What's Tony Thinking

Seven Reasons Why the Story of Joseph and Nez Perce Has Proven So Enduring, Part 2


(Part One of this blog appeared on August 1)

Three mountains cradle the south end of Wallowa Lake. This glacier-formed lake acts as a resevoir for the Wallowa Valley, the ancestral land of the Joseph Band of the Nez Perce.

To the east (left in photo) is Mount Howard, to the west (right), Joseph Mountain. Between them Mount Bonneville, named for a French explorer. Joseph Mountain, extending northwest, is massive. By comparison, Mount Howard is somewhat dumpy, even forlorn.

Which is fitting summation of how the two historic adversaries, Chief Joseph and General Howard, have fared in subsequent history. Joseph overshadows the man who defeated him.

Still, Howard is a fascinating figure in his own right and a fifth reason for the enduring power of the story of Joseph and the Nez Perce. He commands equal billing in Daniel Sharfstein’s Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard and the Nez Perce War.

Howard came to prominence — and lost his left arm to battlefield amputation — during the Civil War. After that war he was appointed to head “The Freedman’s Bureau,” charged with aiding former slaves to gain land and institutions to support their education and welfare. Howard University, the prominent historic black college, is named after Howard.

But someone forgot to tell Howard that in the corrupt administration of Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, reconstruction was a farce. Howard took his work seriously, but was undermined by Johnson and his lackies. He soon became a lightning rod for seemingly everyone’s ire. Thus an appointment to head the Columbia Department of the Army, and a move to Portland, were welcome.

The respite from the political wars of Washington D. C. was short-lived as Howard soon found himself again in the political crosshairs when charged to resolve the Nez Perce “problem.” Under tremendous pressure from Oregon politicians as well as his own boss, General W. T. Sherman, Howard was nevertheless not without sympathy for Joseph and the Nez Perce. For a time he supported Joseph’s hope to retain the Wallowa Valley. In the end, Howard was really caught in another no-win situation and ended up carrying out Sherman’s order to pursue the Nez Perce relentlessly.

Like Joseph, though to a lesser degree, Howard enjoyed post-war celebrity as a writer and speaker. In retirement, he returned to the task of establishing institutions for African-Americans, even as he sought to protect his reputation from those who portrayed his performance in the Nez Perce War as inept.

But Howard’s “caughtness” points to a sixth reason for the enduring power of the Nez Perce story. The Nez Perce too were caught, caught by historical forces which if not inevitable, were formidable. The westward push of Euro-Americans that began with Lewis and Clark was followed by a rough and tumble legion of trappers and prospectors, the latter responding to rumors of gold in the Wallowas. They were followed by farmers and ranchers, some of whom, like Howard, were veterans of the Civil War looking for a fresh start. 

Joseph maintained a hope for peaceful co-existence with the influx of whites on the Oregon Trail, but he stood against the odds. While some Euro-Americans were reliable partners and sympathetic to the Nez Perce, more railed against them as “savages” and called on the army to drive them to a “reservation.” 

The destruction of one way of life in the face of the incursions of a new and more powerful one is not a story unique to the Nez Perce or even the indigeneous people’s of North America. It is one way to describe what is going on the in the U.S. today, as the hi-tech, digital economy transforms everything in its path.

Over the past 40 years, longtime residents of Wallowa County have seen another way of life — timber — come to end. For much of the twentieth century every town in Wallowa County was a mill town. Logging trucks rolled the roads and the mills were the major employer. Now, not a single mill operates in the County. One continues in Elgin, in neighboring Union County. Another way of life came to an end, not so violently as for the Nez Perce, but still painful for those who had built their lives around it. 

Beyond the logging industry, new pressures on a rural way of life persist in Wallowa County today. Tourism is growing. So too are the numbers of wealthier people from the west-side of the Cascades moving in and building expensive homes and taking land out of agricultural uses.

Which takes us to the seventh reason for the endurance of the Nez Perce story. Wallowa County has increasingly found itself in the northwest and national media spotlight as an “undiscovered secret,” in the words of a Sunset Magazine cover story in 2016. The area has also been the subject of feature stories and op-ed pieces in the New York Times, among others. Meanwhile, the State of Oregon  made the Wallowas one of the highlights of its “Seven Wonders of Oregon” promotion. Big picture ads on the sides of Seattle buses touted the Wallowas this spring. 

With all this attention, tourism has grown and with it in the number of people introduced to the story of Joseph and the Nez Perce. Moreover, the presence of the Nez Perce themselves has been slowly growing. For despite what was arguably a genocidal campaign against them, they have survived, both in Lapwai and Colville. Many continue to practice their culture and traditions. They find a welcome today in Wallowa County at various cultural events and in a management role as Nez Perce Fisheries, now a major player in the County. This past spring elders from the Colville Nez Perce visited County schools to teach about the war and their culture. 

But the legacy of Joseph and the Nez Perce is larger still. Joseph was arguably one of the first Americans to make the case for pluralism, for the possibility of different cultures and ways of life co-existing in North America. Whether or not the U.S. today will embrace or resist such pluralism is a, possibly even the, contemporary question.  

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