My book buying habits were shaped by living in Browning through the Sixties before the Internet was invented. There were no bookstores in town, so when I got to Great Falls or some other metropolis, I dashed to the nearest (which was often the only) bookstore and galloped down the aisles picking things off the shelves strictly according to their covers. I had no reviews or recommendations. Even now, when I get to some small historical society bookstore where some of the books were produced at the local Kinko’s and others are so specialized that I can’t guess what they’re about, I do the same thing.
“With the Nez Perces: Alice Fletcher in the Field, 1889 -- 92” by E. Jane Gay came to my hand in just this way -- the impulse of a moment. It was edited, with an introduction by Frederick E. Hoxie and Joan T. Mark (U of Nebraska Press, 1981. ISBN 0-8032-7024-0 pbk). All these names are good signs. The illustrations are wonderful photographs made by E. Jane Gay. The form is a series of letters. The index and notes are useful.
The book is actually about platting out the Nez Perce reservation for division into privately owned “homesteads” for the Indians. Jane Gay describes this thus: “To those not conversant with Government legislation in regard to the aborigines of our country, it may be well to say that after narrowing the tribal lands to the extreme limit of prudence, and it began to look as if the ever encroaching white man would ‘take’ all that was then left, Congress, on February 8th, 1887, passed the Land in Severalty Act, commonly called the Dawes Bill.
“This Bill gave to each Indian an allotment of his tribal land and secured it to him by trust patent, to be superseded after twenty-five years by fee simple patent.
“Special Agents were appointed by the President to apportion these lands, and ‘Her Majesty,” Alice C. Fletcher, was among the first to be sent to the field in that capacity, having already allotted the Omaha tribe under a special Act.”
“Her Majesty” always appears in photos with an imposing hat of wide brim and a large decoration of some sort. Not the same hat at all, and augmented by a scarf when wind made it necessary to tie her hat to her head. Rather astoundingly, E. Jane Gay becomes two persons: the Cook, who is eminently practical and resourceful, and the Photographer (for whom she uses the male pronoun) who is much more philosophical but must take his opportunities after the cooking is done. The best parts of the books are when the Cook gets into an argument with the Photographer. “Her Majesty” does not argue. Not even Briggs, the exceedingly competent and moral surveyor, will try. But “Her Majesty” works from dawn to dark and if the horses are having a long pull up the mountain roads, she gets out and walks without being urged. Day after day she sets up her desk, usually just a board across two chair backs or potato sacks, and dips her pen.
The idea was that the Nez Perce were so peaceable and Christianized that they would easily agree to having their reservation cut up and assigned in pieces. That was about as realistic as the idea that Idaho land -- a mix of steep valleys, mountains, gumbo, rock ledges, swift rivers, alkali and seemingly constant forest fires -- could be nicely divided into squares and plowed for crops. Far from being surveyed for productive farms, the land didn’t even have surveyed roads.
So the women set out on deer paths with a tent and a sheet metal stove loaded onto a dubious wagon. Two stalwart female missionaries, sisters, smoothed the way when they could, loaning cabins and reassuring angry warriors. As it turned out, the tribe was split in the usual way between those who wanted to convert and go into the future, versus those who wanted to stay back in the old ways, esp. the ones who were powerful according to the old ways. One sorcerer came and glared at “Her Majesty” all one afternoon while she interviewed people about their land needs and desires. He hoped to shrivel her into nonexistence with his Evil Eye. At the end of the day, unshriveled, she shooed him out the door and shut it on him as he blinked powerlessly.
At first the people were dubious, resistant, amused, and irate. Gradually, almost one-by-one, “Her Majesty” gained stature until she was appealed to for intercession even against the Mighty Agent, since she was the only one considered powerful enough to oppose him. (Agents came and went while the women did their four year stint, but one of them was John Monteith, brother of James Monteith who was agent for the Blackfeet during the time of allotment.) The Cook was also good for a rousing speech to the locals about “growing some vertebrae” and standing up to injustice, though she didn’t speak the local language.
Instead of “squaw men,” Jane Gay described “border men” with tribal wives who lived along the edges of the reservation -- often trespassing. When Briggs came along with his surveying equipment it was often clear that both bordermen and those without even the marginal entitlement of a Nez Perce wife had taken land inside the boundaries, as well as cutting Indian timber, grazing their stock on Indian grass, and diverting Indian water to their own uses -- even if it cut off the irrigation of survival gardens. Likewise when the railroad came through, it cut farms in half, destroyed orchards, and ate up fertile land. The women witnessed all this in their shuttling to and fro for their duties but could do little about it.
They had the idea that this would stop as soon as the tribesmen were not just citizens but also propertied, landed, and entitled -- but it was hard to get it into the Nez Perce heads that they had votes and power. In fact, the experience of most allotted reservations was that the division was followed by a few years of prosperity and then decades of despair and decline as the land base eroded away.
(For the Blackfeet, the task of division was undertaken by Helen Clarke, daughter of Malcolm Clark and a female relative of Mountain Chief. Consider THAT division.)
The Cook, the Philosopher, “Her Majesty,” and Briggs all came to love the Nez Perce, “their” people, very much. This book is meant to help and protect them, though the women never returned.