On August 7th 1871, Indian commissioner Alfred B. Meacham met with representatives of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. The mission was to discuss the possibility of the tribe relinquishing its reservation and combining with one of their neighboring reservations in Washington State or Oregon.
The transcript of this meeting is found in the M234 series of microfilm. The series is mainly correspondence of Indian Affairs from the Oregon superintendency. the microfilm was accessed at the NARA downtown Washington, D.C. facility, but there are copies at many other libraries. This transcript is 61 pages in a report dated January 1, 1872. There is a follow-up transcript to another meeting in Salem, Oregon at the Methodist Episcopal Church (First Methodist Union Church) on State Street during the time of the State fair. This second meeting is 80 pages of content, includes most of the tribes, except for Klamath, which was too far away for travel.
Superintendent Alfred Meacham begins the meeting by addressing the Umatilla leaders, and continually stressing the advantages of the American civilization, their advancement ahead of the Indians and how far behind the Indians are. Meacham speaks in great detail about the way things were for the Indians before removal and settlement, and the ways things are in 1871. This has got to be painful and somewhat disrespectful to the tribal leaders assembled. Yet the tribal leaders decline to speak on the first day. They also allow Meacham to set the tone the next day too. Then when they have listened politely and completely, their first major statement is by Umapino (sp?) who completely captures the meaning and trivializes it at the same time, reducing the argument that Meacham is making down to the notion of “days”. The “days” in his statement stands for the differential in civilization and advancement.
“I suppose you bring your hearts from Washington. I am a poor Indian. I know nothing, you are a great many days ahead of us. I suppose you know that you are leaving us many days behind, we don’t know much, we will not take offense because you tell us that we are many days behind you.”
In the midst of his statement, Umapino states clearly that the tribe is aware that the United States is impoverishing them intentionally. This seems like a statement that begs to be answered by Meacham.
Meacham answers with a speech about the values of books, of knowledge. That books tell the truth, and that there are honest men and dishonest men. That the government has the welfare of the Indians at heart and are honest and that the tribe could not maintain its reservation for 24 hours without the government to keep the settlers off the reservation. This argument by Meacham is his attempt to put everything into perspective but does not really address Umapino’s statement.
The third day the federal agents stress the coming conflicts when more whites come on the railroads and want more lands. They state they do not want a war of extermination. They caution the tribe against retaliatory acts against the whites who attack them. They stress all of this and then ask if it would not be better to reduce the reservation or move elsewhere. It seems like they are trying to put a little fear in the hearts of the tribe and spark some self-preservation. What they do not state is telling. They don’t say they will defend the reservation against the settlers, nor do they offer to allow the Indians to defend their own lands. The argument is very much stacked against the tribe towards removal.
In this era, there were lots of efforts by settlers to take the reservations lands of the tribes. Land claims had nearly ceased as land claims had taken all the best lands and resource rich lands were no longer available. So settlers saw the vast expanses of some of the reservations as perhaps subject to settlement. American settlers began complaining to the politicians to open more lands for settlement. They were successful. In 1875 the Coast reservation was reduced again (previously reduced in 1865) opening some 2/3 of the former reservation to settlement. In addition, the neighbors to the Umatilla Reservation, the Nez Perce Reservation, was being challenged by squatters, ranchers, and gold miners who wanted the Nez Perce tribe out of the way. Gold had been discovered in 1860. Pressures on the tribe mounted and large sections of the reservation were subject to sale in 1863, with the Nez Perce gaining additional money from the federal Government for the encroachment of the Americans. But tensions rose in 1876, and in 1877 the Nez Perce War caused the tribe to attempt to escape to Canada. The result being that the Nez Perce Reservation was terminated and the tribe has yet to return to Oregon. We can assume the same pressures existed for the Umatilla people a short distance to the west of the Nez Perce territory in the Wallowas.
Herotish-Wampe spoke on this day. His statements were about the things promised by the government that they had not seen yet on the reservation.
“When Stevens made the treaty he told us as much as 3 mules could pack of money should be sent to us, and pointed out this law and said there is so much land for you- I don’t know what has become of that money- all the chiefs where to have good houses with windows like your white chiefs, I don’t see any of them- I git up and moved and came here on this reservation. He told me this was for 20 years, he told me we were going to stay 20 years and have an Agent and then look out for ourselves. Then I came here. I have been here 11 years and all that he promised I have not seen. I think it must be lost. I hear what you say about my land, I like my land. I don’t want to dispose of it. I look at this land like my mother, as if it was giving milk and I was sucking. I see that this little piece of land is good. This reservation I see marked out for me. The people on this reservation are doing their work themselves. I know that you are asking me for my land, and I don’t know whether you will fulfill whatever you promised me. I do not see that money that was promised before. All my stock I have , I have to keep on what little land I have, that is the reason I want this little piece of land left me. The land that I gave Govn. Stevens the whites have got and settled and I feel that I have only got a small piece of land left. The other reservations are already filled with Indians. The Nez Perces are living on their reserve. At Simcoe the same and at Warm Springs the same. I see them on their reservations, they feel that I am living on my reservation. My reservation that I am living on I cannot let go.”
A powerful statement indeed.
Later Meacham does address the issues raised. He states that the money funded services to the reservation, including a carpenter “to build coffins wherein to bury your dead.” A bit of a morbid statement. Meacham does not miss a chance to point out the decline of the tribes at the reservation.
Pierre- an old man at the reservation, Pierre is particularly strong in his statements. He states he has no need for money and that he will never sell his land. He invokes the notion of heart like many others. He states “not with a bad heart”. To me he is saying that he speaks from his heart and from his inner feelings for his land. That he speaks the absolute truth, and that he does not have bad feelings about the discussion taking place. He speaks the truth and so he has no grudges, nothing left unsaid and so nothing to take away with him.
This council with the Umatillas lasted for four days. Over and over the tribal leaders told the commission they would not sell their lands. yet still a proposal was forwarded. This was likely rejected. In this transcription, we learn a lot about the thoughts of these people in the 1870s. They were strong, had a string philosophy regarding their peoples and culture, and knew that relinquishing any more land would be foolish. They knew that the government would lie again and take their land and not return what it promised. They were having none of that, and so they all rejected the proposal. Meacham continued to talk about the negatives which would be inflicted on their culture and land, and the potential impacts of the impending railroad into the region. The Tribal leaders were not having any of it. Through the strength and conviction of the Tribal leadership, the white American in the area of the Umatilla reservation had to adjust to a permanent reservation in their midst.
This event compares favorably with the statements from the Governors’ Indian Affairs Council in Salem in 1950 when termination policy was being discussed. There the Umatillas again state their power, the lack of follow-through by the Americans and the fact they were treated as second class citizens. Then their condemnation was answered with changes in Oregon laws regarding Native rights. But, the strength of the Umatilla leadership also halted one of the most horrible federal Indian policies, termination. The Umatilla Reservation was never terminated, unlike the western Oregon tribes and Klamath.