Divide and Conquer on the Colville Reservation?

Monday September 17, 2012

By Dina Gilio-Whitaker

September 21 marks the 108th anniversary of the death of one of the most famous Indians in American history, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. The date will go by with little notice by America, with the possible exception of the residents of the Colville Indian reservation, where Joseph spent his last days and what remained of his band of people came to live several years after their capture. The saga of Joseph and his people and how they came to live on the Colville reservation is truly one of the most shameful moments in American history, but was unfortunately a story all-too-familiar to many tribes of the Indian wars and Dawes Act era at the close of the 19th century.

In the world of indigenous studies one of the most important research principles is that stories derived from the lived experience are legitimate ways of knowing history, as they help balance out the sanitized historical narratives that typically characterizes patriotism-inducing American history telling. No one grows up on the Colville reservation without hearing their families talk about the impact that the Nez Perce relocation to Colville had on the people who were already there. It caused considerable tension and sometimes even hatred that lingered through multiple generations. For example, my great uncle remembered how in the early days when the Indians were still relying on government rations for their survival, the Nez Perce were charged with the task of handing out the always-insufficient food supplies. This naturally resulted in the Nez Perce families receiving more than others in the interest of not starving, a reality endemic to early reservation life. This is a story you're not likely to read in any history book.

It's hard not to cynically think of it as one way the US government deployed a divide and conquer technique to people they needed control over. It sowed the seeds of division for many years on the reservation, creating just one more wound the people would have to heal from. Chief Joseph's grave sits just downhill from my mother's cousin's house. Despite the sad history of the Colville Nez Perce people, I for one am proud that my Colville ancestors claimed Joseph as one of their own and that his bones lie in our lands.


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