Treaties and Treachery: The Northwest Indians’ Resistance to Conquest
Kurt R. Nelson
Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Press, 2011
xiv, 280 pages, $18.95
“History is written by the victors.”
While on its face this is obvious – who else would have the power and means to write the story of a culture or civilization but those who became dominant? – the deeper meaning of this oft-used axiom is that the history written will often glorify the victors while glossing over the means by which that victory was won, and the sometimes unsavory means by which the vanquished were conquered. In Treaties and Treachery: The Northwest Indians’ Resistance to Conquest, author Kurt R. Nelson attempts to write the history of the vanquished, thus providing balance to a story often overlooked. In doing so, he successfully makes what happened to the Indians even more compelling, and adds to the weighty pathos that is this history of Indian-white relations.
Nelson sets out to prove two fundamental arguments: first, that depravity and atrocities were committed on both sides; and second, that the history of this conflict, which was particularly hot in the Oregon Territory between 1853-1859 for various reasons he explains, continues to influence and shape events even today. The first premise is amply proven through detailed accounts of the many battles in the various theaters of war during this period, the interactions between the two clashing cultures, and the various, and often conflicting, motivations and agendas of the people, personalities, and politics involved. The starkest example of this, Nelson relates, is the difference in philosophy between the territorial leaders and militias and their federal counterparts, particularly the leaders of the regular U.S. Army. The former group favored annihilation of the various Indian tribes, while the latter on the whole were more sympathetic towards their opponents and attempted to deal with them fairly through negotiation and enforcement of the treaties, something the territorial officials never intended to do. As a result, Indian aggression and atrocities stemmed more from extreme frustration and too much experience with a long trail of broken promises and mixed messages.
Nelson’s second hypothesis, that the history of this volatile period of time continues to influence the region today, suffers from a lack of attention and detail compared to the first premise. While stressed in the book’s introduction, the question of how the past influences the present is never answered. Only in the book’s final few pages is this issue even mentioned again, and then it is left as a question to be answered by the reader, with no evidence or data with which to answer it. In contrast, Brian Schofield, in his book Selling Your Father’s Bones: America’s 140-Year War Against the Nez Perce Tribe (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009; reviewed in vol. 59, no. 2 of The Idaho Librarian) offers a complete, compelling, and transcendent argument that the history created in the 19th century between whites and Indians is very much alive and inseparable from life in the Pacific Northwest today.
Aside from editorial mistakes and inconsistencies, and problems with the writer’s style and organization, this book successfully tells a story that is necessary and long overdue. It is not a smooth read, but would fit well in any academic library or public library with a focus on the history of the Pacific Northwest. It definitely offers keen insight into the intractable problem of Indian-white relations during a very pivotal time in American history.
Christopher N. Fox is Catalog Librarian at BYU-Idaho McKay Library. He also enjoys his duties as a subject selector for U.S. History and popular fiction.