Book Bag: Thunder in the Mountains

For the Bulletin
Thursday, August 31, 2017


Daniel J. Sharfstein

W.W. Norton & Company



In the long, tragic and ugly story of how Native Americans were killed and displaced by white expansion, there may be no sadder tale than what happened to the Nez Perce.

Living primarily in what today is central Idaho and northeastern Oregon, the Nez Perce saved the Lewis & Clark expedition from almost certain failure when its members, on the brink of starvation, stumbled out of the Bitterroot Mountains (on the Idaho/Montana border) in fall 1805 and came into a tribal encampment.

The Nez Perce fed the explorers, helped nurse them back to health and also looked after their horses as the expedition continued westward by boat to the Pacific Coast. And for 70 years afterward, the tribe enjoyed peaceful relations with whites.

But as Daniel Sharfstein’s new book, “Thunder in the Mountains,” outlines, the Nez Perce, like every Native American tribe before them, were eventually forced from their land by whites who wanted it for its timber, minerals and other resources.

In 1877, rather than move onto a reservation in Idaho, a band of Nez Perce, led primarily by the charismatic Chief Joseph, outmaneuvered several U.S. Army columns on a four-month, 1,100 chase that ended in north-central Montana just short of the Canadian border. 

It’s a story that’s been told a number of times before, but Sharfstein, a professor of law and history at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, tells his version with verve, from taut descriptions of battles to in-depth portraits of some of the central characters, including Chief Joseph (whose name in his own tongue, Heinmot Tooyalakekt, meant Thunder Rolling in the Mountains).

There’s an element of almost Shakespearean tragedy to the narrative, given that Joseph’s chief antagonist, U.S. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, who lost an arm fighting for the Union in the Civil War, had headed the federal Freedmen’s Bureau after the conflict, the government’s first real stab at social welfare.

The bureau’s primary goal was to educate former slaves and help them obtain land and other means for becoming full members of society, and the bible-quoting Howard, Sharfstein writes, was fully committed to that mission. Howard University, the nation’s first African-American insitute for higher education, is named after him

But when Reconstruction collapsed a few years later, Howard, amid charges of financial mismanagement at the bureau, fled his post and took over the army’s Pacific Northwest command. He was determined to redeem his reputation by moving Indian tribes in the region to reservations and turning them into Christian farmers, just as he had hoped to do with former slaves.

Yet Howard and other officers in his command were initially persuaded by Chief Joseph’s eloquent arguments that his people had a right to continue living freely on their ancestral lands. Unlike how they viewed most Native Americans, some of Howard’s men saw Joseph as “an equal negotiating partner, someone who was fit for citizenship, had rights, and deserved a hearing.”

By summer 1877, though, pressure from white settlers who wanted Nez Perce land renewed Howard’s determination to force Joseph’s band onto a reservation. In the ensuing battles to remain free, the outnumbered Nez Perce warriors often outfought army troops, but many of the tribe’s women, children and older men also perished.

Sharfstein offers an ironic coda to the tale, noting that Howard was widely criticized for bungling the campaign — and that in attempting in ensuing years to justify his actions in his writing, he helped make Joseph a hugely popular figure whose fame in the U.S. “took on a life of its own,” far outstripping Howard’s.

Joseph, who gave a memorable speech when the Nez Perce surrendered — “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever”— was later feted in Washington as a symbol of Native American dignity and resolve, even as U.S. officials turned down his repeated requests over the years to allow the remaining members of his tribe to return to the Wallowa Valley in Oregon.  

“Thunder in the Mountains” also serves as a meditation on the meaning of liberty and equality and the government’s role in creating that. One of Howard’s most trusted officers in the campaign, Charles Erskine Wood, another key figure in Sharfstein’s narrative, eventually became a fierce critic of U.S. imperialism and economic inequity; Wood believed the country had mistreated the Nez Perce and many others by allowing citizenship to be determined by “race, religion, gender, wealth or poverty, power and political allegiances.”

Sharfstein’s book could have used more editing, but this is an absorbing read and a good addition to the U.S.-Native American story. And it has personal appeal. I’ve camped, hiked and bicycled in some of the places described in the book: Yellowstone Park, the Big Hole Valley in Montana, the Snake River Canyon on the Oregon/Idaho border, the Wallowa Valley in Oregon. The last place is one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve seen in the U.S. I understand why the Nez Perce didn’t want to leave.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.