The Causes and Conduct of The Flight of the Nez Perce

When Lewis and Clark returned to the United States, they brought word of the hospitable Nez Perce.  Soon, traders and missionaries streamed west.  The Nez Perce were intent upon learning the Bible.  They had seen the White men cure the sick and seemingly perform many feats of magic with their technology.  The Nez Perce concluded that the White men were very powerful and that the Bible was a way for them to tap into that power (Nerburn, 12).

It was with remarkable endurance that the Nez Perce swallowed their pride.  Reverend Spalding, a Congregationalist (now the United Church of Christ) minister, took it upon himself to teach the Nez Perce the ways of his god.  It did not take long for Spalding to wear out his welcome.  He baffled the nomadic tribe by requesting that they build him a log house. He soon lost interest in that location and made the Nez Perce move the completed log cabin to a different location, and then another after that (Nerburn, 21).  When the Nez Perce displayed an unwillingness to move his house a third time, Spalding motivated them with the end of a whip. Despite early developments, the Nez Perce, daunted by stories of eternal hellfire, made Jesus their most powerful mystical figure.

The Nez Perce had acculturated to Christianity, but were still far from total assimilation.  Spalding was insistent that the Nez Perce adopt farming.  The Nez Perce began to splinter.  Some bands tried to become as much like the Whites as possible, while others were not prepared to give up their old ways.  They wished to take the aspects of Christianity that they found helpful and mold it to fit their pre-existing culture (Nerburn, 27).  Instead, they were being told to let their culture die and become like the Whites.

Exacerbating the situation was a White doctor who claimed the authority of the American Government.  He, with the full support of Rev. Spalding, began forcing American penal codes on the Nez Perce.  Almost overnight, Nez Perce were being lashed and hung for cultural practices and traditions they had observed for centuries.  However, the laws only seemed to apply to non-Whites.  The Nez Perce were punished for all their crimes, including some not even committed, while Whites escaped unscathed for their transgressions (Nerburn, 28).

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