Interview by Anthony D´Amico, History Major
"Chief Joseph´s legacy is still a moving and powerful image, not only for Native Americans, but many Americans today. His words are still quoted today, and some quotes are reminiscent of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the way that he pleads for equality and fairness in society. He is considered one of the last great Chiefs, not so much for his action in battle, but the story of his exile and determination to stay strong in the face of despair. I am sure Edmond Meany went into the project with one mindset, and emerged with a different view about Joseph and Northwest Indians in general."
– Andrew Caveness
In the five hundred years after the arrival of Columbus, Native Americans experienced conquest, dispossession, and loss. Andrew Caveness´s M.A. thesis, however—"Delate Tilicums: Edmond S. Meany and Chief Joseph: Science, Politics, and the Making of an Intercultural Friendship, 1901-1905"—tells a different story. In this fascinating study of Indian-white relations, Caveness explains how it was that an early ethnographer and historian and an elderly Indian leader could develop a friendship, albeit a friendship that served each man´s interest in important ways.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, Edmond Meany was at a crossroads. He sought to become a history professor. His lack of a graduate degree, however, prohibited him from doing so. Meany at that time was studying at the University of Wisconsin under the famous Frederick Jackson Turner, author of "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." After completing his coursework, Meany became a part-time lecturer at the University of Washington. Meanwhile, he began work on his M.A. thesis.
As a result of his research, Meany drastically changed his views on Native Americans. As Andrew Caveness tells us, most Americans of Meany´s time believed Indians to be "savage" and "inferior." Historians and anthropologists argued that it would be impossible for Indians to succeed in modern America without assimilating. Meany, however, began to think otherwise.Like a few younger anthropologists, Meany challenged old dogmas about cultural hierarchy and savagery.
Although the term "cultural relativism" did not become popular until the 1940s, an anthropologist named Franz Boas had already argued that "any part of a culture must be viewed in its proper cultural context rather than from the viewpoint of the observer´s culture... Cultural relativism rejects the notion that any culture, including our own, possesses a set of absolute standards by which all other cultures can be judged." Boas´s views stood in stark contrast to those of prominent anthropologists like Lewis Henry Morgan, who deemed Indian societies "primitive."Most ethnographers and educators, along with the American public, notes Caveness, "clung to nineteenth-century theories about Indian culture, race, and station in a modern world."
Edmond Meany, similarly, initially believed in theories of social evolution.Primitive societies, he believed, must evolve into more complex ones.For his M.A. thesis, however, Meany elected to write on a "primitive" Native American—Chief Joseph—whose tribe, the Nez Perce, had lived in Oregon and Idaho prior to its conquest in 1877. Hoping that interviews and face-to-face meetings would enhance the prestige of his work and give it legitimacy, Meany interviewed Chief Joseph on multiple occasions.
Chief Joseph´s relationship with American settlers had been far from pleasant. Joseph´s band of Nez Perce originally resided in the Wallowa valley in Northeast Oregon. Although the federal government ratified a treaty with the Nez Perce in the 1850s that ensured the tribe´s right to the Wallowa Valley, the government soon rescinded its promise. After settlers moved into the area, the government sought to move the Nez Perce. Some of the Nez Perce agreed to move in exchange for government promises to build schools and hospitals and to provide annuities. Chief Joseph´s father, however, who was in charge a powerful band, refused to leave.
While his father lay dying in the 1870s, Joseph promised him that he would never sell his people´s land. Shortly thereafter, the United States threatened to use military force to remove the Nez Perce. The result was war. The Nez Perce, after driving out and killing a number of settlers, sought to escape the U.S. Army by fleeing to Canada. After an epic flight, they were defeated just a few miles short of the Canadian border. Reluctantly Chief Joseph led his people onto a reservation, though he never stopped fighting to return to his land.
Meany, in his M.A. thesis, wanted to tell Joseph´s story. To do that, he undertook extensive research before meeting Joseph. Meany compiled government records, reports from people who had fought against Joseph, and scholarship (such as it was) on the Nez Perce and the settlement of the West. Meany´s research was extensive. He spent so much time away from his family that his work began to wear on him. Doggedly, however, he continued. When he arrived back in Seattle after completing his M.A. in 1900 at the University of Wisconsin, he quickly made plans to meet with Chief Joseph.
Although he had little money and no funding at the time, Meany felt it was extremely important to meet Joseph personally. Joseph, upon receiving a letter from Meany, responded that he was eager to meet him. "You would be welcome here," wrote Joseph through an amanuensis. "I would be glad to see you. A long time ago we were not friends to the white people but we are friends now. I would be glad to hear from you again... My father, mother, and brother are buried at Wallowa and when I die I want to be buried there... I like your letter very much."
As historian Lee Clark Mitchell has noted, early twentieth-century ethnographers and historians undertook "a tremendous salvage operation ... to save Native American culture before it was lost." Meany, writes Caveness, was "swept up in that boom, and sought to save Chief Joseph´s story before it was too late." To get to Nespelem, however, the Meany had to take two different trains, a long wagon trip, and even a ferry. It likely took Meany two days to get from his home in Seattle to his destination.
The thorough notes that Meany subsequently took during his conversations with Chief Joseph (with the help of an interpreter) show Meany´s fascination for Nez Perce history and life. Joseph´s stories of war and hardship left Meany with empathy. Before heading back to Seattle Joseph gave the Professor something he had never given any other white person: a name. He called Meany "Three Knives," which had been Joseph´s own boyhood name.
If Meany sought Joseph´s friendship and counsel in order to advance his scholarly work, meanwhile, Joseph sought Meany´s friendship and counsel for his own reasons. He felt that the professor could help convince the government to allow him and his people to return to their homeland in Oregon´s Wallowa Valley. Though Joseph had lobbied local, state, and even federal authorities to that end, he had made little progress. To help Joseph in his effort to return to Wallowa, to publicize his own scholarly work, and to improve white-Indian relations, Meany asked Joseph to visit Seattle and the University of Washington.
In 1903 the Chief arrived in Seattle. Before giving his talk, he toured local sites, stayed at a luxurious hotel, and attended a University of Washington football game. Joseph´s comments on the football game show both his astonishment at white customs and his own dedication to peace. "I saw a lot of white men almost fight today. I do not think this good. This may be all right, but I believe its not." While he enjoyed the game and the hospitality, however, Joseph was there to gain public support for his cause. To accomplish that, he gave three speeches to students and Seattleites.
While away on business in 1904, Meany received news that Joseph had become ill. Joseph´s last days were on the horizon. Meany hurriedly sent Joseph a letter asking if there was anything he could do. The reply was gloomy; Chief Joseph, it said, had died. Meany lobbied the government to allow the Chief to be buried in Wallowa under a marker commemorating his bravery in war and his subsequent dedication to peace. The government, however, refused to send Joseph´s remains to Wallowa. He was buried in Nespelem, where his bones remain. Joseph´s family, meanwhile, presented Meany with one of Joseph´s buffalo robes as a token of the friendship.
Caveness argues that Meany and Joseph changed one another. Meany, who had been a believer in social evolution, "realized that although the Native Americans may not have been as "modern" as the white man, their culture was precious." Meany continued to advocate Indian causes. He called for the restoration of their lands and the preservation of their cultures.
Since completing his M.A. degree at CWU in 2005, Caveness has remained active as a scholar. In 2009, Arcadia Publishing produced Caveness´s first book, a photographic history of the city of Ellensburg titled simplyEllensburg. The book is rich with historical illustration and descriptions of Ellensburg´s past. Caveness currently works at CWU as a staff supervisor. His passion, however, is history, and his work as a researcher and writer is only beginning.
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