THUNDER IN THE MOUNTAINS: CHIEF JOSEPH, OLIVER OTIS HOWARD, AND THE NEZ PERCE WAR

Who owns history?  The uninformed may claim that victors write history. Of course, the victors try to own history but rarely, if ever, do they succeed.  Daniel Sharftein’s Thunder in the Mountains is a brilliant evocation of this observation. The histories of the Nez Perce war written from 1877 to now, as has the war itself, have become a battleground over the ownership of history.

In Sharfstein’s account, the story has four central characters, the two named in the title:  Chief Joseph and General O. O. Howard and two from the younger generation, one American soldier, and one Nez Perce warrior: Lieutenant Charles Erskine Scott Wood and Yellow Wolf.  All fought in the 1877 Nez Perce war.  Their interwoven lives carry the story of that war far into the 20th century.  We know who won the Nez Perce war, but in doing so the U.S. Army and the larger Anglo-Saxon culture was not able to obliterate other truths and other voices.  Yellow Wolf, a Nez Perce warrior uttered a trenchant summation of his truth in 1933:  “I am telling my story [of] . . . the war we did not want.  War is made to take something not your own.”

Joseph’s Nez Perce band, a small portion of the entire Nez Perce nation, was referred to by the whites as a “non-treaty” band.  Joseph’s vision was to live as horse and cattle raisers, moving with the seasons from the Wallowa Valley along the Snake River into higher ground on the slopes of the Bitterroot Mountains, free of the restrictions imposed by treaty and a reservation existence. The Federal Government’s vision for Joseph’s Nez Perce band was for them to sign a treaty, move onto a reservation outside their traditional grounds, become farmers (not stockmen), learn English, accept Christ and become obedient second-class citizens.

General O. O. Howard, the commander of the District of the Columbia, was charged with carrying out the first steps of the government’s plan. A Civil War general of dubious distinction, Howard’s reputation had been further tarnished because of his over-zealous protection of ex-Southern slaves while director of the Freedmen’s Bureau during the early years of Reconstruction.  Given this opportunity to regain lost status by vigorously prosecuting Federal policy against the Nez Perce, he overcame any civil rights scruples he may have previously had.  His attitude towards Joseph’s band was harsh and uncompromising, an attitude reinforced by his evangelical proclivities.

The result was war and a thousand mile pursuit of the small Nez Perce band beginning in Eastern Oregon and continuing through Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana ending finally when the Nez Perce were brought to bay a few miles south of the Canada Border in October 1877. Success for Howard at last! Not really. It was Chief Joseph who became the celebrated American hero while continuing to seek, for the next thirty years, social justice and legal equality for his people; while continually upstaging Howard by uttering at the end of the Nez Perce war such sentiments as these (in translation since Joseph didn’t speak English): “I want to look for my children and see how many of them I can find.  Maybe I shall find them among the dead.  Hear me my chiefs:  I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.” And, he didn’t, except by speech and by example. It is too much to claim that he ever saw his people granted full civil liberties or social justice within American society. But his contributions to making sure that the victors didn’t write his history entirely from their perspective cannot be discounted.   – Neal Ferguson

Also available by Daniel J. Sharfstein: The Invisible Line, a Secret History of Race in America

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