Friday, June 17, 2016

Early Nez Percés: Image versus reality

After the Nez Percés treaty of 1855, mentioned in my blog item of about a week ago, white Indian Agents made every effort to downplay the warrior traditions of the tribe. By selling that image they could validate their decision to make what they considered big “concessions” in “giving” the Nez Percés such a “generous” amount of land. After all, they said, “The tribe has always been a friend to the white man,” so they deserve special consideration.

The Agents tried equally hard to sell that notion to the Nez Percés themselves, hoping to counter the glamorous image of those tribesmen who followed the old fighting traditions. Only then could they hope to impose “assimilation” on the bands.

After the 1863 treaty, the Indian Agency stepped up its efforts to sell that image. It was a source of great frustration that they had little success within the bands, although they did fine with whites who wanted to believe that the Nez Percés were becoming peaceful, non-threatening agrarians.

I address this issue in my book, Before the Spud: Indians, Buckaroos, and Sheepherders in Pioneer Idaho.

Here are a couple of excerpts: “… historical records contradict the pacific image [of the Nez Percés]. Recall that when Captain William Clark first met the Nez Percés in September 1805, the ‘great chief’ of that band was off raiding enemies.”

And
“Right into the Seventies [1870s], tribesmen regularly fought east of the Rockies. There, they joined Crow Indians against the latter’s traditional enemies, the Sioux and Cheyenne. Men like White Bird and [Chief] Joseph’s younger brother Ollokot earned impressive warrior reputations.”

To reach their Crow allies in eastern Montana and northern Wyoming, bands of Nez Percés had to cross territory nominally claimed by the Blackfoot coalition. Tribes in the coalition had a notably fierce – and well-deserved – reputation as fighters. Yet it is recorded that they were generally careful to avoid Nez Percés bands unless they had a distinct advantage in numbers and/or weaponry.

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