Episode 3, the story of the Nez Perce War, was difficult for me. Some of these episodes...I get emotional when writing or recording them. I had to do the ending to this one a few times in order to get it right. One was a bit too angry, one was a bit too sad. Sometimes history hits in a way you don't necessarily expect it to. But I expected this one to hit. The Nez Perce War is, when it comes down to it, a story of injustice. It shows the ultimate futility of the American Indian Wars: when the white invaders wanted the land bad enough, very little could ultimately stop them. The Nez Perce may have been some of the most skilled and competent American Indian fighters the U.S. Army ever had to deal with - but in the end, they were overcome by the manpower and resources of the modern nation-state. This was not their fault; how could a people numbering less than a thousand individuals have stood against this war machine? That they got as far as they did is a small miracle.
The Nez Perce War never should have happened. A peaceful, relatively progressive tribe was practically shoved into conflict by the callous actions of local settlers and the U.S. Government. While the Nez Perce initiated hostilities by admittedly hostile acts of terrible violence on the local population, these only occurred after multiple provocations and violations by the locals. Not to say any civilian that was hurt deserved to be, but this was the tragic retaliation of a few individuals in the face of utter destruction. It was a reaction that should have been predicted.
Of course, the chief fascination of the Nez Perce War was how a largely unwarlike tribe managed to travel as far and last as long as they did. It was one of the great epic journeys of American history, a nearly 1500-mile venture across the American West in a bid to escape the Federal onslaught. Earlier this year, my wife and I were watching Battlestar Galactica (we're nerds), and I made the sudden comment that "This is just the Nez Perce in space." Their home overrun, pursued by enemies over an unknown landscape, every place they try to settle attacked and devastated, losing people and supplies by the day as they desperately try to find some place they'll be safe? Maybe take away the spaceships, and this is just the story of the Nez Perce.
I have very rarely hit on my favorite theme in this podcast harder than I hit it here: culture affects the way people fight their wars. The underlying society, politics, economic structure, material conditions, and religious beliefs - alongside various other intangibles - affect how leaders and combatants behave in conflict. Very rarely is this more clear than with the Nez Perce, who had a non-hierarchical society and fought in a non-hierarchical style. Surprisingly, this could make them quite effective in tactical situations, since they had a large number of talented leaders. But it also made their decision-making and strategic processes vulnerable and changeable, which - among other things - helped doom their cause.
Of course, the Nez Perce were fighting an uphill battle from the beginning. Their leadership problems were A reason, not THE reason they lost the war. They were facing a vastly superior nation-state, with resources of manpower and money and armaments that the Indians could never match in their wildest dreams. Indeed, it seems like they had no real conception of how vast their enemy was, as I discuss in this episode. It was a hopeless fight in the end...but that didn't mean the outcome was inevitable. The Nez Perce War was, on the part of the Americans, a war of choice.
I state very clearly in this episode that the Nez Perce did not have to suffer the fate they did. The responsibility for this outcome was ultimately in the hands of the United States government, who chose - or chose not to - adhere to the Indian treaties as they saw fit. Could they have resisted the tide of public opinion that demanded the Indians be destroyed as a culture? Could the American people in general have resisted their basic impulses of ethnic destiny, greed, and racism?
Some people would say they couldn't. That was "just how it was" back then. Except that people at the time objected to it, said it was wrong, said it was immoral...and yet they did it anyway. It was like crying about the sin as you commit the sin. But what does that say about us as a nation? What does that say when we commit great wrongs on a people while acknowledging how wrong it is? Does that make it better...or does that make it worse?
So some things I left out. I had a lot more history about the Nez Perce people originally, but I already don't get to the war itself until after the first break, so I had to cut that bit of context. I also glossed over a few of the battles that took place, including the Cottonwood, Fort Fizzle, and Canyon Creek. I mentioned skirmishes, but I didn't delve into these battles because...there were a bunch of battles in this campaign, but I focused on the few that mattered and/or were interesting. If you want the full-blooded narrative for all these engagements, I encourage you to check my sources.
Other than that, really all the commentary I have for today. IF I do other Indian Wars, I plan to do the Northwest Indian Wars, the Modoc Wars, and maybe the Comanche and the Apache if I get that far. I consider the Sioux/Little Bighorn too "on the beaten path" for this podcast, but if this thing goes on for years, who knows what I'll decide to tackle? One thing is certain: this is not the last time I will talk about the Conquest of North America.
American principals, left to right: General Oliver Otis Howard, Colonel John Gibbon, Colonel Nelson Miles. Note these are all Civil War-era photographs.
Nez Perce principals, left to right: Chief Joseph (photographed 3 months after Bear Paw), Looking Glass, and White Bird.
Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970.
Forczyk, Robert. Nez Perce 1877: The Last Fight. Oxford: Osprey, 2013.
Greene, Jerome A. Nez Perce Summer: The U.S. Army and the Nee-Me-Poo Crisis. Helena, MT: Montana Historical Society Press, 2000.
Hampton, Bruce. Children of Grace: The Nez Perce War of 1877. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1994. Utley, Robert M. Frontier Regulars; the United States Army and the Indian, 1866-1891. New York: Macmillan, 1973.
West, Elliott M. The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009..
If you're looking for a single good book on this topic, I recommend West.