Presently, there is an apology bill being considered in the Oregon State Senate for the Modoc Indian War of 1872-1873. This apology is long past due to the Modoc people who were forcibly removed to Oklahoma Indian County after the battlefield trials of their leaders. Numerous leaders of the Modocs, including Captain Jack were hung in what amounted to a battlefield-hanging immediately after they were captured in a ruse of a peace negotiation. Modoc people today rightly point out that,
“They were tried by the very same people that they fought in the war against,” Tupper said. “And so when you have Modoc people dying after a war and no officers in the Army dying for the same things and same transgressions against the Modoc people, then that’s blatantly unfair.”
The bill would formally apologize to the Modoc for their treatment by noting that “Senate Concurrent Resolution 12 states “that we, the members of the Eightieth Legislative Assembly, commemorate the Modoc War of 1872-1873, and we recognize and honor all those who lost their lives in that costly conflict; and be it further resolved, that we express our regret over the execution of Kintpuash, Schonchin John, Black Jim and Boston Charley in October 1873 and for the expulsion of the Modoc tribe from their ancestral lands in Oregon.””
This apology is a cull-out of a larger issue which the State of Oregon has yet to confront in any manner. The fact that the state perpetrated genocide against native peoples since the formation of its Volunteer Militia, also known as Rangers in about 1843 with the ratification of the Organic Acts. One of the first acts was to form a militia to protect the White Americans from encroachments from “Indians.” In the 1850s, when settlement had advanced to the point that all good farm land was claimed in the state, the tribes were forced to the brink of survival. They were starving because their traditional territories were overrun by White American settlers, and who saw Indians as vermin to be exterminated. Numerous editorials and letters to the area newspapers, notably the Oregon Statesman in Salem, called for the “extermination” of all Indians.
Conflicts between Natives and whites began in the 1840s and continued getting worse in the 1850s. Tribal peoples, were forced to steal foods from the settlers when the settlers refused to share their newfound wealth. Settlers destroyed native food resources by plowing prairies and running pigs and cattle on their farms. Then settlers hunted out the game with their firearms. So most of the principal food staples of the tribes were heavily impacted or destroyed by changes to the land brought by settlers. Along with this, when settlers claimed all of the land, they took over tribal lands without the approval of tribes, and without the federal government purchasing the land appropriately.
For at least 11 years, 1844 to 1855, settlers took lands that the tribes still legally owned. Tribal communities lost land and food and when there were conflicts, they worked to settle the conflicts by taking back what was being stolen. Settlers called this theft, and the federal government called it depredations. This is what the volunteer militia was supposed to control.
The militia began to take action against tribal communities whenever that was a perceived “crimes” committed by tribal peoples. The word “Crime” really only applies if the tribal peoples are Americans, they were not, and all of the land was legally still theirs until 1855, for much of western Oregon. Under tribal law, if other people take from you, hunt your land, steal your land, they have the right to exact retribution and make war upon you. So, in actuality it was the settlers who were committing the crimes, taking, stealing land and resources from the tribes.
How did this happen? The federal government simply assumed that the land was theirs, as there was not a previous agreement between the tribes and the United States before treaties.
Back to the Militias and genocide- When cattle were taken by tribal people, the militia exacted retribution by attacking Indian villages. When settler wagon trains or supply routes were attacked by tribes, the militias would attack native encampments, killing all men, women, and children, usually killing all of the people they could find or who ran away, sometimes capturing a few women and children. They took these actions of attacking native encampments without warning, they did not try to negotiate, or bring anyone up on trial, or ask for the perpetrators of the previous attack. There were no legal proceedings and the Militia attacks amounted to battlefield executions of foreign peoples, without knowing if anyone was even guilty, without ever declaring war.
The Militia were funding wholly by the Oregon Territorial government, and after 1859, the State of Oregon. The militia was halted for a time in their genocidal action when in 1855 General John E. Wool took command in the region and employed regular army troops to defeat the Rogue River Confederacy. Incidentally, the whole Rogue River War was caused by volunteer militia of Oregon and California attacking Indian settlement on the Table Rock Reservation without provocation. General Wool investigated the problems in southern Oregon and published his opinion in the state’s newspapers, essentially, that the whole conflict was the fault of the volunteer militia. This was an unpopular political position in the territory, and a sympathy also held by Oregon Indian Superintendent Joel Palmer, who worked with the Army to save the tribes from further extermination by placing them on Indian reservations, with Army Blockhouses erected to protect the Indians from further attacks by white American militias. Palmer’s actions to save the tribes got him fired because of political pressure from white American settlers.
The tribal people had no rights under U.S. rule to take white people to court, they were not allowed in a U.S. court of law, and could not testify if they saw murder on their people. The tribes could not recover lost lands, lost resources, lost houses, horses, or any other property, and there was no process for trying white people for murdering Indians. Joel Palmer noted this when the Chetco villages were attacked and the villages and people destroyed but the U.S. court would not hold or try the perpetrators for the crimes because Indians could not be eyewitnesses in court. This was the rule across the west. White American had the right to take all of the land they wanted could kill Indians to the point of extermination by burning them alive in their houses and no U.S. court would hold them accountable for all of these illegal actions. This all occurred over and over again in many regions of the west, shattering Native communities. The tribes were eventually forced to remove to Indian reservations, but even their experience on reservations was destructive, with starvation, malnutrition, exposure, and poverty rampant for nearly 20 years.
The State of Oregon and the United States have never apologized for the attempted to exterminate the tribes, for taking all of their lands without payment for years, for administration of reservations which was criminal, and for pressing the tribes into permanent poverty for the past 150 years, without the resources to help their people. And besides this treatment, American historians ignored these issues for over 150 years in books on regional and U.S. history. Few histories have shown the depths of the evil which was visited upon tribal nations by murderous and greedy white Americans. Instead, the histories were usually cast as a righteous spiritual mission by American heroes to save the tribes from their savagery. There many never be an apology that can make any of this better, but many people believe that simply acknowledgment that this occurred would be a big step forward for tribes. Tribal peoples today are American, with the same citizen rights of any other Americans, and we deserved to have our histories told as well.
If you doubt anything here, read the stories in my blog.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.