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for people who care about the West

Cheewa James: Chronicler of the ‘Tribe That Wouldn’t Die’


Modoc: The Tribe That Wouldn't Die
Cheewa James
352 pages, softcover: $19.95.
Naturegraph, 2008.

With song and prayer, soil and prairie grass, Native American author Cheewa James recently honored the memory of her long-lost great-great uncle. Frank Modoc left his Oklahoma reservation for a Quaker seminary over 120 years ago, fell victim to tuberculosis and never returned. While researching her tribe's history, James discovered the location of his burial site in Portland, Maine.  She journeyed from her Sacramento, Calif., home to the grave, where she sprinkled earth and grass taken from the grave of Modoc's son in Oklahoma.

James, 69, a Modoc Indian and member of one of the three tribes comprising Southern Oregon's Klamath Tribes, is an author and corporate trainer. She's worked as a park ranger, talk show host, news anchor and producer. Now, the petite grandmother has taken on the task of helping to heal the wounds of a 130-year-old war, as well as the wounds of a battered planet.

Born on the Klamath Reservation, James grew up in Taos, N.M. Her father, Clyde, was the first American Indian pro basketball player. Her mother, Luella, who was of German ancestry, collected Modoc documents and photos and instilled a love of history into her daughter, who has compiled the tribe's definitive chronicle.

James' new book, Modoc: The Tribe That Wouldn't Die draws on a wealth of historical research, including Luella's papers. It also includes the previously unpublished accounts of U.S. Army soldiers who battled a tiny band of Modocs during the devastating Modoc War in Northern California. (James' great-grandfather, Shacknasty Jim, fought in that war.) The book interweaves straightforward history with historically accurate fictional vignettes, telling the stories of both sides.

Like most conflicts between Indians and non-Indians, the 1872-'73 war was fought over land use. "Modocs, as with many Native groups, did not see the land as something to be owned, any more than they saw owning the clouds or air or water," says James. 

But the new settlers saw things differently. "Both the land and its inhabitants will ultimately suffer," James notes, "any time that land simply for the sake of possession overrides the preservation and best interest of the land and its resources." 

After years of conflict, a reservation was established in the Klamath Valley for Modoc, Klamath and Yahooskin Indians. Soon, the more numerous Klamath began harassing their traditional rivals, the Modoc. Disgusted by the lack of response from the reservation's superintendent, Modoc leader Captain Jack led his small band back to the Lost River area along the Oregon-California border.

The subsequent war between Jack's band of just 55 warriors and more than 1,000 U.S. Army troops cost 100 lives and over $500,000 in 1870-era dollars. It also marked the only time that American Indians were executed for war crimes. News of the hangings reverberated throughout Indian Country, and the breakaway Modoc band was subsequently exiled to far Oklahoma.

James dug deep to discern the war's underlying causes. "I felt that so many questions have never been thoroughly answered: why the war started and who was responsible, the overlooked role of women in the war, and what had happened to the Modocs following the war," she says. Her job at Lava Beds National Monument in Northern California, where Captain Jack's band held off the Army for nearly a year, provided personal perspective. "I know the Stronghold (the natural lava fortress that the Modocs used during the war) intimately, and have walked the battlefields and war sites," she says.

James also introduces us to never-before-heard voices: "Lt. Harry De Witt Moore's letters, written during the war, were poignant and moving, in addition to providing incredible new information."

The crux of the book is the human cost of war. "There was no ‚'good' or 'bad' side (to the war)," says James. "All the individuals involved in it suffered  -- Modocs, military men and settlers."

James hopes that a true understanding of her tribe and its history will help in another way: by bringing people together to heal the environment. "The core values of the Indian cultures of the West are important to preserve," says James. "They are the voices of the past, our national conscience that nags at us and begs us to remember how to live in accord with the earth."

To resolve environmental concerns, we must listen to all the voices that can provide insight, she says. And strengthening the oftentimes fragile ties between Indian and non-Indian groups is crucial. "Just as it is critical to move rapidly to do what we can to stabilize our environment," says James, "so, too, has the time come to learn, negotiate, and respect diverse opinions. ... If we do not call on the intellect, experience, education, and commitment of each individual, as well as groups, none of us is going to be around in the future.

"We will soon be worrying about losing human beings, not polar bears."