The Causes and Conduct of The Flight of the Nez Perce

The Whites then made their first critical cultural mistake.  They appointed one man to represent all Nez Perce.  Nez Perce culture dictated freedom and respect for the autonomy of each person.  No one had the authority to tell another what to do (Nerburn, 41).  This independence applied to Nez Perce government as well.  Each band was free to do as it pleased.  The decisions of one band did not force any other to comply with that decision.  The problem was that the United States government wanted to deal with the Nez Perce as a separate and sovereign tribe, while in actually, each band of Nez Perce was fully sovereign (Nerburn, 41).

Cultural differences soon came to a head. Members of the neighboring Cayuse tribe, upset with the hypocrisy of nearby Whites, rose up and murdered eleven of them.  These killings coincided with the peaceful resolution of the Anglo/American disagreement regarding procession of Oregon Territory.  American settlers were ready to pour into Cayuse and Nez Perce territory.  Soon, Isaac Stevens, Governor of Washington Territory, arrived to negotiate for final possession of Nez Perce lands. This act exemplified the misunderstandings between the two cultures.  Here, a free and independent people, with no concept of centralized government or ownership of land, were being asked to negotiate for the establishment of property boundaries (Nerburn, 42).

Even before the meeting began, Stevens upset the Nez Perce by appointing a conciliatory chief to be spokesman for the Nez Perce.  After three weeks, the Nez Perce representatives signed the Treaty of 1855. The Nez Perce and other local tribes gave up a great deal of land in exchange for schools, farming equipment, clothing, and money.  The lands of the Nez Perce fell within the new boundaries, so they expected to be left in peace.

This, however, was not to be the case.  Settlers surged onto Nez Perce lands while word of gold in the region’s mountains brought a second swarm of Whites onto Native-American lands (Nerburn, 52-53).  Only seven years after the first, Federal officials tried to persuade the Nez Perce to sign a new treaty.  Even the Nez Perce, with little understanding of the principles of binding contracts, perceived the audacity of the new treaty.  They were to surrender the majority of their lands in exchange for land they already owned and goods promised by the last treaty (Nerburn, 57-58).  Utterly disgusted, several bands of Nez Perce left the discussions.  They decided that, in keeping with their cultural traditions, each band was free to do as it chose.  Accordingly, the Christian bands signed the new treaty, becoming reservation farmers, while the rest of the Nez Perce bands returned to life under the Treaty of 1855.  Sadly, another misunderstanding would shatter the peace in the region.

The non-treaty bands left the negotiations with the understanding that the new treaty affected only those who had signed.  Meanwhile, the US government, noting the signature of Chief Lawyer, the federally appointed Principal Chief of the Nez Perce, proceeded as if they were now in possession of all Nez Perce lands.  With new settlers infringing on Nez Perce lands every day, the situation was ripe for conflict.  The confusion that reigned for the next few years only heightened the tension.  In this time, an antagonistic vagrant murdered a close friend of Joseph, chief of the Wallowa Band.  Despite their insistence that justice be done, no action was taken until the Nez Perce forced the issue, which only led to a trial and acquittal (Nerburn, 72-73).  The Federal Government finally sent General Oliver Otis Howard to try and find a solution to the problem.

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