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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


January 12, 2002 - Issue 53


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Rare Old Nez Perce Documents Published

by Adam Wilson, Lewiston Morning Tribune
History project compiles details from 1829 to 1911

LEWISTON -- Indian Agent James O´ Neill was trying to dodge the usual bureaucratic hoops and hang on to an increasingly shaky peace in Lapwai 135 years ago.

"The Indians (Nez Perce) are divided among themselves and the non- treaty side are using this argument, that the government will take their own time for fulfilling the stipulations of the new treaty as they have the one of June 1855 and they say possibly never pay them," he wrote to his superiors.

"They cannot or will not understand why, when their money is ready for them, that they cannot have the benefit of it, and I sincerely think that to continue putting them off and paying them in promises will result in serious difficulty."

O´Neill´s letter is one of the many documents reproduced in one of several new publications by the University of Idaho Library compiling information about the 1867 Nez Perce Treaty Council.

It and other publications were discussed recently at the Nez Perce National Historical Park at Spalding by a panel of historians and tribal elders.

"We´re very interested in any kind of documentation of Nez Perce history," said Diane Mallickan, a park ranger at Spalding and a tribal member.

The documents make rare material, in some cases so old it is literally falling apart, available to the general public for the first time.

"It will have an effect on the way historians write about the Nez Perce," Mallickan said.

The papers trace the history of the region from 1829, when fur trappers were the only whites in the area, to 1911, when Starr Maxwell collected testimonies of tribal members in "Memorial of the Nez Perce Indians," which became part of the U.S. Congressional Record when Idaho Sen. William Borah presented it to the Senate in 1911.

Between the two is the "The 1867 Nez Perce Treaty Council," edited and transcribed from the original documents by Donna Smith at the university. It details not only government correspondence, but contains a verbatim manuscript of a tribal council convened to discuss the treaty.

The documents provide a rare glimpse into the issues that led to the Nez Perce War of 1877. Idaho Territory Governor David Ballard came to Lapwai in June 1867 to announce that the Treaty of 1863 was law after four years.

"Many wrongs have been perpetrated upon you, by bad white men, who have come upon your reservation, and by selling whiskey and practicing other wickednesses," he said.

He realized the new reservation was greatly reduced. But Ballard promised the government would fulfill its agreements in the new treaty, "placing you in a position of happiness, competency and independence."

"Let me warn you, my friends, against evil advice, either from bad white men, or Indians, it will lead you to destruction," Ballard said.

Special Indian Agent George C. Hough was left in Lapwai after Ballard went to speak with the Nez Perce, and recorded the council proceedings.

"I see the river (Clearwater) as it winds along here and look at the reserve as including the south fork as being the only country upon which to make a settlement. That being the case, I feel frightened," said Chief Lawyer. "I see a great many places occupied by the whites."

Hough replied, "Every single place on this reservation that is occupied by a white man, he will be driven off from."

He later wrote to the commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington D.C., that Lawyer, "a man of no little intelligence, a little education and a consummate diplomatist," told him that "his patience is getting worn out."

Starr Maxwell's memorial documents the effects the 1887 Allotment Act, which divided reservations among tribal members, replacing the traditional practice of treating the reservation as communal property.

The act lead the way for the settling of reservation land by whites and led to abuse by local agents, both Indian and non-Indian, who were granted control of the program.

Maxwell, half white, half Nez Perce, began collecting testimonies of these abuses, eventually compiling 128 of them.

"He used his legal ability to seek meaningful relief while calling public attention to an intolerable situation," wrote Mallickan in the introduction to the publication of Maxwell´s memorial.

Mallickan also helped direct a group of tribal elders in a project aimed at identifying some of the chiefs and others in the publications. That work will be published in the spring.

The recent publications enrich the material available not only to researchers, but the public as a whole, Mallickan said.

Nez Perce Indian Reservation

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