The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume VII, Number 2, Pages 30-40
"Paloos/Colville family pose with pony, Colville Indian Reservation, Washington, ca. 1900-1910."
Library of Congress, Native American History Collection, 2008
Several years ago, when I had first begun to discover the literature and reminiscences of western women, I wrote a paper attacking the obsessive violence of the frontier myth. That paper was subsequently published in Women, Women Writers and the West, edited by L. L. Lee and Merrill Lewis. It took me some time to realize how audacious I had been. On the basis of a handful of women's writings, I had challenged years of accumulated scholarship. I don't believe, however, that I was wrong. I offer now a renewed attack on the preoccupation with violence in the frontier myth basing my attack on another nontraditional source, oral history.
I want to consider the encounter between new settlers and Native Americans not as a mythic event but as a mundane aspect of daily life. For that reason I have deliberately chosen a nonheroic title – "Everyday Encounters." I want to recapture the experience of culture contact, as ordinary white settlers of the Palouse region remember it. The reminiscences of everyday encounters between white settlers and Indians which I will discuss are drawn from three local oral history collections: the Latah County Historical Society, the Whitman County Historical Society, and the Idaho Rural Women's Oral History Project. I will focus on the experiences of women and children.
When whites began to settle the Palouse country in the early 1870's, they were, of course, not moving into uninhabited territory. The region was the home of numerous Indian tribes, who had long-established trails and settlement sites. The whites, generally ignorant of Indian practice, often settled on or near a well-travelled trail. This conjunction provides the largest single source of oral history stories.
Whites came into contact with Indians as the latter passed through on a seasonal basis, or as they camped where they always had, except that now it was close to a new barn or house. Usually, the white women were very frightened of the Indians, either because of fear of violence or because Indians, like gypsies, were reputed to steal children. Nevertheless, white women had to cope. Minnie Brandon remembered that her mother, although frightened, nevertheless offered passing Indians some of her homemade bread. The Indians liked the taste so much that they subsequently brought huckleberries to trade for more bread, and so a friendly bartering relationship developed. Another version of the same basic encounter was offered by Edward Swenson of Latah County. One day Indians camped in what had become an oats field:
Father and the older boys were away that day, so it was mother and my sister and I. And so mother told me, she said, "You better go and tell them to move their horses off the oats." Well, I had heard the Indians were wild, you know, and I was pretty well scared of it, but I managed to get over there and showed 'em where they should stake their horses. And they did, they started to move, put their horses over. I ran back to the house. Then mother told me she said, 'They were nice to you," so she said, "ask them to come in and have their meal." WelL of course I couldn't talk to them, but somehow or other I got the message across. So they came to the house. There was five or six of 'em. And mother set the table out so they could eat at the table, but they put the table back where it was, and they set down on the floor in a circle and had their dinner. And mother had coffee for them, and sugar and cream and things like that, you know, a little fruit. So they really enjoyed it.
When the Indians came back in the fall, a trade for deer skins developed. The Indians originally offered 50 cents for deer hides, but Mrs. Swenson successfully held out for a price of 75 cents per skin.
Initial contact was often made through food, as in these two stories above. But although white women served the food, they did not always control its disposal. For example, one reminiscence captures a woman's grudging hospitality:
(The Indians) used to come right by my folks' place…They knew my dad well…and they always stopped. They'd come sometimes around dinnertime…and mother had soup, and dad would always invite 'em in. And they'd eat, and then…what they had left, the bucks would take it outside and give it to the squaws…After they'd left mother used to put the boiler on the stove and put the dishes in and boil (them).
Initial contact might be made over food, and therefore require the participation of white women, but permanent trading relationships were usually managed by the white men, not the white women.
Although women may have been afraid of Indians, many tried to encourage their children to be less fearful. One narrator recalled,"[Mother was] scared to death of Indians but she used to always tell us not to be afraid of them" and went on to describe the interest and excitement of watching the Indians on the move. Another narrator laughingly recalled this encounter:
I had a little mare…and I was just a little fella and…I got on the road, and I got curious, wondering what's around the next corner, and I kept a-riding up in the back country there, probably two or three miles…them days, y'know, they used to hear about Indians scalpin’ kids…and oh, the horror stories, oh man, the Indians was terrible critters. And I went around a sharp corner in the road there, and here come a whole bunch of Indians up the road, and two or three guys riding horses in front. My old hair just went up just like that! And I turned that cayuse around, I just about beat her rump off! And them Indians yelled y'know, and they run their horses behind me a-ways. I bet them Indians never had such a big laugh. Man. I could feel my scalp going off right there, and I beat that cayuse to death coming home. (chuckles) I'll bet them Indians thought that was the best show they've ever had, scaring that damn white kid. Oh boy.
A particularly nicely written reminiscence comes from the Tekoa Region, which was the chief trading center for the Coeur d' Alene Indians. Because of frequent contact, many local white people stopped being fearful. Bertha Wiliiams wrote:
I recall…when I was an adult meeting a group [of Indians] riding on a trail in the mountains in Idaho going huckleberrying, and one Indian woman reaching down with her horse-urging stick and tickled me with it. We both laughed, but my companion, reared on horrible Indian tales, was sure, for a moment, there were evil intentions.
Not all encounters were so pleasant. Emmet Utt remembered:
Another time we was up huckleberrying. And the Indians used to go up there huckleberrying, too. Of course, with the white man there's always one smart aleck, always one in the bunch. So this guy watched his chance. Well he went down there, and stole a bunch of berries. And, oh boy, he thought he pulled something smart. Well, that evening just about when it was starting to get dark, here comes a couple bucks up there. And they just sat down on a log and just looked at the camp. Never said a gall damn word. And by gosh, they sat there and sat there and finally by gosh, they got up and went back. The fools harnessed up the horses, and got the hell out of there that night. I remember that, them Indians sitting there, I can still see them. They just set there and don't say nothing, just look at ya. What they should have done, by gosh, is took that guy and led him out there…'There he is."(chuckle) It could have got the whole bunch of us killed over that.
And that just brings me to the Indian scare of 1877. The beginnings of Chief Joseph's War frightened many whites, and they gathered in Colfax. Here is one woman's story.
The people around Farmington were afraid to have their families there. So they, everybody, loaded up their families and went to Colfax. I can't remember whether mother said they put us in a church or a schoolhouse, but there were lots of kids, and they got the measles. And my father came, he got worried about if they had enough food and everything, and drove over to see what was going on. And mother said, "1 want to go home." "I would rather fight Chief Joseph than live amongst these sick kids." So she went home, and she's never seen Chief Joseph.
And from the Idaho side of the Palouse, comes this delightful story.
The folks were getting along real fine in their new homesteads. The orchards were going good and their wheat fields were doing nicely, and they were just having a lot of real good farming, good times. And all of a sudden Grandma looked up and there comes a rider with a foamy horse just a'pounding the horse just as hard as he could and riding and screaming, "Indians, Indians! They're coming, they're coming, going to scalp ya."
Grandma said, "Scalp us? Why the Indians are friendly, what's the matter with you?"
"Well they're going to, they got trouble up there in Mullan and around Spokane and Colville and all around up in there, and they're going to come down here and scalp us all. We got to run to the fort quick."
And he just beat it on as fast as he could go, a'pounding his horse making it go faster and faster till the poor horse could hardly go it looked like. Grandma said, "Well, I don't see what's the use."
And old lady Roland over towards Camas Meadows said, "I'm not going into that fort. You can all go to the fort if you want to, but I'm going to watch my garden. I don't want the cows and everything to get into my garden and ruin it. I've got a good garden this year."
So she stayed out there and watched her garden, and all of the other people who were afraid went into the fort. And the old lady Roland would take 'em some milk, some cottage cheese and butter, vegetables from her garden now and then. And she'd always say, "Well what are you getting so scared about? There aren't any Indians around here, there's no Indian trouble. What's the matter with you anyway7 I'm just going to stay right on my place, and you can just eat my vegetables this fall if you're going to let yours go to waste." So...finally, after a long time, the other settlers came back, but they were real scared. They weren't going to stay on those homesteads if the Indians were around. But Grandma and old lady Roland, they weren't a bit afraid.
These reminiscences are representative of others in our regional oral history collections. The story they tell is humorous, although indeed the humor is often tinged with apprehension. They present a view of white-Indian relations which is based upon adaptation and accommodation, not on conflict and violence.
These "everyday encounters" are tremendously important because they are grassroots historical reality. This is not a fictional and melodramatic captivity narrative, but what really happened. As Gary Nash, a colonial historian, has recently reminded us in The Urban Crucible:
Examination of the circumstances of life for the great mass of common people in every period and place and inquiry into their ways of thinking and acting are essential if we are ever to test and correct the hallowed generalizations made from the study of the select few upon which our understanding of history is primarily based.
The frontier has been officially closed now for almost 100 years. Surely it is time to reconsider what the frontier has meant in American History, and to move away from sweeping but simplistic generalizations about culture conflict, about the land, and so on, to consider the mundane complexities of life as people really lived it. We have the sources to do that, and some of the narrators are remarkably clear. Here in closing is a final oral history snippet that sums up the whole topic. When Elva Bennet was asked, "How did people around here feel about the Indians?" she replied, "Oh, there's no resentment or anything. I'm sure. After all, we took the country away from them."