Thursday, July 15, 2010

Futile Resistance to the Wave

Known by the United States as "Chief Joseph" of the Wal-lam-wat-kain (Wallowa) band of Nez Perce became known for his principled resistance to the removal of his people by United States soldiers under General Oliver O. Howard to a reservation in Idaho.

Hinmuutu-yalatlat became the chief of his band when his father died.  The elder man knew of the white man's thirst for land and warned his son that he was not give in:

The younger man said, "I clasped my father's hand and promised to do as he asked. A man who would not defend his father's grave is worse than a wild animal."

A Stubborn Hinmuutu Removed as Chief

In 1863, a treaty between the United States and the Nez Perce reduced the size of the tribe's reservation in Idaho by nearly ninety percent, from 6,932,270 acres to 748,996 acres.  The "lower" or "non-treaty" Nez Perce viewed this "thief" treaty made by Chief Lawyer and the Indian Commissioners as a sell-out, exactly what the past chief, Hinmuutu's father had warned him about.

In "THE INVALIDITY OF THE NEZ PERCE TREATY OF 1863 AND THE TAKING OF THE WALLOWA VALLEY," by John K. Flanagan, printed in American Indian Law Review, Vol. 24, No. 1 (1999/2000), pp. 75-98, Flanagan states:
Lawyer had been made the "principal chief of the Nez Perce tribe in 1855. It is unclear whether the Nez Perce had actually elected Lawyer or whether he was chosen and then appointed by U.S. government officials.  Nevertheless, Washington Territory Governor Issac I. Stevens and other Americans had "recognized" him as the principal representative of the tribe for the 1855 Walla Walla Council, which had created the very first Nez Perce reservation.
Reflecting on the recent past...

Cherokee Removal Before the Nez Perce

This portrait of Major Ridge was painted by Charles Bird King in 1834.

 This tactic of divide and conquer was typical in Native-American/United States relations.  The Cherokee were split into two factions by government pressures in the 1830s, with the "Ridge" party making a "back-room" deal with the United States that gave away the reservation in North Carolina and Tennessee.  The deal was that the United States would give the "Ridge" party land in Oklahoma for signing the treaty and agreeing to move their entire band.  The main problem with this treaty was that the majority of the Cherokee had never agreed to the removal and felt betrayed by Major Ridge.  The United States negotiators clearly understood the wishes of the non-Ridge Cherokee, but were encouraged to "finish the job" by a Congress heavily-influenced by Andrew Jackson's administration.  Some Cherokee avoided trouble and moved to Oklahoma.  Many did not.  These Cherokee defied the U.S. Troops and hid in the wilds to avoid being forced upon the "Trail of Tears."  This was not easy for the Cherokee who spent years acclimating to white society, developed a complex political and economic structure, an alphabet used in their own newspapers... they even owned slaves like their white neighbors.  But, Georgians wanted their land, lobbied Congress and despite their civilized ways, the Cherokee were still not of the privileged white class.  The final decision was inevitable.

The tide of greed had not yet breached the Mississippi River before the 1830s and the Nez Perce prophetically enjoyed the same trading relationship with the United States that the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, and others had enjoyed before the Indian Removal Act of 1830.  Still, as sociologist Stephen Cornell has noted, any reciprocity which may have existed was "weighted eventually against the Indians."

With the doctrine of "Manifest Destiny"firmly in hand, the United States continued to conquer territory on the steadily-expanding western border... until it reached the Pacific Ocean.  The Nez Perce eventually fell victim to this greed with all other Indian nations.

Peaceful Resistance of Hinmuutu

Executive Order of 1873 was signed by President Grant upon the recommendations of two government agents. John B. Monteith, the U.S. Indian Agent at Lapwai, and T. B. Odeneal, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon, had met with Joseph and his younger brother, Ollokot, to discuss the legal aspects of the Treaty of 1863 and to convince Joseph and his band to move onto an already established reservation.

In 1873, Hinmuutu again negotiated with the militariliy-superior United States to keep his promise to his father and remain on their land.  But, President Grant, ignorant of Indian culture, grew quickly tired of the cultural objections in the negotiations.  Flanagan tells the inevitable results:

In 1875, President Grant rescinded his order and restored the land to the public domain. Any possible fraud in making the Treaty of 1863 did not much matter in the end. The nontreaty Nez Perce would inevitably lose. A decision would eventually be made to give Joseph's band an ultimatum to leave the Wallowa country of Oregon for the reservation in Idaho. By 1877, Joseph's band and other nontreaty Nez Perce would be forced to choose between war and the reservation. In the process of choosing the reservation, a war would begin and Joseph's band would lose the Wallowa country forever.

The United States once again reneged on an Indian treaty and sent General Howard to remove them.  History repeats itself.   Hinmuutu did what was best for his people and peaceably moved.

In 1941, Hinmuutu's band of the Nez Perce brought suit against the United States in the U.S. Court of Claims, seeking rights to regain their homeland.  The federal courts upheld the former "bad treaty" and denied the claim.  However, Flanagan suggests:

... the Court of Claims should have found the 1863 Nez Perce Treaty invalid in so far as it pertained to Joseph's band, and therefore should have recognized that the band had rights in the Wallowa or at least should have awarded the band appropriate compensation. 

In the suit brought by Joseph's band in 1941, the U.S. Court of Claims found that the Treaty of 1863 was valid and held the dissenting minority of Nez Perce bound by the action of the majority of the tribe. The dissenting minority included Joseph's band. The Court basically concluded that Principal Chief Lawyer and others represented the Nez Perce tribe "as an entity," thus making the 1863 treaty binding on the entire tribe. The Court failed to recognize Joseph's band as having rights in the Wallowa country separate from the tribe as a whole. The decision effectively denied Joseph's band any compensation for their land that was taken by the U.S. government and placed
in the public domain.

Bureaucratic double-speak for we win - you lose.  Thousands of words to say absolutely nothing.  The court's decision had already been made decades ago.  The Nez Perce today still fight for whatever piddling rights they still have, salmon fishing, logging, the right to environmental damage by Bonneville Power Administration, the list goes on... the United States attained the status of "superpower."  It's easy to win the game when you're holding all the cards.

The preceding article is provided as thoughtful reflection on the past imperialistic actions of the United States.  These acts are easy to ignore. Most of our ancestors were completely ignorant of these events.  But, would they have objected?  Still... they're history now.  But as George Orwell once said:

"Whoever controls the past, controls the future... but, whoever controls the present, controls the past"

The image of Hinmuttu in a 1901 advertisement.

History repeats itself.  Clearly, the past is instructive for our future, but what happens today is extremely important as to how that past is perceived, indeed as to how that past is transmitted to the future.  Perhaps students of tomorrow will hopefully view our actions in the Middle East today as a continuation of similar actions in the past, of the Phillipines, of Spanish territories in the West Indies and Central America and prevent these actions in the future.

Hopefully, we can learn to be more responsible, to make good decisions like Hinmuutu-yalatlat.


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