LET ME BE FREE: A Nez PercÉ Tragedy by David Lavender

LET ME BE FREE: A Nez PercÉ Tragedy

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Lavender, a prolific historian of the West (The Way to the Western Sea, 1988, etc.), offers a tragic tale of a Native American tribe's loss of its land, culture, and identity. The 1877 flight of the Nez PercÉ is one of the most famous and mournful episodes in the long history of Indian disenfranchisement. For three and a half months and 1700 miles, they managed to elude General O.O. Howard in an escape from their Pacific Northwest homelands, only to be overtaken a mere two days' ride from safety in Canada. During that time, white Americans came to admire the tribe's Chief Joseph as a master orator and military tactician who continually managed to outfox his pursuers. Here, Lavender sees the flight of the Nez PercÉ as the culmination of the tribe's more than 75 years of encounters with whites, including Lewis and Clark, British and American fur traders, missionaries, miners, farmers, Indian agents, and federal troops. In the process, the Nez PercÉ were buffeted by outside forces--horses, guns, diseases, material goods they badly wanted but could scarcely afford--that filled them with doubt about their traditional guardian spirits (wayakins). Yet, Lavender says, the major mistake this peaceful, much put-upon people made was to believe the US government's promise that treaties guaranteed their right to the land of their fathers. As sympathetic as Lavender is to the Nez PercÉ, though, he is careful not to make exaggerated claims for them. For instance, he shows that General Howard invented Chief Joseph's skill as a wily military genius in order to excuse the general's own bumbling pursuit of the tribe. A powerful lament for a tribe that illustrates, as Lavender says, ""the infinite sadness of a race's defeat and death.

Pub Date: May 20th, 1992
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: HarperCollins