COMMENTARY: Chief Joseph an Americian hero

The commissioner of baseball, Rob Manfred, is reportedly pressing the Cleveland Indians to give up its Chief Wahoo logo.

For an Indian story that’s less of a caricature, stop by UNLV Boyd School of Law this Thursday from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., and hear Daniel Sharfstein discuss his new book, “Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War.”

Or read the book, which I took as a cautionary tale about what the author calls “a massive exercise of state power to benefit one group at the expense of others.”

Sharfstein is a professor at Vanderbilt University and a friend of mine. His book tells the story of how Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, who lost his right arm fighting for the Union in the Civil War, led a military campaign in 1877 against Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce.

By Sharfstein’s account, the war itself was partly the product of a bureaucratic error. Officials drafting an executive order for President Grant mistakenly gave the Indians the wrong half of the Wallowa Valley in Oregon. The officials in Washington, 3,000 miles away, didn’t get that it was the northern half that was already dense with white settlers, while the other half contained the areas more important to the Indians.

Gen. Howard, who was closer to the scene, himself misplayed the situation, getting into a war that he might have avoided.

The hero of the story is Chief Joseph. He doesn’t speak much English. With his long braids and native dress, he doesn’t look like the majority of other Americans. But the speech Joseph gives in Washington, D.C., in 1879 is as American as the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence: “Treat all men alike. Give them all the same law. Give them all an even chance to live and grow.” Joseph goes on: “Let me be a free man — free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself.”

After surrendering in the war, Joseph visits President Rutherford Hayes at the White House and later returns for two visits with President Theodore Roosevelt. He advocates for 30 years on behalf of his people and their land claims, pioneering what Sharfstein describes as the struggle for liberty and equality in “an age of big government.”

The size of government, even in the second half of the 19th century, means that there is always another direction in which to turn. If Chief Joseph isn’t convincing the civilians, he can try the military. If he isn’t convincing the bureaucrats, he can try the elected politicians. Even a “no” has no finality.

That may be frustrating to businessmen seeking certainty, but it’s encouraging to persistent activists.

This isn’t necessarily a partisan lesson. Some of the tactics liberals used to thwart President Trump’s immigration restrictions, for example, were also used by conservatives, with some success, to challenge ObamaCare and the McCain-Feingold campaign speech restrictions. Tea Party methods of mobbing town hall meetings of congressmen are now being adopted by Democrats.

A photographer who visited Joseph in 1890 wrote, “It was good to see an unsubjugated Indian. One cannot help respecting the man who still stood firmly for his rights.”

The brave Indian is almost as much a stereotype as Chief Wahoo, as any fan of the Atlanta baseball franchise can attest.

Chief Joseph — “Treat all men alike. Give them all the same law. Give them all an even chance” — transcended the stereotype. Some people called him, grandiosely, “The Best Indian.” It’s no exaggeration, though, to say that he embodied and articulated the highest American and human ideals.

Ira Stoll is editor of and author of “JFK: Conservative.” His column appears Sunday.

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