Ocracoke Post: Vollmann Dreams of Joseph?

Scott Esposito, author of the excellent literary web log Conversational Reading, has spread the word that the next volume of William T. Vollmann’s Seven Dreams series of novels might take on the subject of Chief Joseph:

Vollmann fans will be giddy to hear…that he’s shortly to begin work on the next dream in the Seven Dreams series. He said it will center around the life of Chief Joseph and that he’ll be playing with the chronology, perhaps telling the story backwards. He remarked that this may mean that the story will have a happy ending, something Vollmann stories typically don’t have.

Giddy, indeed. I hope nobody will object to a few notes giving some historical background, which I happen to be interested in at the moment because of a projected essay on a parallel subject I have been developing with a friend. To be clear: I know nothing about the upcoming novel whatsoever, other than that, if the report is accurate, I look forward to reading it. Since the larger meta-narrative of the Seven Dreams series involves the history of the clashes between Native Americans and their white colonizers since the settlement of the New World, it does seem logical that Joseph could become a central figure. His tragic heroism in attempting to save his Nez Perce people from ethnic cleansing in the 1870s is a story American schoolchildren may remember. Evicted from their homeland in the Wallowa valley of what is now Oregon, they attempted to flee to Canada to avoid being forced on to a reservation. Pursued by a much larger force of U.S. Army regulars under the command of the one-armed general Oliver O. Howard, Joseph managed to elude capture for around 1,000 miles through extremely shrewd tactics and maneuvers.

The definitive history of the subject is The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest, written by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., back in 1965 (Mariner Books reissued the complete and unabridged book in 1997 as a paperback). One of the more remarkable episodes in Josephy’s book involves a photograph taken by William H. Jackson before the 1877 war of a “half-blood with blue eyes and light hair,” who the Nez Perce claimed was the son of William Clark (of Lewis & Clark, the idea being that Clark fathered a son on his travels through the area). Later, when Joseph and the other “non-treaty” remnants who had refused the destruction of their homeland were finally captured in Montana some forty miles away from the Canadian border, by troops under Nelson Miles, they found a old man who was probably the same light-haired person in Jackson’s picture. The story of the photograph, which now resides in my hometown at the Iconographic Collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society, neatly encapsulates the drift down into the abyss of unnecessary and largely unprovoked violence that took place when white settlers replaced more friendly explorers in the Nez Perce homeland. The great tragedy of the Nez Perce was that they, among all the tribes of the West, were the most consistently friendly and accommodating allies of the whites.

Another remarkable dimension of the story is the role of the villain of the piece, General Howard, the man tasked with hunting Joseph down. (Because the Nez Perce had women and children with them, Howard today would be called, properly, a war criminal.) Howard might prove to be an ideal vehicle for Vollmann’s continual exploration of the bad conscience of white mythology. An abolitionist Civil War general who had atrocious luck in battle – losing his arm at in the accidental battle of Fair Oaks, routed by Jackson’s surprise attack at Chancellorsville, and given the worst troops in the worst field position on the first day of Gettysburg – Howard was reliable enough to rise to be one of Sherman’s key subordinates during the March to the Sea. He was one of few Northern military men to write about the suffering inflicted on the civilians of Atlanta, particularly the women (this in an article in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War). After the war, he helped found Howard University for African-Americans, before being posted to the West. Howard, in fact, seemed to have a paradoxical streak in his character whereby he tried to negotiate for the Nez Perce to stay in their homeland at first, but had nothing but contempt for what he saw as the satanic dimensions of Native American religion. What is so terrible about him is that he seemed to have every appearance of being an upright man, even a sympathetic man in some ways during the war.

In his memoir Nez Perce Joseph, Howard tried to justify his actions in a way that followed the commonly-held and relentless logic of dispossession:

There are few Indians in America superior to the Nez Perces. Among them the contrast between heathen and Christian teaching is most marked. Even a little unselfish work, both by Catholic and Protestant teachers, has produced wonderful fruit, illustrated by those who remained on the reservation during the war, and kept the peace; while the unhappy effects of superstition and ignorance appear among the renegades and “non-treaties.” The results to these have been murder, loss of country, and almost extermination. (Brig. Gen. O. O. Howard, “Preface,” Nez Perce Joseph.)

The connection between this fascinating (and awfully frank) statement and the general drift of how Native Americans were loved to death by the Catholic missionaries in Vollmann’s novel Fathers and Crows (the Second of the Seven Dreams) should be pretty clear. How Vollmann handles the story will be doubtless unexpected, unpredictable, and brilliant, as usual. If I had to hazard a single speculative remark (never wise, so advance apologies), I would probably guess that the story won’t be that Howard found ways to fail to capture Joseph. It would diminish Joseph’s military accomplishments to put that idea forward, for one thing. In fact, Howard did fail – mainly because with heavy equipment and logistical problems he couldn’t really keep up in the terrain – and in the end Sherman dispatched Miles’ troops to catch Joseph before he slipped across the border into Canada. Joseph hoped, possibly mistakenly, that Canada would have offered him and his people asylum. After being captured, Joseph made the speech for which he is known to history: “I will fight no more forever…”

The generally-rentable and pretty solid PBS series The West (Episode Six), directed by Stephen Ives and produced by Ken Burns, and written by the perennial Burns collaborator and scholar Geoffrey C. Ward, contains a lot of interesting documentary material on the story.