Private Citizen / Take me to your leader
Published 3:27 pm, Friday, September 3, 2010
My older daughter and I had a good time studying for her social studies tests when she was in the fourth grade, twenty years ago. I can't say much for the course, but the study sessions were the stuff of memories.
One part of a typical test was to match a famous (or semi-famous) quote with the person who said it. "Don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes," was a question, and the answer was Colonel Prescott. Not on the test: Prescott commanded one of the New Hampshire regiments at Bunker Hill. What was it that led New Hampshire to raise and send three regiments to Boston, barely two months after Lexington and Concord?
Today's lesson was: "I will make war no more forever." The correct answer is "Chief Joseph", as far as that goes. "But sweetie, they left out the best part! Do you know who Chief Joseph was? They studied his tactics at West Point a hundred years later!" The test was the next day, of course, but that didn't stop us from reading up on Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce war of 1877.
The Nez Perce were a peaceable tribe living in Washington State. A one-sided treaty, an incident at a trading post, and perhaps even our government's unhappy experience at the Little Big Horn the year before, provided the flashpoints.
Some, but not all, of the bands comprising the Nez Perce tribe decided to leave their ancestral homeland, and the government being unwilling to allow this, they had to fight their way out. Using firearms they captured from the cavalry they defeated, about 800 of the Nez Perce -- old and young, women and children, and perhaps 200 or 300 warriors, accompanied by their herd of horses -- conducted what is called a "fighting retreat" over 1,500 miles, nearly making it to Canada. They won nine of their 10 battles with the cavalry. Unfortunately, they could not afford to lose even once. Joseph said he would fight no more forever, when he was forced to surrender.
Two recent events have made me think of the early part of this story, particularly the way the one-sided treaty came about. We see what we were expecting to see, we assume the universality of our own political and social structures, so when the representatives of the United States came to negotiate a new treaty (after gold was discovered) in 1863, they expected to be dealing with the duly empowered representatives of a nation like our own. But the political structure of the tribe -- of any tribe, probably -- didn't work that way.
The result was that the spokesman for the tribe, a Christian convert named Lawyer, did not in fact speak for the whole tribe when he agreed to concede about seven million acres, most of which had been guaranteed by an 1855 treaty, and the bands who lived there had not agreed to be bound. When our representatives said the equivalent of "take me to your leader," the term had different meanings for each side, and that mutual cultural mis-perception led inevitably to the war.
I have been reading a lot lately about Afghanistan and counterinsurgency, because my older son is there and that is what he is doing.
A hot sub-topic in that field is called "tribal engagement," but what I have read says that it seems to work best on the scale of villages and districts, and not the whole country. The tribes, as such, are too large and too amorphous to yield a solid result on a national scale. It is well to observe tribal manners and customs, to know the shura and the jirga and the difference between them, when engaging at the village level, but there is no single leader of the Pashtuns whose word can deliver the whole tribe.
The other phenomenon I have been watching warily is the Tea Party. I grew up in a party-structured political environment where Democrats were Democrats and Republicans were Republicans, and when the town or state chairman said he could deliver the town or the state, you knew he could do it because you knew how he would do it and it was a process you were familiar with. It was tempting to go to the leaders of membership groups, like unions and the AARP and the NRA, because surely they spoke for their members, and when they supported a policy or a candidate, they could deliver their memberships -- couldn't they?
But what I have been seeing is a movement whose core principle is to resist the very concept of leadership, and that means that while there are leaders who can speak to them -- who know their grievances and can express them in their language -- I am not yet convinced that they speak for them.
To be sure, they will vote. But they may not vote in the way anyone expects, or has the right to promise.
For further reading, I recommend The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story, by Elliott West (2009). A good novelization is Aurora Crossing, by Karl H. Schlesier.
James H. Lee's column appears regularly in the Fairfield Citizen.