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The Nez Perce Story

by Elliott West

Pub Date: April 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-19-513675-3
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

A successful effort to understand both sides of the struggle between a stubbornly unassimilated Pacific Northwest tribe and the white world that steadily encroached on its turf.

When Lewis and Clark encountered them in present-day Idaho in 1805, the Nez Perce found white men no mystery, writes West (American History/Univ. of Arkansas; The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado, 1998, etc.). The tribe already yearned for firearms and other attractive but scarce manufactured goods. For decades, they happily traded with trappers and travelers and welcomed missionaries. In the first of many misunderstandings, these religious proselytizers assumed the Nez Perce would discard their culture and become Christian farmers, while the tribe hoped missionaries would increase their worldly well-being. Since they considered themselves good people, the Nez Perce were puzzled efforts to persuade them they were miserable sinners. After 1840, they prospered trading with wagon trains heading for rich Oregon farmland. Most Nez Perce land was infertile, so another decade passed before settlers began moving in. Then followed years of intimidation and worthless treaties that steadily shrank the tribe’s territory. Ordered to a reservation outside their lands in 1877, many members refused and took their families, horses and cattle on a legendary 1,500-mile flight toward Canada. The author writes a gripping, nearly day-by-day account of that epic journey, during which hundreds died while outnumbered warriors repeatedly defeated the surprisingly incompetent U.S. Army. Ironically, their flight and bitter surrender produced a wave of admiration across America for the Nez Perce. Their purported leader, Chief Joseph, became a national hero, but no one wanted to give back their land, so the tribe returned to its reservation. Histories of American Indians rarely end happily.

Skilled storytelling drives an astute examination of a sad, complicated episode.