From the Desk of Nicole Tonkovich: Chief of War, Chief of Peace

The following is by Nicole Tonkovich, professor of American literature at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of The Allotment Plot: Alice C. Fletcher, E. Jane Gay, and Nez Perce Survivance (Nebraska, 2012). Additionally, she wrote the new introduction to Saga of Chief Joseph, Bison Classic Edition (December 2017) by Helen Addison Howard (1904–1989). 


Chief of War, Chief of Peace

As I confronted the challenge of introducing a “classic” study with content now revised and advanced by contemporary scholarship, much of it by Native thinkers and writers, I found myself drawn to methodologies of my own training as a literary and cultural analyst. I thus began my work by investigating the background of Helen Addison Howard, whose professional life and work became the focus of my introduction. In 1941 she published War Chief Joseph, the book that more than twenty years later became Saga of Chief Joseph. In tracing the history of Howard’s writing and ongoing revision of War Chief Joseph, I discovered two fascinating groups of scholars whose work furthered Howard’s while mapping new methodologies for writing the work of Native history and biography.

The first of these was a group of friends of Howard’s contemporary, historian Lucullus McWhorter, who, as she drafted War Chief Joseph, was interviewing the last members of a generation who had resisted the removal of Joseph’s Nez Perces from their ancestral homelands. In attempting to link her work to his, she encountered and associated with this cadre of historians, scholars, and writers engaged in laying the ground work for the then-nascent discipline of western history. Not surprisingly, most of them were men who supported and promoted each other’s work, much in the same fashion as did members of the Boone and Crockett Club that had flourished at the turn of the twentieth century. As Christine Bold has established, in the late 1880s these eastern elite white men—Theodore Roosevelt, Owen Wister, and George Bird Grinnell among them—created a Wild West mythos in their fictions, memoirs, and popular histories. They also advocated for legislation promoting ecological conservation and protecting wild lands in the US West.

The “alliances and exclusions” that characterized the Boone and Crockett Club resemble those among McWhorter’s friends, many of whom Howard encountered as she researched, wrote, revised, and promoted her book. They included Native actor and activist Nipo Strongheart (Yakima) and writer, cowboy poet, and amateur historian E. A. Brininstool. Most of this group lived and worked in Los Angeles, as did Howard. They conducted research in the William Andrews Clark Collection of Western Americana, encountered each other in Hollywood studios, and socialized at “cowboy chuck-wagon feeds” or at the University Club.


In her research for War Chief Joseph, Howard and her assistant George D. McGrath became aware of McWhorter’s work at about the same time McWhorter’s friends became aware of them. In February 1937, Strongheart wrote McWhorter (whom he called “Brother Bigfoot”) expressing his worry that McGrath was “using [Strongheart’s] name as a means to strengthen his claim” to understand Joseph’s “dreamer philosophy.” McGrath and Howard received little apparent encouragement from either Strongheart or McWhorter. In 1941, Caxton Press released both Howard’s War Chief Joseph and McWhorter’s Yellow Wolf, “the first published military account of the Nez Perce War from an Indian perspective” (Bond 69). Howard recognized that McWhorter’s sources would immensely enrich her work, which had dutifully followed the outlines of a story of regrettable but inevitable white conquest of the West. She persistently tried to convince McWhorter to share his work with her, asked whether he had more sources and information, and offered to exchange books. He kept her at arms’ length, replying on 2 October 1941: “I am on a Field History of the 1877 conquest, from the Nez Perce point of view, and for this reason I hesitate about breaking in on any of it for an outside work. I am afraid, too, that you would be sorely disapointed [sic] as to its nature.”

McWhorter died three years later, leaving a voluminous archive of notes and drafts and the unfinished manuscript of his “Field History,” as he called it. But McWhorter was a disorganized scholar and reluctant writer. His notes were unsorted, jotted on scraps of paper of various sizes, and scribbled in the margins of books. His book, Hear Me, My Chiefs!, was completed through the heroic efforts of the second group of scholars, many of them women. At Washington State College, Freda Galligan supervised the accession of the McWhorter papers and archivist Norma Berg prepared an inventory of the collection, which “comprises 51 boxes of manuscripts, 20 boxes of photographs, 360 books (mostly annotated), and numerous artifacts” (Bond 76).  After several WSC faculty were invited to complete writing the manuscript, and refused, Ruth Bordin, a faculty spouse, undertook the work for the handsome salary of $1 an hour. Fifteen months later, she had completed Hear Me, My Chiefs, which was published in 1952. Her name does not appear on the cover of this work, and on the title page she is listed only as the book’s editor. To say the work of these women remains unappreciated would be to understate the case.


Initially some of the reviewers of Hear Me My Chiefs dismissed the work as “folk history”—that is to say, as history that depended on eyewitness oral accounts rather than written scholarship. Howard, however, immediately recognized this important body of material would demand a re-thinking of her own work. In 1964, she wrote to Caxton Press that she had found McWhorter’s evidence to be “overwhelming,” particularly his claim “denying that Chief Joseph was a military genius, a ‘war chief,’ or even a distinguished warrior, and that his brother Alokut (or Oollokot) was the more likely candidate for those roles. All sources agree . . . that Joseph was the ‘Peace Chief.’” Thus, she continued, since these “facts controvert the thesis of ‘War Chief Joseph’ . . . it seems imperative that such evidence . . . be acknowledged in another printing of my book—if it is to have continued historical value among scholarly circles.”

To her great credit, she undertook a full revision of War Chief Joseph, so comprehensive she retitled it Saga of Chief Joseph. That revised book, now a University of Nebraska Press “Bison classic edition,”  represents one of the first attempts to reframe a major narrative of the West to account for the Native point of view.


A Note on Sources

I am grateful to Trevor Bond and Megan Ockerman of the Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections at Washington State University Libraries for their help locating archival materials related to Howard and her work. Quotations from manuscripts in the above essay come from these collections.

I have also quoted from these published works:

Bold, Christine. The Frontier Club: Popular Westerns and Cultural Power, 1880-1924. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Bond, Trevor James. “From Treasure Room to Archives: the McWhorter Papers and the State College of Washington.” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 102, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 67-78.


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