WITH THE NEZ PERCES
Alice Fletcher in the Field, 1889-92
by E. Jane Gay
Briggs tells us that the white people generally are greatly
excited over the "opening of the Reservation," as they call it. The
newspapers are swelling the excitement with fabulous accounts of the
riches "locked up" in the Indian land, and men are actually, at this
early date, flocking into the nearby towns, so as to be ready to "go
in" when the rush comes. But the people who show the most interest in
us are the cattlemen of the vicinity.
A good many of them have come in person to announce their wishes
and to "sound" the Special Agent as to her purpose. What they want to
know is: Are they to be defrauded of their rights to free grazing on
the Reservation; is the cutting up of the Indian's land into homes
for the people to cut also into the ranges of these cattlemen, or
will Her Majesty kindly locate the Nez Perces down in the canyons
where they belong? They are embarrassed, these "bold highwaymen," as
the Cook calls them, not knowing how to "approach" a lady.
It is a study to watch Her Majesty as she listens so respectfully
to their intimations; the way she persistently misunderstands them,
taking it for granted that they desire above all things the welfare
of the Indians; the obtuseness of her to the hints of what might be
"to her interest" which are quietly let fall, and are as innocuous as
rain drops upon a placid lake. The men hang about day after day, with
profuse expectoration, and finally go away. Her Majesty bidding them
a cheerful adieu with an encouraging word about the better times
coming, when there will be a reign of law and order in the country,
which does not always call up a pleasing prospect in the mind of the
cattlemen. One of them lost his self-control in the enforced
contemplation of such an innovation.
"Law!" said he, with what the Cook calls "border emphasis," "Law!
____ it; what do we want with law? We don't want no law. Never had no
law; we've got along so far taking care of ourselves; we done as we
wanted to and ain't got no use for law in this country."
* * *
I suppose I am expected to tell you something about our special
work; what progress we are making in the allotting of the Indian's
We started from Washington with instructions which read easy.
"Anybody can allot Indians," said a callow clerk to me one day.
I did not argue with him. I only said, "I suppose you first catch
your Indians." He stared at me and I saw that he expected them to be
found, all in a row at the Agency, waiting in immovable patience to
be labelled in consecutive order and numbered upon the nicely
photographed plates furnished by the department. He was dumb when I
spoke of "catching" his Indians.
We have now been on the Reservation long enough to have gained an
inside view of the peculiar workings of the Agency System, and have
learned, as well, the difficulties in the way of our just dealing
with the Indians in the matter of their allotments.
We were told that the Nez Perce tribe numbered from eight hundred
to two thousand souls and we were to convince them, man, woman and
child, of the desirableness of breaking their tribal relations,
giving up their tribal rights under U. S. treaty, for American
citizenship and a very moderately sized farm cut out of their tribal
There might be a little time consumed in this simple preliminary
work, but that accomplished, things would move quickly.
"It is not going to be a long job," said the callow clerk, "The
Indians are all ready for allotment."
A good many other people said pretty much the same to us. Some,
who did not live in Washington, seemed to believe that the wards of
the Nation under its paternal care had been led quite out of
barbarism up to the very gate of citizenship, that we had but to open
the gate and they would tumble over each other in their haste to come
Well, my dear J., here we are and it is lonesome, it is queer, and
the longer we stay the queerer it grows. Our energies are worn out in
trying to get a start. There is no fulcrum whereon to rest a lever,
no reliable data to be found. We are in an irresponsible world, where
everything hangs in the air -- and the air is full of ominous rumors.
It is a significant fact that we have had to go off the
Reservation to find the first man who knows anything about the Nez
Perce tribe. He is a little wiry Scotchman "of meek demeanor and
strong sense," who served in the Joseph war, fought the Indians with
all his might, became interested in them, and ended by becoming their
fast friend. We found him in Lewiston, working for the most important
merchant of the place.
"Yes," said he, "I know the Nez Perces and they know me." He
expressed a grave concern for the condition of things on the
Reservation, saying that "the Nez Perces are men and not to be
trifled with, but easily managed by fair play. I am fond of them as
of my own children."
Mr. McConville offered every assistance in his power to give Her
Majesty. He advised me to have great patience as it would take time
to win the confidence of the Indians, without which the proper
accomplishment of her work would be impossible.
"And the soldiers might have to be sent for," suggested the Cook.
"God forbid," said the Scotchman, himself an old soldier.
* * *
June 29th, 1889
When I last wrote, we were expecting the Indians to meet us in
council the coming Monday. We were told that the prospect of a
council always "brought them in," but we had so universally found
them out on our various expeditions to their nominal homes and had
met with so slight a trace of human occupancy anywhere, that but for
the one fact of having seen a church full at the Agency on Sundays,
we might have come to the conclusion that the Nez Perce tribe was a
myth. There are so many things in the conduct of Indian affairs that
have nothing more tangible than a name to live; so many opinions
concerning the red man not warranted by facts; so many orchid ideas
growing in the air; so many parasitical beliefs hanging on to
inherited prejudices, that it would not have greatly surprised us if,
on going over to that council room, we should have found it filled
with nothing more substantial than U. S. Indian treaties.
But the Nez Perces were there, a handful of them; enough to fill
the small room and overflow about the doorway.
It does not seem as if there could be anything in that room to
impress very deeply an allotting agent... There is tangible silence
within; dark forms are ranged against the walls, some on wooden
benches, others standing, and some prone upon the floor. The attitude
of all is simply that of waiting -- waiting to know what is wanted of
You catch no inspiration from their faces as you are introduced by
the agent in charge, but you make a little speech as graciously as
you are able. There is no halfway meeting of your overtures; only the
silence which can be felt.
You read the Severalty Act and explain its provisions. You think
you make it plain but the rows of old red sandstone sphinxes make no
sign. Their eyes are fixed in stony dumbness. They never heard of the
"Dawes' Bill"; they cannot take it in.
Imagine yourself, some bright May morning, sitting out upon the
horse block in your back yard, waiting for breakfast in that calm
state of mind induced by early rising and the prospect of a savory
meal. Before you lie broad acres, your own well tilled fields, that
were your fathers' before you. They have been in the family for many
generations; so long that it has never come into your mind that they
could ever be any where else. In retrospect you behold the bent forms
of your aged grandparents, standing amid the heavy topped wheat,
ripened like themselves; and glancing down the future, you see the
children of your boy Tom playing out there upon that sunny knoll
among the buttercups and daisies, when you are awakened by the slam
of the front gate and the lightning-rod man or a book agent comes
round the house and tells you that the Empress of all the Indies, or
some other potentate with whom you have treaty relations, has sent
him to divide your lands according to act of Parliament, in the year
of our Lord, February 8th, 1887.
You stare wildly while the lightning-rod man proceeds to explain,
that, as head of the family, you are to have 160 acres of your own
land; your boy Tom, being over eighteen, will have 80 acres; and the
little girl, the pet, the black-eyed darling, she will have 40 acres.
Mechanically you repeat, "160,80,40, -- 280 acres." That is just
the size of your meadow where the cows and horses pasture; but what
of the rest?
The lightning-rod man goes on: "The remainder of your land will
stay just as it is, unless you want to sell it." Ah! It looks queer,
Little by little you begin to think. Your suspicions are aroused
and -- you look exactly as those North Americans looked in that
But now, as Allotting Agent, you stand before them, and, with
reddened cheeks and stammering tongue you try to impress them with
the advantages of the proposed arrangement. You had prearranged your
arguments and expected to convince this docile people as easily as
you had convinced yourself, but somehow you weaken. Your arguments
give way before the logic of voiceless helplessness.
Your arteries throb so loudly in the silence that you can think of
nothing to say. You ask the Interpreter to tell the Indians that you
will be glad to answer any questions, and you sit down. Your cravat
is tight and you loosen it. There is a stricture about the cardiac
region. You unbutton your coat and look along the line of dark faces.
They do not light up as they meet your gaze and it is your own eyes
that first seek the ground. But at last an old man rises, with a
dignity which renders invisible his poor garments and his low estate
and makes you do him reverence.
"How is it," he says, "that we have not been consulted about this
matter? Who made this law? We do not understand what you say. This is
our land by long possession and by treaty. We are content to be as we
are." And a groan of assent runs along the dark line of Sphinxes as
the old man draws his blanket about him, as if for evermore to shut
out the subject.
The action rouses you and gather your forces, while the next man
in less quiet tones asks if you are not "afraid to come among them on
such an errand"! "Our people are scattered," says another. "We must
come together and decide whether we will have this law."
You tell them that there is nothing for them to decide, they have
no choice. The law must be obeyed, but you will wait until they can
understand better all about it. And then, with rare discretion, the
ad interim Agent adjourns the council.
As the people disperse amid low mutterings in cheerless tones, you
clearly realize that you have not caught your Indian.
You shake hands with one or two as they pass out, but for the most
part they avoid you. A few linger and you talk a little. You do not
say "I am your friend." That phrase means nothing now to the
Indian.You tell them that by and by, when you know each other better,
perhaps you may trust each other. And they do not dispute you; it
looks reasonable. At any rate, it postpones the issue and the Indian
likes that. He cannot be hurried and you know better than to try to
hurry him. He goes home to think over this allotment business or to
forget all about it, according to the manner of man he is, but the
Special Agent takes the outcome of this her first Council very much
to heart. It does not seem to have altered any thing; she is just
where she was before. But, while the Cook lays violent hands upon her
inclination to resist the patient endurance of inaction, and the
Photographer gracefully accepts his laissez-faire role, and the
unfeeling Surveyor, who is not new to Reservation experiences, jokes
incoherently, as it seems to us, about "tenderfeet" and "eye
openers," the Allotting Agent betrays no waver of discouragement at
the forbidding aspect of the situation. She studies the topography of
the country with Mr. Briggs and opens up a peripatetic school of
instruction to inform the "actual settler," who is in Egyptian
darkness as to the provisions of the Severalty Act. She loses no
opportunity of getting the Indians together in little groups for
informal councils, she talks and reasons in the hope of making ever
so slight an impression to work out from.
The work of registering the Lapwai Indians drags its slow length
along. They have not yet become reconciled to the allotment. The
ground gained in Kamiah does not seem to help much here; it looks as
if, in a sense, we had to begin all over again.
It requires all Her Majesty's tact to avoid open conflict, for she
is constantly meeting decided opposition and in quarters where it
would naturally be least looked for; from those Indians nearest the
Agency, those most under the influence of the officials. It is not
easy to understand some of the obstacles thrown in her way.
One can have unlimited patience with the unreasoning old men whose
splendid obstinacy in invincible; who refuse to take their quota of
land on principle, holding to their tribal right to roam at will all
over the Reservation. It is of no use to explain to them that the
world is so rapidly filling with people that no tribe can longer hold
unused land against the clamor of a multitude of homeless men and
women: that the earth, in a sense, belongs to all that are upon it
and that no man can be allowed to claim more than he can use for his
own benefit or for that of others; that no treaty could be enforced
that sought to hold back the living tide that had set in upon this
continent: that any tribe of Indians that stood out against that
flood would be overwhelmed.
It would be a waste of words to say all this to these superb old
colossals, who stand upon their treaty as their own hills upon their
basaltic foundations. Nor is it worth while to try persuasion upon
the chiefs who, Her Majesty says, "oppose because land in severalty
breaks up completely their tribal power and substitutes civilization
But one would expect that the younger men, who have for years been
under the enlightening influence of the governing centre of the
Reservation, would be able to see that treaties are abrogated by the
logic of events.
The other day, as I was strolling along Lapwai creek near its
junction with the Clearwater, I stumbled upon a stone lying half
hidden in the grass. It was round, with a square hole in the centre
out of which a little plant was growing and I knew that it was a mill
stone, but how came it there?. . . . .
The story of that stone I am going to tell you in a round-about
way just as Old Billy and Miss Kate told it to me, with a preface to
make it clear because, as your wise Aunt says, we must always go from
the known to the unknown to get a right understanding of a subject.
Well, you know that there once lived in this country a man by the
name of Thomas Jefferson. He was a man that ideas were apt to come to
when they were ready to set the world off on a new track. The
particular idea that came to Mr. Jefferson at the end of the
eighteenth century (1792) was that the great unexplored land west of
the Missouri River might be worth looking into.
Mr. Jefferson, being President of the United States, sent his own
private Secretary, Captain Lewis, to command the expedition, and he
was accompanied by Captain William Clark. We cannot follow the party
very closely, but sometime you will read the Lewis and Clark journals
which are very interesting. The men were fitted out by the Government
with horses and everything they needed for the long journey, even
with guns to kill game and Indians as they went along.
I think Lewis and Clark were wise men and not so fond of killing
as many explorers are. They met many tribes of Indians and pretty
generally avoided having any trouble with them. Indians gave them
food and horses and in return received guns and knives and trinkets;
often they divided their last morsel freely with the travellers who
were often hungry, sometimes being obliged to kill and eat their
On the 20th of September 1805, when the men had become weak and
thin and many were ill, they "descended the last of the Rocky
Mountains and reached the level country," a beautiful open plain with
trees scattered over it. And there they saw three Indian boys who ran
away and hid in the grass. They were Nez Perce boys and when they had
carried the news of the arrival of the white men home, a man came out
to meet Lewis and Clark and led the travellers to the Nez Perce
village; and right here I must tell you what a mistake was made about
the name of this tribe.
It is never easy to come at the name of an Indian or even of an
Indian tribe. A tribe has always at least two names; one they call
themselves by and one by which they are known to other tribes. All
the tribes living west of the Rocky Mountains were called
"Chupnit-pa-lu," which means people of the pierced noses; it also
means emerging from the bushes or forest; the people from the woods.
The tribes on the Columbia river used to pierce the nose and wear
in it some ornament as you have seen some old fashioned white ladies
wear in their ears. Lewis and Clark had with them an interpreter
whose wife was a Shoshone or Snake woman and so it came about that
when it was asked "What Indians are these?" the answer was "They are
'Chupnit-pa-lu'" and it was written down in the journal; spelled
rather queerly, for white people's ears do not always catch Indian
tones and of course the Indians could not spell any word.
It was written "Chopunnish." Chopunnish is not much like
Chupnit-pa-lu and it is not known in the Nez Perce tribe: the oldest
man never heard of it. Old Billy says, "We have a name that does not
belong to us. We are not pierced noses and never were. We are the
'Nemapo.' When Lewis and Clark came into our country they were very
hungry and their horses were all bones."
"They were the first white men that many of the people had ever
seen and the women thought them beautiful." Billy's grandfather shook
hands with the strangers and talked with them in the sign language
and all the chiefs were sent for to welcome the little company of
white men and to find out what could be done to help them. The
Journal says that the Nez Perces were kind to the tired and hungry
party. They furnished fresh horses and dried meat and fish with wild
potatoes and other roots which were good to eat, and the refreshed
white men went further on, westward, leaving their bony, wornout
horses for the Indians to take care of and have fat and strong when
Lewis and Clark should come back on their way home.
It was in the early spring, in May, when they returned. The
weather was cold, with snow on the high lands and mud in the
villages, and they were again hungry and worn with hard travel and
want of proper food. The Nez Perces went out to meet them and brought
the whole party down into Kamiah (which Lewis and Clark spell
Commearp) and there they set up a large leathern tent which the Chief
said was for their home as long as they wished to stay among the
Indians: and there they lived a whole month, like brothers with the
Nez Perces. The people brought roots and dried salmon and the Journal
says that "not being accustomed to live on roots alone, we feared
that such food might make our men sick and therefore proposed to
exchange one of our good horses, which was rather poor, for one that
was fatter which we might kill.
"The hospitality of the Chiefs was offended at the idea of an
exchange. He observed that his people had an abundance of young
horses and that if we were disposed to use that food, we might have
as many as we wanted."
It is very interesting to read what Lewis and Clark write about
their friendly camping in the Kamiah valley, but it really does not
belong to the story. These white men learned something of the Nez
Perce language, enough to convey some new ideas to the Indians; not
very clearly but sufficiently well to set them thinking. The new
ideas were about God, a great Being that every race and tribe are
always trying to know something about. The Nez Perces had been trying
all their lives. Old Billy said no matter how hard they tried "it was
all fog," and that after Lewis and Clark came they doubted more and
more their old ways of worship.
Then the Hudson Bay traders came,- King George men, they were
called,-and the people began to worship the Sun and he, Bill,
remembered dancing around the sun pole which was set up near the
present site of Walla Walla. But still the people were not satisfied
and as year after year passed by, they held councils to talk about
their trouble, always ending with "If we could only find the path of
Lewis and Clark, and follow it, we would find the light."
So the little imperfect idea grew and grew until, twenty-five
years after the Jefferson exploring party had gone away from the
"Choupnit people," these Indians, groping in the dark, determined to
send a delegation to find Lewis and Clark and learn the truth: they
could not live in the dark any longer. The idea had grown so
imperative that it must be satisfied with knowledge.
Four men were chosen. Billy gave their names as
Tip-ya-lah-na-jek-nin, (Black or Speaking Eagle), a chief, was
Kip's grandfather. He had seen Lewis and Clark and received a medal
Ka-on-pu, (Man of the Morning or Daylight), an old man. His mother
was a Flathead, his father a Nez Perce.
Hi-youts-tihan (Rabbits Skin Legging) was Black Eagle's mother's
son, a young man of the same band of Yellow Bull, whom we know.
Tawis-sis-sin-nin (Little Horns or No Horns). He was Billy's
father's sister's son, a young man about twenty years of age.
Billy was about ten years old when these four men started. They
went out on the Lolo trail, the same that Lewis and Clark had come
They did not know where to go and they had no pillar of cloud to
lead them by day or a star to follow by night.
They were led only by their hopes and urged on by their longing.
Billy described the hopeful starting when all the people went out to
see them well on the way and "stood watching till they were out of
sight, and not any more dust rose against the sky"-then the patient
waiting for the long delayed return and, at last,-the woe and despair
of the stricken people.
There had been many councils of the old men of the tribe about
this journey. Some way, no one knew how, word had come to the Nez
Perces that Captain Clark was in St. Louis and the delegation of four
were bidden to find their way to that city. They were to see Captain
Clark and ask him to tell them about the truth, the light. Some
people have said that they went in search of a book, the Bible, but
when I asked Billy about this, he said no, they went to find Lewis
and Clark and learn about the better way to worship God. The people
were poor and miserable and often hungry and they knew not where to
look for help in their trouble and they were sure that Lewis and
Clark could tell them. There was nothing so definite in their minds
as a book, and that makes this wonderful journey more wonderful
The Nez Perce were just children crying in the night and reaching
out to touch the Mother, who was close beside them though they knew
Old Billy could tell me nothing of the four men after they went
out of sight over the Kamian hills, but we learn something of them
from other sources. They arrived in St. Louis sometime in May or
June, 1831, four travel stained red men asking for Lewis and Clark.
Clark was then Superintendent of Indian affairs for the Northwest,
and the Indians met him and explained, as best as they could, their
It does not appear that they received much comfort: there was the
barrier of language and the indefiniteness of their object: the
crying in the night could not be translated. The men hung around the
office of the Indian Agent day after day, silent and sad.
"Who are they?" the people would ask. "Where do they come from?" A
fur trader, a Frenchman, seeing them, said, "I know who they are.
They come from West of the Rocky Mountains. They are Chup-nit-pa-lu."
only he translated the word into his own language- "They are the Nez
Perce," said he.
"To make a long story short, the two oldest Indians sickened and
died in St. Louis, and the two younger started back upon a steamboat,
on the Yellowstone River. Near the mouth of the river Old Billy's
cousin died and Hi-youts-tihan, the last of the four, never came back
to his people. He could not see their faces when they knew how it had
fared with their messengers. Some Nez Perces met and talked with him
in Montana and learned that the white people had promised to send a
teacher to the Nez Perces, and so they waited and waited until at
last, in 1838, the teacher came. His name was Henry Spalding and he
brought his wife with him over the mountains and they were father and
mother to their Indian children.
I saw Mr. Spalding in Washington, after he had grown old, and he
gave me his photograph. He spent thirty years with the Nez Perces and
taught them many things which are still remembered in the tribe.
And this brings me to that old mill stone, lying in the grass. The
Indians made gardens under the instruction of Mr. and Mrs. Spalding
and cultivated wheat and barley and raised vegetables and fruit and
they found a "proper stone" and hammered it into shape and Mr.
Spalding showed them how to make a mill to grind their grain and this
is the very same old stone.
The mill has gone to pieces and Mr. Spalding's house is now used
by an Agency Indian, Jim Moses, to keep his horses in, for the
Government sends Agents instead of Missionaries now, to teach the
[TEXT: E. Jane Gay, With the Nez Perces
(University of Nebraska Press, 1981)]