The other Trail of Tears

  • General Oliver Howard

    photo by Brady National Photographic Art Gallery
  • Chief Joseph's band

    Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture/Eastern Washington State Historical Society, Spokane, Washington. Negative number L94-7.105
  • Chief Joseph

    Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture/Eastern Washington State Historical Society, Spokane, Washington. Negative number L88-330

Selling Your Father's Bones: America's 140-Year War Against the Nez Perce Tribe
Brian Schofield
368 pages, hardcover: $26.00.
Simon & Schuster, 2009.

A white 30-something British guy might not seem like the obvious source to turn to for a definitive history of the persecution and flight of the Nez Perce — one of the most complex, tragic chapters in the history of the West. But Americans have a long tradition of receiving incisive cultural criticism from foreigners on road trips — think Alexis de Tocqueville, Charles Dickens, even Borat. Sometimes you just need an outsider's perspective. This is especially true today, as Americans shake off eight years of stubborn disregard for overseas opinion.

Reading Selling Your Father's Bones, you can't help but suspect that first-time author Brian Schofield sees recent American exploits abroad as an extension of the same Jacksonian mindset that prompted land grabs against the Nez Perce in the mid-1800s. Consider the book's original subtitle in the U.K.: "The Epic Fate of the American West." For Schofield, the tribe's subjugation is more than just a single dramatic campaign from the Indian Wars — it's the entire saga of American history, written in miniature.

Which is pretty devastating, when you get right down to it. The book opens in pre-Columbian Oregon, among the Nimiipuu people of the Wallowa Valley, before they adopted their French nickname — "Nez Perce," a misapplied moniker most likely inspired by the tribe's nose-pierced Chinook neighbors. Then it delves straight into the decades of encroachment, abduction, broken treaties and forced assimilation that preceded eviction from the tribe's ancestral lands. We meet the players from that summer and fall of 1877: meek, articulate Joseph, miscast as a fierce warrior-king by the blustering American press; proud Looking Glass, whose misplaced trust in neighboring tribes dooms the refugees; and hapless General Oliver Howard, the "Christian General" whose frequent battlefield bungling might pass for comic relief in another context.

When several of the tribe's hotheaded young warriors murder a group of white settlers, it touches off a 1,700-mile exodus for more than 700 Nez Perce men, women and children — families who'd been forced from their Wallowa Valley home just days before the incident. By the time the tribe surrenders in northern Montana four months later, some 120 Nez Perce and 180 white Americans have been killed in the pursuit. With a historian's diligence and a travel writer's eye for detail, Schofield renders each tough river crossing and bloody battle in vivid, novelistic scenes. He also flashes forward, examining the flight's modern-day repercussions. These first-person asides, which constitute half of the book, sketch the broad cultural and ecological legacy of white conquest in the West.

Be warned: This is an ideological text. Schofield is a dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist, and he doesn't equivocate when it comes to modern-day "crime(s) against the landscape" along the old Nez Perce Trail. When he mentions how much toxic wastewater Potlatch Corp. released into the Clearwater River, or that the milltown of Lewiston, Idaho, stinks to high hell, he doesn't follow up with a note on how many jobs were created in the process or whether the company later built a new baseball diamond. The book isn't naive about the complexity of Western resource management — on the contrary, that's a major theme — but Schofield is far from charitable to extractive industries and their cheerleaders. In fact, he saves his harshest criticism not for genocidal generals, but for past and present-day Westerners who loudly espouse rugged libertarianism while reaping rewards from federal dam investments and timber subsidies.

The man did his research, though (a detailed, quote-by-quote bibliography fills 25 pages), and in some instances, his ideological transparency helps him steer clear of awkward, academic terminology. After quoting a historian who says the West's small farms were "squeezed by history," Schofield is quick to remind us that they were actually squeezed by large farms — not by "history," but by people, and greedy people at that. To Schofield, what happened to the Nez Perce is not as simple as "a tragic clash of cultures" or "a conflict between two ways of life." It cannot be reduced to euphemism. It's the story of large groups of selfish and essentially rotten people committing theft and murder against much smaller bands of relative innocents. And whether or not you chalk it up to the author's outsider status, it's refreshing to hear the story told that way.

The author writes from Missoula, Montana.

Greed is a problem everywhere
Jul 15, 2009 02:34 AM
Greed is a problem everywhere. As a tour operator who explains 3000 years of history in the south of France, "getting the other guy's stuff" has more to do with suffering, tears, and inhumanity to man than religion, conviction, or dreams of glory. Le plus cela change, le plus cela reste le meme.
The American West fascinates europeans, and the plight of the poor downtrodden indians, especially.
ron hindman
palisade, colorado
Greed is a problem everywhere
Dan Chandler
Dan Chandler
Jul 21, 2009 02:19 PM
"It's the story of large groups of selfish and essentially rotten people committing theft and murder against much smaller bands of relative innocents. And whether or not you chalk it up to the author's outsider status, it's refreshing to hear the story told that way."

Is the story ever really told any other way?
Headline Suggestion
Jul 28, 2009 04:44 PM
This may _sound_ like a nitpick, but I think it's not: Your headline should perhaps read "Another trail ..." rather than "The other trail ..."

Those with even a cursory background on treatment of American Indians by the invaders should be able to recall multiple trails of tears.
Good point
Jodi Peterson
Jodi Peterson
Jul 29, 2009 09:15 AM
Thanks E.K. -- your suggestion indeed would have made a better and more fitting title.
I wonder if the book misses the point?
Jul 28, 2009 11:18 PM
I am intrigued to read this book, however, the reviewer seems to miss the point of the great tale of this time and I wonder if the book has too. The Nez Perce had superior social organizational design and out maneuvered and humiliated the rigid, hierarchical US Army at every turn. Even the supposed surrender at the Canadian border was another defeat inflicted by the Nez Perce on the US, as Joseph stood and "surrendered" while the majority of the tribe slipped away once again. If there is a tragedy, or irony, in the tale it was the devastation inflicted upon them once in Canada by their traditional enemy the Blackfeet to these survivors of all the US could bring to bear. These were not individuals to be pitied, but gods and heroes to be studied and emulated. It is a noble and courageous tale of an epic struggle to protect, against awesome, wrathful, and overwhelming force, all that they loved and held dear. The people in this tale do not warrant our pity, but should command our admiration and respect.

Oh, ya and just to remind those who didn't know, it was called the trail of tears not because of the stoic determination of those who walked, but because of the flood of guilt, shame and sorrow felt by those who watched.