The other Trail of Tears
Selling Your Father's Bones: America's 140-Year War Against the Nez Perce Tribe
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.