoke. Joseph appealed to the commissioners to think of the future generations of Nez Perces, and to be certain to include his Wallowa land in the Nez Perce reservation. Red Wolf asked that William Craig be allowed to stay with the Nez Perces “because he understands us … when there is any news that comes into the country we can go to him and hear it straight.” Skloom, Kamiakin’s brother, asked merely that the Americans pay what the Yakimas’ land was worth. Stevens agreed, and on a note of complete victory announced that the treaties would be signed next day. Then he adjourned the council.
A few minutes later the Indians hurried off to meet Looking Glass, who came riding onto the council grounds with three elderly Nez Perce buffalo-hunting chiefs and a retinue of about twenty warriors. Their arrival created a commotion. All were in buffalo robes and were painted for war. They had been in fights with the Blackfeet and had heard of the council when they got back from the plains to Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. Looking Glass had left most of his band behind to travel slowly, and with a small group had hastened across the Bitterroots by the Coeur d’Alene route. As Stevens and Palmer came up to meet them, they noticed that one of the warriors carried a staff from which dangled a Blackfoot scalp. Looking Glass received the commissioners coldly. He looked around at the Indians, and launched suddenly into a tirade: “My people, what have you done? While I was gone, you have sold my country. I have come home, and there is not left me a place on which to pitch my lodge. Go home to your lodges. I will talk to you.”
All of Stevens’ work fell suddenly apart. The seventy-year-old war chief—“old, irascible, and treacherous,” Stevens called him—heaped scorn that night on the headmen who had agreed to sign the treaty. The next day, June 9, Lawyer told Stevens that Looking Glass would probably calm down in a day or two, but Stevens’ determination had now risen, and he had no intention of letting Looking Glass defeat him at the last moment. Before the council started, the Governor met privately with Peopeo Moxmox and Kamiakin and won promises from them to abide by their word and sign the treaties. Then he asked Kamiakin for a list of the tribes over which he had authority as head chief. The Yakima, according to Stevens’ secretary, James Doty, named a number of tribes, but the only one other than the Yakimas that Doty recorded at the time was the Palouse.
When the council reconvened, Stevens presented the Indians with finished versions of the treaties for the three reservations, all ready to be signed. With studied indifference to Looking Glass, he reviewed what the treaties said, reminding the chiefs that they did not have to move their people onto the reservations “for two or three years.” Certain points were glossed over: Kamiakin, for instance, was to be considered the head chief of a long roster of Columbia River bands that were not present, but whose people Stevens wished to move onto the Yakima reservation, out of the way of the whites. Stevens was talking quickly, and probably did not even reveal the role he was assigning Kamiakin, for the Yakima would not willingly have accepted it, and it is not likely that he had included those bands in the “list” he had given Stevens and Doty earlier that morning. All of them had their own headmen, and Kamiakin had nothing to do with their affairs. But Stevens brushed past the point and kept talking. He offered to read the treaties, article by article, but told the Indians that they had heard everything in them, “not once but two or three times.” Then he asked if anvone still wanted to speak.
That gave Looking Glass his chance. He did not tell white men where to go, he snapped at Stevens angrily, and if anybody was going to tell his people where to go, it would be he, not a white man. “I am going to talk straight,” he said. He looked around, pointing to the other headmen. “I am not like those people who hang their heads and say nothing.” He paused a moment, and Young Chief suddenly said, “That is the reason I told the Governor to let it be till another time. . . ." Stevens patiently cautioned Young Chief to let Looking Glass finish. The old war chief suddenly ran his finger along Stevens’ map, outlining the borders of the Nez Perce lands as they then stood. That was the reservation he wanted for the Nez Perces. It was a stratagem that Kamiakin, Peopeo Moxmox, and Looking Glass had originally devised. They would designate all their lands as reservations, and there would be no country to sell. Then he asked for a second council, later on. One of the Nez Perces, a follower of Lawyer named Billy, called out that that was just putting it off. He was answered by Metat Waptass: “Looking Glass is speaking. We look upon him as a chief.”
“I thought we had appointed Lawyer our head chief, and he was to do our talking,” Billy replied.
Stevens and Palmer both tried to argue with Looking Glass, but to no avail. The war chief argued for his line, not the one defined in the treaty. Stevens turned away from him to ask the tribes if they were ready to sign. “What the Looking Glass says, I say,” said Young Chief. “I ask you whether you are ready to sign?” Stevens repeated, “The papers are drawn. We ask are you now ready to sign those papers and let them go to the President.”
”. . . to the line I marked myself. Not to your line,” Looking Glass insisted.
Stevens faced the old war chief. “I will say to the Looking Glass, we cannot agree.”
“Why do you talk so much about it?” Palmer snapped angrily at the Nez Perce.
“It was my children that spoke yesterday, and now I come . . .” said Looking Glass.
Stevens sat back resignedly, as Palmer argued with the old man. It did him no good. “I am not going to say any more today,” Looking Glass said. Stevens finally adjourned the council, urging Looking Glass to think the matter over and talk to the other Nez Perces.
After the meeting, Peopeo Moxmox signed the treaty for the Wallawallas. Stevens maintained that Kamiakin also signed, having “yielded to the advice of the other [Yakima] chiefs.” But Kamiakin later insisted that he only made a pledge of friendship by touching a little stick as it made a mark. Later in the evening, Lawyer came to see Stevens, and told him that he should have reminded Looking Glass that he, Lawyer, was the head chief, that the whole Nez Perce tribe had said in council that he was the head chief, and that the tribe had agreed to the treaty and had pledged its word. Stevens, he said, should have insisted that the Nez Perces live up to their pledge.
“In reply,” Stevens wrote, “I told the Lawyer . . . your authority will be sustained, and your people will be called upon to keep their word. . . . The Looking Glass will not be allowed to speak as head chief. You, and you alone, will be recognized. Should Looking Glass persist, the appeal will be made to your people. They must sign the treaty agreed to by them through you as head chief. . . .” Lawyer then went to the Nez Perce camp, and in a stormy council that lasted through most of the next day managed to muster enough support to reaffirm his position as head chief. Looking Glass apparently accepted his position as second to Lawyer in the council, and the headmen drew up a paper that pledged the tribe to honor its word to Governor Stevens.
Early on the morning of June 11, Stevens told Lawyer that he was about to call the council. “I shall call upon your people to keep their word, and upon you as head chief to sign first. We want no speeches. This will be the last day of the council.” Lawyer assured him that that was the right course, and that was the way it finally happened. The council convened, Stevens reminded the Nez Perces that they had all originally agreed that Lawyer was their head chief and spokesman, and that Lawyer had given his word to the treaty. “I shall call upon Lawyer the head chief, and then I shall call on the other chiefs to sign. Will Lawyer now come forward.”
Lawyer signed. Then Stevens called on Looking Glass and Joseph, and both of them stepped up and made their marks without a word. The other Nez Perce headmen followed in a line, and after them, the Cayuses signed their treaty.
“Thus ended in the most satisfactory manner this great council,” Stevens wrote in his journal.
How satisfactory it soon became apparent. Stevens himself violated its terms at once, announcing through the newspapers of western Washington and Oregon that the treaties had opened for immediate settlement all Indian lands east of the Cascades except areas specifically reserved for the Indians. No treaty had yet been ratified in Washington, D.C.; no provisions had yet been made for moving the Indians; no terms had yet been carried out by the whites. It made no difference. Miners and settlers entered the Indians’ lands. The tribes smouldered, thought of how they had been dictated to and then betrayed. Angry young Yakimas began to warn the trespassers. Killings followed, and by fall, 1855, the entire country was aflame.
Armies scoured the lands of the Yakimas, Palouses, Wallawallas, Cayuses, Umatillas, Spokans, Coeur d’Alenes, and numerous other peoples till the close of 1858. Both sides counted victories and losses, and both sides had a great number of dead and wounded. In the fighting, many of the headmen, including Peopeo Moxmox and Owhi, were killed. When the battles had ended, the tribes had been smashed, the people had been herded onto reservations or driven into hiding (Kamiakin had retreated to exile in Canada), and most of the land they had fought to save was lost.
Some of the Nez Perces, still under Lawyer’s domination, even helped the Americans. Looking Glass and his followers fussed and fumed, but Lawyer sent volunteers to fight the other tribes. The Nez Perces’ turn to fight Americans came twenty years later. Alone then, without allies, the generation of the young Chief Joseph fought to save its own homeland from a new generation of whites—and also lost.
Stevens lost too. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, a southerner, would have nothing to do with a northern railroad route. His determination to build across the South created a stalemate until the Civil War. Then northerners, finally in control of Congress, chose the central route to the Pacific. By that time Stevens, a Union officer, was dead, killed at Chantilly in 1862.