"Selling Your Father's Bones: America's 140-Year War against the Nez Perce Tribe
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte APR 3, 2009)
One look at the map is sobering. The Nez Perce Historical Trail traces a rough and ragged path along the Northwest's most trying terrain. Imagine starting in the Wallowa Mountains in Oregon, up through Washington and the Bitterroot Mountains in Montana, down through the Beaverhead mountains in Idaho, then back up through the Yellowstone National Forest ending all the way up north just short of the Canadian border. Now imagine that the year is 1877 and that you are making the trek with family and belongings over a period of four months in often inclement weather.
This is precisely the path that around 700 members of the Nez Perce tribe followed as they tried to make their way up to freedom, fleeing various sections of the U.S. Army and fighting furious battles along the way. Chief Joseph, who is the most famous face of the Nez Perce retreat, was once asked by his father, Tuekakas, never to leave his ancestral land. “This country holds your father's body. Never sell the bones of your father and mother,” he told Joseph. Yet as the Nez Perce were being forced into ever smaller reservations, and a crucial spark inflamed tensions between the natives and the white settlers, Joseph decided to move rather than bring harm upon his people.
It is this great retreat that is systematically and brilliantly cataloged by British writer, Brian Schofield, in the book Selling Your Father's Bones. “Of the more than 700 Indians who had been involved in the flight, a cautious estimate is that just over 120 died in the caravan's many battles and travails, which had lasted over 1,700 miles and nearly four months. Around 180 European Americans also died, overwhelmingly professional soldiers,” Schofield writes.
While this aspect of the Nez Perce story has been recounted before, Schofield also describes the many environmental atrocities visited on this pristine landscape by the White settler. The gold rush, the sad state of the once-booming copper mining town of Butte, Montana, the rapid deforestation of the great pine forests in the Northwest—all these are described in heart-breaking detail in Selling Your Father's Bones. What is even more heart-wrenching is that Schofield visits many of the towns along the trail and it is not hard to make a direct connection between the economically-depressed towns with the short-sighted environmental policies made many, many years ago.
BP's Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana, is a crater full of toxic water that BP pretty much swears is impossible to clean. “The lake is now a tourist draw,” Schofield writes. “You can stand on a wooden platform overlooking the lifeless black-currant liquid while a tinny recorded voice informs you that the water will reach its 'critical level' in 2018, by which time BP has promised, cross its heart, to open a treatment works capable of siphoning off the necessary millions of gallons a day to keep Butte safe.” This environmental hazard, as Schofield engagingly traces it, is a direct result of hazardous mining practices set into motion years ago.
As for the Nez Perce, even if most of us know the outcome of their struggle, Brian Schofield's brilliant account reads like a suspense story. Sadly, because it is such a scathing indictment of America's past, and because Schofield is relentless in his criticism of America's short-sighted destruction of its natural resources, one wonders how many Americans will pick up the book and give it the time it deserves. Of course it is precisely because Schofield lays it all bare so well, that the book is very effective. At one point in the book, Schofield recounts the words of William Clarke, one of the “copper kings” of Montana, who brought about enormous environmental damage to the Montana landscape through destructive mining practices. “When William Clarke was asked if he was concerned that some of his business practices might prove burdensome to future generations, he dismissed the thought out of hand: Those that succeed us, can well take care of themselves,” Schofield writes. This is just one of many statements in the book that will give the reader pause.
Selling Your Father's Bones is an exhaustively-researched, wonderfully-written account of the Nez Perce displacement. It is a must-read for all who care about where we have been and how we have arrived at this precise crossroad in history. When, in the very end, you hear a white American in Idaho complaining about the Nez Perce's way of doing business, and asking for his way of life back, you can't help but put the book down, amazed at the irony of it all. History sure has come full circle.
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Read a chapter excerpt from Selling Your Father's Bones at Simon & Schuster
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Selling Your Father's Bones: America's 140-Year War against the Nez Perce Tribe (February 2009) (Kindle version)
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- Official website for Brian Schofield
- Bookmarks review of Selling Your Father's Bones
- Times Online review of Selling Your Father's Bones
- The Seattle Times review of Selling Your Father's Bones
- Oregon Magazine review of Selling Your Father's Bones
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About the Author:
Brian Schofield was born in 1975, Brian was educated at Warwick School, Pembroke College, Oxford and the School of Journalism at the University of Wales, Cardiff.
has been a journalist since 1998, starting his career as staff writer on the UK's leading outdoor adventure magazine, Trail. He's since worked as executive editor on GQ Active magazine, and as editor of the Sunday Times Travel Magazine. His writing has appeared in the New Statesman, The Sunday Times, the Independent on Sunday, The Daily Telegraph, Conde Nast Traveller, GQ and FHM.
A committed environmentalist, Brian is an active member of the Brighton & Hove Green Party.
Selling Your Father's Bones is Schofield's first book and is shortlisted to win the John Llewellyn Rhys prize.
He now lives in Brighton, in southern England, with his wife, Dr Harriet Wood.