"Most prominent" headstone of Nez Perce leader replaced

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye

The family of Chief Ut-Sin-Malikan gave their great-great grandfather a proper ceremony after 150 years.

The year of his death “1868” is more readable on the old headstone than his name “Ut-Sin-Malikan.” Other than that, you wouldn’t know that this chief of the Nez Perce Nation is one of the 36 tribal leaders and delegates buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Five family members traveled from Arizona, Idaho and Washington to the cemetery along the Anacostia River to hold a ceremony to replace the 150-year-old headstone on Indigenous People’s Day.

Roberta Paul, one of the great-great-granddaughters, worked with Michael Brophy, director of the Baltimore National Cemetery Complex, for the past few months to design the new headstone since they only had a limited number of lines to work with.

The headstone is now engraved with “Chief Ut-Sin-Malikan, Nez Perce, 1793-1868, Signed Treaties 1855 & 1863” and ends with “Respected Leader, A Visionary, Spoke Truth, Sought Justice for All Nez Perce.”

The United States Department of Veteran Affairs paid for the headstone of Ut-Sin-Malikan and will maintain the gravesite. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

It was by coincidence that the chief’s descendants reached out to the Congressional Cemetery to replace the damaged headstone at the same time the National Cemetery Administration made the decision to replace it.

“This is the most prominent marker we’ve replaced,” said Brophy. At the family’s request, the old headstone sits at the foot of the burial while the new one is at the head.

During the ceremony, Dr. Paul said they contemplated moving his body to Idaho near his daughter, Wa-hee-loo.

“At one time we wanted to bring him home but then as we listened to our elders who said that doesn’t complete the story if we bring him home. That doesn’t tell the full story,” she said. “I don’t want to dig up the grave. He is where he is. He’s a warrior. In our tradition, where a warrior dies that’s where he’s buried.”

Due to assimilation, the family didn’t know their history.

“Our family has been trying to find our story because when we grew up in a time of history we were told to assimilate, assimilate, assimilate. You didn’t need to know your culture and Christianity played a part in that and understanding who we are. If you became a Christian, you are born anew,” she said. “You didn’t need to know your history or your language and so that kind of got buried. But thank goodness we had those who did collect those oral histories and oral stories and have preserved them and they eventually got published.”

The family will continue to collaborate with the National Cemetery Administration to create an interpretative sign near the burial site of their great-great grandfather and his daughter’s in Idaho so they can connect.

The Paul Family poses next to the new headstone in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. on October 8, 2018. L-R top row: Vonda Schuld, Jackie Inglis, Dr. Roberta Paul and Michael Foiles. Bottom row: Jesse Paul. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

Brophy acknowledged Ut-Sin-Malikan’s burial and ceremony as a “shared history” between Native Americans and the United States.

An ugly history. One where Native leaders traveled to the belly of the beast to fight for their lands despite the possibility of being killed and never going back to their homelands.

The Congressional Cemetery exists for that reason. Technology to keep bodies cold for transportation didn’t exist so leaders had to be buried away from their families. Seven Indian agents, commissioners and attorneys who worked on behalf of tribal nations are also buried here.

As Dr. Paul said, if they brought Ut-Sin-Malikan home people wouldn’t wonder what happened to him and his fight for the Nez Perce Nation.

Ut-Sin-Malikan’s story has been a quest for the Paul Family. His controversial death is covered in question marks. Family members even disagree with one another about his death.

The formation of Oregon and Washington state led to the treaty process between the United States and the Nez Perce Nation.

Governor Isaac I. Stevens negotiated with leaders from Umatilla, Yakama, Cayuse, Palouse and Nez Perce. Nez Perce leaders, including Ut-Sin-Malikan, agreed to cede 7.5 million acres of their land and kept their fishing and hunting rights in the Treaty of 1855.

In 1860, settlers discovered gold on the Nez Perce land and “gold seekers violate the treaty of 1855 by moving onto the designated lands of the treaty,” wrote Dr. Paul in her Nez Perce Paul Family research.

Instead of stopping the “trespassers” the federal government shrunk the Nez Perce lands by 90 percent in the 1863 Treaty, or “steal treaty,” according to the National Park Service. The Paul Family’s great great grandfather signed the treaty, but he soon realized that it was wrong to sell the lands of his brothers.

According to Dr. Paul’s research, this treaty is also known as the “sell out” treaty because it was signed by the treaty chiefs, who were Christians, without the non-treaty chiefs, who were not Christian.

At 75 years old, Ut-Sin-Malikan travels to Washington, D.C., to renegotiate the treaty with three other chiefs - Chief Lawyer, Chief Timothy and Chief Jason. And they don’t take the straight route. They take a steamboat to Portland, ride a steam ship to San Francisco, and hop on another steam ship to the Isthmus of Panama where they ride a train across the isthmus. Ut-Sin-Malikan “sees jungle for the first time in his life,” according to historian Alvin M. Josephy, Jr. in his 1997 book, “The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest.”

(Dr. Paul and her sister, Jackie Inglis, traveled the same route a few years ago. Dr. Paul was amazed that an elder could take that journey.)

The four chiefs eventually traveled to New York City and took the train to the Capitol.

“He is well enough to speak. He does speak in front of Congress and says, ‘It is not right that we sell away the lands of our brothers,” Paul said. “He was speaking up for them.”

He died 10 days after his arrival. There are two stories to Ut-Sin-Malikan’s death.

The death certificate says Ut-Sin-Malikan died of typhoid fever. Dr. Paul and Inglis’s brother, Jesse Paul, believes this story.

The National Cemetery Administration noticed the deterioration of the top of the headstone and reached out to the Paul Family. The family coincidentally wanted to replace it. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

On the other hand, Dr. Paul leans toward the second controversial story.

As told in the Nez Perce oral history by Wottolen and documented in Lucullus Virgil McWhorter in the book, “Hear me, My Chiefs!” Ut-Sin-Malikan was pushed out of a window (and he was ill).

“Nathaniel Taylor or his agent gave Lawyer, Timothy, and Jason whisky. Utsinmaslihkin would not drink. A powerful speaker, he refused to sign the treaty. Talked strongly against some of its wording and for this he was shoved from a high window and killed. This was told by timothy when he returned home. Whites did this bad deed.

“The government made strong laws against selling whisky to the Nez Perces, but its own hand placed the bottle to the lips of our tribe’s delegates that their names might be given to a treaty which the people knew nothing about; a treaty worded solely by the white man. Chief Utsinmaslihkin was murdered because he would not drink. Everybody knew him to be a good man.

“All I know of Utsinmaslihkin, he was seen lying near a gutter one morning dead. He laid there part of a day when a Women’s Club took care of the body and buried him. This is what a Miss Fletcher told when here allotting Indian lands, 1888-93. She was eight years old at the time and her mother belonged to the Women’s Club. So, today no one knows whether he was killed or probably fell from the window. I never heard that the three returned chiefs ever admitted how their partner died.”

Dr. Roberta Paul parts with her great-great grandfather's headstone after a public ceremony. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

Dr. Paul acknowledges her great-great grandfather’s illness but wonders how does he end up on the sidewalk in the middle of the day?

“I myself and another distant cousin had a dream where we dreamed of a white hand pushing him out of the window,” said Dr. Paul while slowly motioning a push of with her hand during the ceremony. “And I did not know that distant cousin, but we had the same dream. Dreams are very powerful. I believe in my dreams.”

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter@jourdanbb. Email:jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com

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Comments (3)
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Thank-you for being a witness to the replacement of our Great Great Grandfathers headstone. This is important to our family and the reclaiming of our history and cultural roots.

Roberta L. Paul, PhD