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The Nez Perce War and the ‘Wilderness of American Power’

Suggesting that Sharfstein explores the Nez Perce War as an aspect of post-Reconstruction America in “Thunder in the Mountains” is misconstrued.

Daniel Sharfstein, in Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard and the Nez Perce War, notes that people have been writing about the Nez Perce War from the moment it ended in 1877. If you include journalist accounts and U.S. Army transmissions about pre-war federal, state, and local machinations that steadily encroached on Nez Perce lands and traditional self-determined existence, as Sharfstein does, you can say writing about the war started before the war.

The publisher bills Thunder in the Mountains as an "exploration of post Reconstruction America." That rubric may attract a readership beyond those interested in "Indian" issues, but it misconstrues the plan of the work, suggesting that Sharfstein explores the Nez Perce War as an aspect of post-Reconstruction America. Other books have framed so-called "Indian wars" as episodes in American history, presuming that American history has a trajectory independent of wars against Indigenous Peoples.

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The "Indian Wars" are all "American Wars." And America, from its earliest colonial imaginations, has presented itself as a nation with a religious mission to dominate. Politicians from John Winthrop in the 17th century to Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney in the 20th and 21st centuries, have turned to the Bible to pronounce America "a city upon a hill," endowed with exceptional qualities to lead the world, whether by example or by force. The trajectory of American history—by its own telling—consists of the theological mission to carry out the colonizing covenant set forth in Genesis, when "The Lord said…'go from your country [and] I will give you this land.'" Congealed in the phrase "Manifest Destiny," the American mission explicitly aims at "redeeming" Native (and other non-white) Peoples by invading and seizing their lands.

If Sharfstein's only contribution was to frame the Nez Perce War as an expression of anti-Indian " Manifest Destiny " doctrine, he would break no new ground. What sets Sharfstein's work apart—what makes it stand out—arises from the fact that he explores the Nez Perce War and post-Reconstruction America simultaneously, as an intersectional web of events emerging from "ideas of the white man's burden and a hard, racialized sense of Manifest Destiny."

Sharfstein's counterintuitive reframing of post-Reconstruction as "an extension of Reconstruction" allows us to see beyond "manifest destiny" as a mission to dominate other peoples—to see it as "a national project…expanding the size and reach of the federal government." Sharfstein presents the withdrawal of federal power from the post-Civil War Reconstruction project as part of a wider expansion of federal power. The federal pivot away from emancipation of Black people was toward domination of other non-white peoples. As Sharfstein puts it, "The nation's pivot [was] from emancipation to Jim Crow and empire."

Sharfstein's uniting of what others see as disparate and contradictory trajectories reveals an underlying coherence to the increasingly massive exercise of federal power during the 19th and into the following centuries. Understanding this coherence, he suggests, "is crucial to understanding the divisions that define modern America." I would add that this understanding will not resolve the divisions until and unless it brings about a disavowal of the underlying mission to dominate that informs American history.

Sharfstein presents his view without polemic. Indeed, the writing is lyrical—smooth and engaging, albeit with scrupulous bibliographical notes to underscore its historical authenticity. He builds the intertwined stories by accretion, focusing on two main actors and a host of strong supporting cast. He tells how General Oliver Otis Howard—the "Christian General" in charge of the Reconstruction Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands—disavowed the idea that freedom from slavery meant Blacks had an equal right to own property, and carried out orders to restore land ownership to former slave-owners. Out west to deal with the "Indian problem," Howard carried promises similar to those Reconstruction had delivered to Blacks: the federal government would protect poor and downtrodden people against their enemies. But when he encountered "non-treaty Indians" insisting on a traditional way of life, resisting "Christian civilization" and refusing to be corralled into "reservations," he took leadership of the war to force the Nez Perce into the missionary-led federal "Peace Policy."

Sharfstein recounts an exchange between Chief Joseph and Indian Agent John Monteith: Monteith said he had no power to remove white settlers from Nez Perce lands, but would use force against the Nez Perce if Joseph refused to agree that the U.S. owned Nez Perce lands. Sharfstein summarizes, "Apparently, this agent could call in the army and…start a war…to [move] Indians to reservations and [turn] them into Christian farmers. Yet…resolving the question of who owned the [land] was beyond his capacity. He could not make or adjust policies that he had a seemingly limitless ability to interpret or enforce." "Tribes," he writes, "lived entirely in a realm of federal power, where it seemed there was no specific center of authority, only sprawling bureaucracies, diffuse to the point of invisibility, resisting efforts to locate, speak to, or influence them." Even readers unfamiliar with Franz Kafka will get the point, that American "civilization" consists of "a different kind of wilderness, the wilderness of American power, opaque and inscrutable, everywhere and nowhere."

Chief Joseph, faced with the vagaries of federal power, told the agent to stop speaking with a "forked tongue." An 1855 treaty guaranteed the Wallowa Valley for Joseph's people; an 1863 treaty purportedly ceding the valley was never signed by Joseph's people. Setting legalities aside, the war was the U.S. response to Joseph's insistence the Nez Perce owned their ancestral lands. As Antonio de Nebrija said to Queen Isabella in 1492, when he presented her with the first grammar of the Spanish language, "language is the instrument of empire." He encouraged her to understand the importance of language in controlling "the many barbarians" she will "soon…have placed her yoke upon." Sharfstein shows how at each interaction with federal authorities and their texts, Joseph focused on understanding not so much the particular words as the mechanisms through which "authoritative" documents were created, trying to find his way in the wilderness of American power.

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As General Howard prepared to invade the Wallowa Valley, he spurned traditional Nez Perce leaders as "dreamers" who "reject Christ"; he ordered "the guard-house for any dreamer leader for non-compliance with government instructions." The ensuing catastrophic attack on the dreamers—as on dreamer peoples everywhere—gives the lie to the "American Dream"—or perhaps it actually explains that Dream: the fantasy of a federal power attacking anything that threatens its national imperial project, operating in the name of a freedom that countenances many sorts of unfreedom.

"Manifest Destiny" of "Christian civilization"—the rationale for 19th century U.S. "Indian policy"—continues today in "Christian Discovery" doctrine in U.S. federal Indian law. "Trust" and "plenary power" doctrines may seem to produce contradictory results in particular cases, but they rest on a singular commitment to federal domination, which manifests on the ground at Standing Rock, Oak Flat, Bears Ears, and many other locations, and appears in the language of hundreds of cases.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinébe’iiná Náhiiłna be Agha’diit’ahii Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous issues.