'Thunder In The Mountains' Tells Tragedy Of Two Strong, Opposing Leaders Daniel Sharfstein's new book Thunder In the Mountains sheds new light on the Nez Perce Indian wars, and the two historical figures on each side of the conflict: Chief Joseph and Oliver Otis Howard.
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'Thunder In The Mountains' Tells Tragedy Of Two Strong, Opposing Leaders

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'Thunder In The Mountains' Tells Tragedy Of Two Strong, Opposing Leaders

'Thunder In The Mountains' Tells Tragedy Of Two Strong, Opposing Leaders

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RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

Now to a lesser known story about race relations in this country. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, the U.S. looked West to the unresolved conflicts over land rights and sovereignty with the country's native peoples. In the Pacific Northwest, that set two men on a collision course, General O.O. Howard, the military commander in present day Oregon and Washington and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce who wanted his band to remain on its ancestral lands.

A new book "Thunder On The Mountain" (ph) is a detailed look at the tragedy of these two leaders and two radically different ways of seeing the world. Author Daniel Scharfstein is a professor of law and history at Vanderbilt University. He joins me from Nashville. Welcome to the program.

DANIEL SCHARFSTEIN: Thanks, Ray.

SUAREZ: I think some people will have heard the name Chief Joseph, but for those who have not, tell us about him.

SCHARFSTEIN: Chief Joseph was a leader of a small band of Nez Perce Indians in the far Northeastern corner of Oregon in the Wallowa Valley. And in the early 1870s when he was about 30 years old, settlers started encroaching on his ancestral lands, and he took it upon himself to advocate for his people retaining their property. And he was remarkably successful in spreading his message.

But in 1877, the United States went to war against his band and several other bands that refused to move on to a reservation in Idaho. And it was a three-and-a-half-month odyssey and ordeal. And after the war, he emerged as one of the most prominent dissenting figures from the backlash to Reconstruction.

SUAREZ: On the other side of this conflict, you have Oliver Otis Howard, another fascinating character. Tell us about him.

SCHARFSTEIN: Oliver Otis Howard was a Maine Yankee and a West Point graduate. He felt God had put him on Earth for a special mission, fighting for the Union, fighting to abolish slavery was his way of serving God. And after the war, he was appointed to be the commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau. It was a new agency that was designed to help some 4 million newly freed men, women and children move from being held as slaves to being able to claim their citizenship.

SUAREZ: And Howard University is named for him, right?

SCHARFSTEIN: That's right. When Howard was in the process of being founded at the end of 1866, he was instrumental in convincing people to expand its mission just from training preachers to being a full university with a law school and a medical school and a normal school to train teachers. He was very proud of Howard University, and he didn't want it named after him.

But he was such an important figure in its founding that people said, well, if you want to pretend it's named after someone else named Howard you can do that. But we're naming it Howard.

SUAREZ: Looking back at the Pacific Northwest at this time, we have the centuries of unhappy history between European settlers heading West coming up against Native peoples long settled in the places where they were living. Chief Joseph, as you bring us to him in the pages of your book, is a remarkable figure, someone who the United States should have been able to do business with. And again and again, it seems like they pull dissent and tragedy out of the jaws of victory and peace.

SCHARFSTEIN: It's really true. Joseph was someone who repeatedly expressed his interest in peace. He was very flexible, and early on as he was advocating for his people, he got a sense of how policy was made and how decisions were made and how to reach the center of American power. He didn't speak English. Mainly he spoke Nez Perce. But at the same time, he was able to gain remarkable traction for his message.

SUAREZ: The war begins. It's terrible, and there are terrible casualties on all sides. But even during this war, there seemed to be break points where something better, something different is in grasp, and both sides just can't get there. Does it have anything to tell us today about the continuing lives of Native Americans in this country about our past and the way Americans have confronted other kinds of people in the world? Is there something for us to learn about ourselves by understanding what happened better in the 18th century?

SCHARFSTEIN: I think so. I think that was a crucial period in our history because it was the time when the battles that we're still fighting were set, you know, battles over the contours of liberty and equality over the relationship between race and citizenship and really over the proper size, scope and role of government. And in Joseph's story, I think we see the nature and power and necessity of protest and moral witness.

You know, his rights whether they were laid out by treaty or by our common humanity, they didn't just exist, and they didn't - they weren't just pronounced from on high. I think he had a real sense that these rights had to be claimed and that these rights gained meaning every day in practice.

SUAREZ: Daniel Scharfstein - his book is "Thunder In The Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War." Professor, thanks for joining us.

SCHARFSTEIN: Thank you so much, Ray.

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