NARRATIVE REVERSALS: The Historical Poem as Fiction and The Historical Document as Poetry


I am trying to write a poem and not a history, and therefore have no compunction about tampering with facts.—Robert Penn Warren, prelude to Brother of Dragons


Cursed be the hand that scalps the reputation of the dead.—Quote that begins KOPET, attributed to Chief Joseph.


          Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indians, tribal leader from 1871 to his death in 1904, has been made into a legendary figure by the academic and popular presses. Within a few years of his famous surrender speech, “I will fight no more forever,” his account of his relations with the U.S. government provoked outrage in the East against the Army from intellectuals not threatened by Indian land claims, and provoked rebuttals and verbal recriminations in the West where the land grab was still continuing, where Indians still stood in the way of what the whites called progress. After a hundred years, we should hope that Chief Joseph’s story would be now accessible in a form allowing for a balanced assessment, but it is not geography that still divides us, that still prevents such a balance.

          Two recent books dealing with Joseph allow for an investigation of how ideology functions to distort his story and how his story may be allowed to tell itself.  The obvious biases that characterized the reception and propagandizing of Joseph’s story during the last century are no longer apparent. The Indian is seldom blatantly  evoked as a savage, noble or ignorant. What is apparent, however, is that biases still exist though they are more subtle and, consequently, more insidious. These two books, a long poem, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce by Robert Penn Warren, and a historical account, KOPET: a Documentary Narrative of Chief Joseph’s Last Years by Mick Gidley are my means to explore and expose how the question of narrative authenticity becomes a question of propaganda disguised as poetry.


I.  Wooden Indian as Ventriloquist Dummy: narrative voices

      in Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce


          I have heard talk and talk, but nothing is done.  Good words do not last long unless they amount to something. Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country, now overrun by whitemen .... I am tired of talk that comes to nothing.... There has been too much talking by men who had no right to talk.—Chief Joseph,  Speech to Congress, 1879


          Warren begins his poem this way:


          The Land of Winding Waters, Wallowa,

          The Land of the Nimipu,

          Land sacred to the band of old Joseph,

          Their land, the land in the far ages given

          By the Chief-in-the-Sky ....


This is certainly talk; the question is whether Warren has any right to talk, whether his words amount to anything, whether they “pay for” the Indians’ country. More to the point, do his words amount to poetry?  The meter is effaced in a curious way. Remove the articles “the” and Warren’s line approaches Longfellow’s in Hiawatha: “Land of Winding Waters, Walloa / Land of Nimiu / Land Sacred to band of old Joseph / Their land, land in far ages given....”   How he sounds, whether like Longellow or not, is what needs to be investigated if I hope to uncover just why this poem is so unsatisfying. It is Warren’s voice, his use of many voices, his appropriating a narrative he has no earned right to, that concerns me because his misuse of these voices is a violation against Indian peoples greater than Longfellow’s confusion of scholarship, naming his hero after the Iroquois cultural leader but recounting the exploits of the anishanabe (Ojibway) trickster Manabozho. Warren’s expropriation of narrative is a greater crime because Warren lacks Longfellow’s (comparatively) innocent historical position. While it is true that Longfellow wrote after the Cherokee removal, The Trail of Tears, he wrote before Sand Creek, before Wounded Knee, before ... before the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887, before Wounded Knee of 1973, before ....

          My initial guide through Warren’s poem is, as it should be, my ear; and his several voices become my focus.  The ear leads to a path exploring these varieties of Warren’s translated speech: Indian Talking, Talking Indian, Injun Talk, and Poet Talk.


Indian speech quoted from the historical record

          Warren uses, then, four voices, all, in a sense (not innocence) alien to his own. Warren’s poem divides according to these voices into four parts: the first in importance, pages 5 (“I was born at....”) through page 28 (sections I-IV), pages 51 & 52, and part of 56, where Warren is speaking as though he is Chief Joseph—I call this TALKING INDIAN; the second, pages 1-5, 29-50, 53-57, where events are related by Warren as narrator but spoken in a distorted Indian speech—INJUN TALK; third, pages 58-64, the last section, where Warren as a character in his own poem talks in his own voice (“To Snake Creek, a century later, I came,”)—POET TALK.  And there is also another kind of “talk”, and it is interspersed throughout the text. It is what I call INDIAN TALKING—quoted historical texts of Indians speaking in their own words, although translated, and part of the historical record.

          Since Warren relies so heavily on speech, it is necessary to compare the various voices to see which sound authentic, which are accurate translations, because it is this question of translation that is crucial to just what is the poetry in an historical poem. Warren, outside the body of the poem proper, quotes three Indians: an unnamed “Indian warrior” (26), Yellow Wolf (24, 43), and Joseph (14, 20, 38, 44, 45, 48).  Since Warren provides no information about his sources, it is difficult to determine if these are his free translations or are, as implied, from the historical record. One thing though is obvious; none of these examples illustrates “Injun Talk”. (“Injun Talk” differs from “Indian Talking” by it being a caricature of speech. While both are translations, “Injun Talk” is a variation of “Ugh, Kemosabe, me injun, you bossman be,” characterized by lack of articles, truncated forms, verbs at the end of the sentence, hyphenated word formations, omissions of possessives, etc.).

          Some of the historical sources Warren uses can be found without too much effort since Chief Joseph’s words were only transcribed and translated a few times. It is instructive to see how Warren then deals with this rather straightforward material. In the two most dramatic of Joseph's statements Warren makes small, but telling, errors in his rendering. In the North American Review article of 1879 which Warren used for much of his information, Joseph wrote (his translator wrote): “I believed General Miles, or, I never would have surrendered.”  Warren gives: “I believed General Miles or I never would have surrendered.” The lack of emphasis by dropping the commas and removing the italics means what?  Is this “only” carelessness on the part of the distinguished scholar and poet? It is a minor error. But read his poem and wonder if any of Warren’s “errors” are anything but purposeful, and the accumulation of errors is anything but minor.

          Understandably, Warren uses a large section of Joseph’s famous surrender speech, often titled, “I will fight no more forever.”  But for what reasons does Warren misquote and distort this speech? For the first nine sentences Warren gives the correct rendition. Then after “It is cold and we have no blankets” he alters the text. Here is how Joseph’s speech continued: “The little children are freezing to death.  My people, some of them, have run away to the hills and have no blankets, no food.  No one knows where they are— perhaps freezing to death” (Spinden 243).



Warren says “our” for “the” in the first sentence, and then he omits all of the remaining above sentences.  Concluding the speech, Warren makes only one more “mistake”—he omits “My” before “heart is sick and sad.” Perhaps this, too, is only a minor error; perhaps it illustrates Warren’s attempt to make the historical Joseph speak like Warren’s Joseph speaks; instead of “Indian Talking” we get a bit of “Injun Talk”. Are such errors innocent mistakes? Is a poet justified in changing the facts without even acknowledging the omission of sentences, the changing of words? Why does Warren omit some of the most concrete details in the speech? Is it not, in fact, a kind of linguistic imperialism to subsume the historical voice under the “poetic”, to assume Warren’s voice has precedence over Joseph’s?  The children becomes Warren’s our children.  The accumulation of “mis-speaks” demands we ask, “What does Warren really mean when he says, ‘I am trying to write a poem and not a history, and therefore have no compunction about tampering with facts’?”



Quoted but invented speeches supposedly by Chief Joseph


          It is unbearable what knowledge of the past has been allowed to become, what function of human memory has been dribbled out to in the hands of these learned monsters whom people are led to think “know”.Charles Olson

          This is the most painful aspect of the poem for me to deal with.  Obviously Warren can claim “poetic license” and presume to speak for Chief Joseph, pretend to actually speak Joseph’s words, presume to crawl into another man’s skin; however, Warren stretches the term persona to include the poet as ghoul. Almost half of the poem is Warren’s fabricated talk by Chief Joseph; it is his most important statement.

          This section of the poem disturbs me for two reasons.  The most obvious, again, is the speech sound.  We are meant to accept that Joseph would talk with phrases such as: “With gear jangle and horse fart” (16), and that process would turn to noun in the mouth of this (wooden) Indian, “We, who wanted no blood-spill” (16), or that awkward verb placement is an indication of Joseph’s oratory style, a style that even impressed his enemies, “for a true chief no self has” (21). This “Talking Indian” section is also painful because of the liberties Warren takes with the truth. He has based this invented speech of Joseph on historical sources, principally the North American Review article, but he continually deviates from the content of that article to undercut the eloquence and power of the indictment Joseph makes against his enemies. 

          I will present a few examples because they illustrate two different types of distortion Warren makes in the name of poetic license (or his lack of “compunction” in changing the facts).  Before the Big Hole Battle of August 9th, the Indians relaxed, confident and trusting that they had attained some kind of peace with the white armies. They had made a treaty of sorts with some white soldiers upon leaving the Bitter Root country.  They slowed their pace, and once, says Joseph:

          ...we saw three white men passing our camp.  Thinking that peace had been made, we did not molest them. We could have killed or taken them prisoners, but we did not suspect them of being spies, which they were.  That night soldiers surrounded our camp.


Warren's account runs like this: “Toward grass of buffalo, and high sky. / Peace-thinking deceived us. We thought we were free.”  Warren’s “Peace-thinking deceived us” transfers the responsibility of the deception from the whites to the Indians.  He turns a reasonable supposition into a character fault.

          Look at another example. General Howard ordered Joseph and his people off their land at Wallowa.  He gave them thirty days to gather their personal belongings and livestock. This was a near-impossible task which, of course, is why Howard set those terms. [This is the same Howard who Warren quotes approvingly in one of the historical excerpts as saying, “I think it is great mistake to take from Joseph and his band of Nez Perces Indians that valley (Wallowa).” Warren, by omitting the time Howard said this—1875, 2 years before the battles—confuses the readers. Can this be the same Howard who drove the Indians off their land? If Howard felt this way, perhaps the Indians deserved to be driven off? Howard’s attitude toward Joseph and all Indians is perhaps best revealed in his own hand in an article he wrote in response to Joseph’s in the North American Review. According to Howard, a good Indian is not necessarily a dead one, but a white one: “James Lawyer, the present head chief, is an excellent man; dresses as a white man, and has a good house and farm.”]  Joseph plainly states his opinion, and that of the other chiefs who hoped to avoid a fight, “If General Howard had given me plenty of time to gather up my stock and treated Too-hool-hool-suit as a man should be treated, there would have been no war.” How had Howard treated the Nez Perce chief?  Howard: “Toolhoolhoolzote, the cross-grained growler...had the usual long preliminary discussion about the earth being his mother... [Howard] answered: “Let us hear it no more, but come to business at once” (Josephy).

          Warren’s account runs like this: “Howard understood not. He showed us the rifle....Worse—Thirty days only to leave Wallowa.” Here there is no indication that the chiefs reckoned it would have taken six months to move. And no indication of just how it was that Howard provoked the war. Instead the reader is presented with the confusion of the supposedly mixed motives of the apparently essentially good man (“I think it a great mistake, etc.”) who is forced to take action against the unreasonable Indians. It is true Howard had learned that to advance in the army bureaucracy he had to not be “soft” on Indians;  in that respect, Howard, too, was a victim. But Warren presents none of that complexity either. 

           One more example. According to Warren, this is Joseph’s father’s last words to his son.  “My father held my hand, and he died. Dying said: ‘Think always of your country. / Your father has never sold your country. / Has never touched whiteman money that they / Should say they have bought the land you now stand on. / You must never sell the bones of your fathers— / For selling that, you sell your Heart-Being.’ ”  Joseph’s own account: 

          I took his hand in mine. He said: “My son, my body is returning to my earth mother [Like Howard, Warren has little use for “growling” words about the earth as mother.], and my spirit is going very soon to see the Great Spirit Chief. When I am gone, think of your country. You are the chief of these people. They look to you to guide them. Always remember that your father never sold his country. You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home. A few years more, and white men will be all around you. They have their eyes on this land. My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your father’s body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother.”


Aside from the question of which is the more powerful, more concrete, more revealing—more poetic—it is interesting to see how Warren reduces the complexity of the issues. Old Joseph sees the whites’ land hunger; he passes on advice about a chief’s responsibilities. He reminds young Joseph that he should honor his father and mother. Warren substitutes fathers and eliminates mother altogether, and he further reduces this complex family affair to a father-son “pop” psychology.  Even in his opening words Warren attempts to belittle young Joseph by transferring agency, the initiator of the action, from Joseph to his father.  Warren states that Old Joseph “held my hand” rather than giving Joseph’s account that Joseph “took his hand in mine.” Young Joseph is not the passive Indian Warren presents here and throughout the poem; he initiates the action providing for the continuation of the responsibilities of the tribal peace chief. Warren twists the language to undercut the image of the Indians he professes to admire. And instead of the concrete details that Joseph gives (“You must stop your ears...”), Warren offers abstractions such as “Heart-Being”.



          “What the Lone Ranger never knew all those years,” explained the medical doctor in a slow deliberate speech, “is that when Tonto called kimo sabe it meant shithead.

          “Shithead is right.”

          “This country needs a good injun tune up.”

          —Gerald Vizenor, “Blue Moon Ceremonia” in Earthdivers


          Warren’s distorted syntax, dropping articles and possessive pronouns, placing verbs at the end of the sentence—his “Injun Talk”—characterize the other large section of the poem, pages 15, 29-56, 57.  Here ‘Joseph” no longer speaks but instead a narrator speaks about him and his exploits. It is obvious that to present historical material before Joseph’s time such a narrator would be necessary, but it is not clear why Warren, in the middle of the Nez Perce struggle to reach the (relative) safety of Canada, drops the fake Joseph-voice and adopts a narrator who speaks in similar “Injun Talk”.  One reason may be that Warren is considerate enough of the real Joseph that he would not dare have him say, as Warren as narrator says, “They slick-fucked a land.” [!] Certainly Warren gains a more advantageous perspective by having himself as narrator; he can present material Joseph could never have known about (even though Warren has no compunction about saying things Joseph would never have said, like questioning whether Poker Joe was “authentic” because he was a breed. Warren writes: “But there was one with us, of white and red blood / Together, but red was his heart, Poker Joe,...We trusted ... .”  Lean Elk, or Poker Joe, was according to Yellow Wolf a great leader and warrior. It is very doubtful that any of the Nez Perces, let alone a chief such as Joseph, ever questioned that Lean Elk’s French blood made him suspect).  But, except for the absence of quotation marks that indicated “Joseph” speaking, the voice is very much the same. Sometimes Warren as narrator uses appropriate syntax: “Yes, it would be / An operation brilliant in textbooks, / A nutcracker action... .” rather than “Yes, operation brilliant in textbooks it be,” the kind of sentence construction typical of this section. Here are examples on the same page (30): “For spooks, they were,” instead of “For they were spooks”, and “Where ponies outward had circled and circled”,  “To hide all trail thence,” “Dust rose, swelling slow on the pale pink dawn-shine.”



  It is not only that Warren is insensitive to translating Indian speech, but he also  suffers from the delusion that distorted syntax and omitted articles equal poetry. The verbs at the end, the clipped “poetic” speech cannot mask the poverty of the vision that informs this last section.  “To Snake Creek, a century later, I came;” “No sound hear,” “In all direction flees,” “Where sun lies in wait,” “Sky shudders....” etc.  It is not that poets have not used such constructions for valid poetic effect; it is that this extension of “Injun talk” and its attending racism and cultural imperialism destroy any integrity the poem attempts to lay claim to.  Warren appropriates Joseph’s language in an attempt to appropriate Joseph’s vision.

          Warren reduces the tribal vision of Joseph to the Western, white male (and typically Warren) preoccupation of a son seeking a father’s blessing; appropriating the Native American Vision Quest in these last pages of his poem (further illustrating his incomprehension of Indian culture) Warren presents the image of himself merging with that of Joseph. Warren presents this scene: he visits the Snake Creek battlefield; he tours the monuments, markers, maps; then, he has an hallucinatory “vision”:

          I, / In fanatic imagination, saw— / No, see—the old

          weapon /...I see him...eyes were fixed on him, eyes of /

          Those fathers that incessantly, with / The accuracy of

          that old Winchester, rifled / Through all, through darkness,

          distance, Time, / To know if he had proved a man, and being /

          A man, would make all those / Who now there slept know /

          Their own manhood.


Warren’s peculiar  vision—a mocking of the Indian’s sacred vision quest that is even worse that Kevin Costner’s in Dancing With Wolves—reduces the complexities of the warrior, and in Joseph’s case a very reluctant warrior, his responsibilities to his tribe, (the Nez Perce did not automatically transmit the chieftainship from father to son as Warren implies) to a popular Freudian interpretation that distorts the culture of the Nez Perce.

          Warren’s poem continues with a discourse that attempts to take the historical moment out of time to allow the poet to merge with his protagonist. Warren wants to claim credit for rescuing Joseph’s manhood, for according to Warren it is his language that redeems Joseph:  “But could not know that, after / The end, his own manhood, burnished / Only in the glow of his endless pity, would shine.” The poem continues with the words “I saw”, placing the whole weight of his poetics on his vision, elevating his seeing into the past over Joseph’s conjectured knowing of the future: “Standing there he might well, / Already in such midnight, have foreknown / The end.”

          The rape of the Nez Perce homeland by miners, cattlemen, the lumber interests, the murder of Nez Perce peoples by government officials, the subjugation and starvation of the Nez Perce on the reservations, all of this Warren distorts into the interplay of fathers and sons, and he undermines the Nez Perce’s consciously directed struggle against genocide, especially that of To-hool-hool-suit, into an attempt at proving that “a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”


II.  Toward a Poetry of Fact

          I have argued that Warren has distorted the image of Chief Joseph. Before raising the issue about whether a documentary can be also a poetry, I want to contrast Gidley’s image of Joseph with Warren’s. It is instructive to look at the table of contents to KOPET:

          I. Starting Out form the Meany Papers, an introduction

          II. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perces, a chronology

          III. White Witnesses to Chief Joseph’s End, a narrative.


Gidley effectively stays within the bounds of his own story by refusing to speak for Joseph.  He says in his preface:

          [This book] does not at all attempt, for example, to reconstruct or recreate what Joseph was thinking and feeling... . Rather, it is highly selective and concerns those parts of his life that touched the lives of a number of white men at the turn of the century—and, of course those         parts of their lives that touched his.  The narrative is unfolded, therefore, largely through a series of documents, mainly letters and photographs produced by these men and newspaper items in which they figured.


Further in the preface, and this is especially relevant when thinking about Warren’s attitude toward altering the historical record, Gidley states: “I have not tampered with anything in the quoted material, however, except to indicate omissions by ellipses and my own insertions by brackets.”

          With Gidley’s regard for the facts, and his refusal to speak for and through Joseph, in short for his basic decency and respect for his subject, an image much different from Warren’s emerges. Gidley accurately states the result of his approach:


          The present book offers rather more in the way of interpretation than information, a rounding out of the received version of Joseph's figure so that he appears more human—if, of necessity, more vulnerable, sometimes stubborn, perhaps even petty at times.  Indeed, his mythical status is brought into question somewhat....


The difference between Gidley’s and Warren’s attitude is obvious. Warren creates a noble savage to elevate the creator while Gidley presents the materials to enlighten the reader.

          Through biographical sketches, letters, and other documents, Gidley tells the story of several white residents “at Nespelem on the Colville Reservation in eastern Washington, the place where Chief Joseph’s band of Nez Perces were quartered during Joseph’s last years (and where many of the band’s descendants still remain).” Gidley speaks of the Indians that “still remain”; Warren ends his poem with a graveyard, where the Indians “remain still”.

          There is drama in Gidley’s account, but he does not have to impose it onto the materials. Henry Steele, a conscientious, knowledgeable, and, to the Indians a very sympathetic man, “came home one day and slit his daughter’s throat, nearly severing her head from her body and then killed himself.” Gidley leaves it to the reader to attempt to uncover the importance of this drama. This basic respect for the reader, this basic respect for the materials, for Joseph, all predispose me to, in turn, respect this man’s work.

          Gidley’s chronology, like Warren’s poem, is interspersed with quoted material which adds a certain authenticity to the story. Unlike Warren, Gidley provides us with his sources. Gidley also starts with the time before Joseph, but more accurately begins with the tribe’s contact with French trappers (c.1750) rather than with Lewis and Clark (1805), the time Warren suggests history began for the Nez Perces. Gidley brings out several of the factors leading to the expulsion by General Howard of the Nez Perces from Wallowa: the discord with American fur traders; the Spaldings establishing a Protestant mission in Nez Perce territory; the attempt by white officials to establish a single chief over the tribes so that they could be more easily manipulated; increasing American settlements; the surrounding wars by the U.S. with other Indian tribes; discovery of gold on Nez Perce lands; etc.  The chronology continues through to 1905, with the reburial of Joseph’s body at Nespelem.

          Gidley’s final section is a narrative of the “Witnesses to Chief Joseph's End.” It portrays men of good intention, men petty and possessive, men attempting to honor and to use and abuse Joseph. Their anti-climactic letters effectively mirror the anti-climax of Joseph’s last years wasting away on foreign soil far from his beloved Wallowa. This section goes some way toward “being equal to the real itself,” a criterion for good poetry that Charles Olson called for, but one basic to any decent historical poem. In short, Gidley presents a portrayal of many of the complexities of what would be considered minor historical figures, yet they are revealed in their humanity and, therefore, made important to us now. It is necessary to keep this elementary principle in mind, for the relationship with Joseph and the remaining Nez Perces that Gidley exposes are very much with us since the Indians of these states are very much with us. For keeping this fact alive to us, Gidley’s narrative is valuable.

          Throughout Gidley’s text are numerous photographs of the Nez Perces and their land. These, too, are valuable; but, it is with Gidley’s uncritical approach to many of these photos, especially those of Curtis, that I take some exception. Curtis, like Warren, too often distorts the real Indian to present an idealized noble savage. But again, Gidley does provide some criticism of Curtis, and perhaps this is enough; and, his critique reveals, once again, Gidley’s underlying respect for his reader and his belief that the intelligent reader will make his or her own way through the materials and uncover the truth.


III.  Time Interlude—1877

          May 14     Howard gives the Nez Perces 30 days to get onto the reservation at Lapwai.

          June 17    White Bird Battle, Nez Perce truce flag ignored, troops attack and are defeated.

          July 1     Attack on Looking Glass' Village, troops loot and destroy peaceful village.

          July 2     Defeat of Lt. Rains by Nez Perce.

          July 11    Battle of Clearwater, 200 Nez Perces hold of Howard's 560 man army, Howard receives reinforcements and declares a victory.

          July 17    Militia sent to Martinsburg, West Virginia to put down railroad strike.

          July 18    President Rutherford B. Hayes sends the Second U.S. Artillery to Martinsburg to put down the strike.

          July 25    President Hayes order 6 companies of troops to Chicago.

          July 26    Reading, Pennsylvania occupied by federal troops.

          July 28    Strike in East St. Louis broken by federal                                                                                troops.

          August 9   Big Hole Battle, Poker Joe appointed war leader.

          Aug. 20    Camas Meadows Battle, federal armies encircle Nez Perce at Yellowstone.

          Sept. 13   Battle of Canyon Creek, Nez Perce escape Yellowstone.

          Sept. 30‑  Bear Paws Battle.  Nez Perce lose their war

          Oct. 15    chiefs:  Ollokot, Too-hool-hool-suit, Poker Joe, and Looking Glass.  Joseph surrenders. With Joseph are 86 men, 184 women, and 147 children. White Bird, distrustful of the white generals secretly leads 200 Nez Perces to Canada and are protected by Sitting Bull’s people.



IV. What Time is it?


          In a sense, Joseph and his people occupied a dimension of suspended time, always awaiting the major decision that they be allowed to return to Wallowa Valley and usually awaiting the answers to numerous small inquiries. Meanwhile, the Nespelem of the white men was busily moving along linear time (Gidley 17).


          Warren in typical New Critical fashion is fearful of history, anxious to turn the historical into the ironical. He would like Joseph to amuse his time while in exile from his homeland by speculating on the inappropriateness of General Tecumseh Sherman’s name (48). He is anxious to leap into a timeless “transcendency” that he must hope is a guarantee that his work will be considered poetry. And by imposing his distrust for the temporal, even while stating that “There is only / Process, which is one name for history”, he effectively destroys the Indians’ history. Warren has Joseph say, for instance, “But now we breathed the stink of the wind of Time”(p.12) in an attempt to enlist Joseph in a battle against himself who was a victim less of Time than of the “eternal” timeless values of greed, self-hatred, and anti-naturalism of the white conquerors. The negative things that happen to the Nez Perces Warren presents as agentless, outside of time and its responsibilities:

           “The horse-soliders stood. The white flag approached,

          With the heart’s true invitation.  But what peace

          Can there be when a shot is the only answer?

          A man in a white hat, no soldier, fired it.

          But how could we know?"


          So, an accident causes the battle, a misunderstanding for which none but the mystery man is to blame.  (Curious that Joseph could be recalling such an event.  Did someone tell him about this mystery man in the white hat?)  By denying responsibility for action Warren can subvert the historical record at will.  He can place the Indians squarely in the path of an inevitable fated demise, with no one being held responsible.  (That Warren refers to Fate as a “flirtatious slut” tells us little about the Indians’ view but much about Warren’s attitude toward women.)  He quotes C.H. Hale, superintendent of Indian Affairs for Washington Territory (again, with no date and with no source cited): “ attempt to restrain miners would be like attempting to restrain the whirl wind.” Curious that the federal government could not hold back those miners when it was able to break the strike by railroad workers and their multitude of sympathizers all across the country. By making fate the villain, Warren offers the real villains an easy escape into a mythical wonderland of his own construction. A specific example may illustrate this best.  Warren presents General Miles as a possible villain; it is Miles who makes Howard look good by comparison. Then Warren says of Miles that he, too, is not at fault for what happens to the Indians; he, too, was fated to act as he did:  “How could they know that Miles, whom they trusted, / Was only a brigadier behind whom / Moved forces, faceless, timeless, dim,” (47).



V.  To Know Warren’s Need and unknot Warren’s “Note”


The Ojibwa self is not orientated to a behavioral environment in which a distinction between human beings and supernatural beings is stressed... Impersonal forces are never the causes of events.  Somebody is always responsible.—Irving Hallowell, Culture and Experience


The Secretary of the Interior commented in 1872 on killing the buffalo to starve the Indians onto reservations: “A few years of cessation from the chase will tend to unfit them from their former mode of life, and they will be the more readily led into new directions, toward industrial pursuits and peaceful habits.”—Edward Curtis, The North American Indian


          Instead of an introduction or a forward, Warren presents the reader with the casualness of a “note”.  Is this apparent casualness meant to disarm the reader?  Why should he want to do that?  How suspicious need a reader be? To continually question the authenticity of the narrator, question his compunctions to distort history, how much of the history of Indian-White relations does a person need to know? 

          It has been my contention that Warren’s poem is an example of cultural imperialism—an attempt to appropriate the history and the heritage of the Indians while all the time making it seem that he respects and honors that history. Those unconvinced by my attempt will probably remain unconvinced by this analysis of his prose “note”; others may find it revealing to see how consistently Warren’s language operates to distort the image of Indian-White relations.

          A close look at Warren’s word usage, especially his verb use, illuminates how his ambiguity and vagueness serve to functionally mystify those Indian-White relationships. My two main points are that an analysis of Warren’s prose demonstrates that his real intent is to show that (1) Indians controlled their own destiny and, hence, deserved their near annihilation by the whiteman; and, (2) whites were powerless to stop the Indians’ extermination (even though they were the agents of it). This is, to me, Warren’s hidden meaning to his evoking the image of the “noble savage”.

          I am mainly concerned with Warren’s use of the active and passive voice as indicators of ideology.  The outstanding characteristic of passive voice constructions is the ease with which the writer can dispense with the agent of action. There are, of course, many perfectly good, ideologically innocent, and appropriate uses for the passive voice in English; I began this essay using it. But in political relationships, especially in one as sensitive as Indian-White relations with the attending racism, imperialism, and intimate connections with the very idea of democracy (specifically Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” and the first fact of U.S. democracy that the property upon which so many democratic values are based is stolen property), agentless action becomes an ideological feature of this language worth looking at closely. But Warren in this “Note” joins the journalists, bureaucrats, critics, and assorted “officials” to whom the agentless passive comes quite effortlessly to give to their statements the ring of authority.

          We would expect the Indians’ use, and most all the verb use, to be in the active voice; so, perhaps it is not reasonable to assume that active verbs by the Indian speakers signal their responsibility for their own actions and, consequently, the responsibility for their own destruction. But, that every negative action by whites should be presented in the passive voice certainly signals that Warren is hiding the real reasons for the whites’ actions behind narrative subterfuge. There is one apparent exception to Warren using passive voice for negative action toward the Indian. He says, “President Grant ... turned to the doomed experiment of trying to divide the region between Indians and whites.” This was undoubtedly a negative action as far as the Indians were concerned, and turned is a verb in the active voice. This seems to be an exception to Warren’s verb use; it is less of one when you see how this verb is modified by the agentless construction that precedes it, “but, under pressure”, which is an attempt to remove from Grant the blame and pass it on to an unnamed, agentless “pressure,” presumably Fate.

          “Doomed experiment” is also one of those seemingly neutral usages, but in this case it is an attempt to hide the fact that Grant had no right to any kind of experiment on the Indian land. It disguises the fact that the experiment was doomed not because it was fated to be so but because the whites wanted Indian land, and the government was determined to help them get it. And, then there is the other apparently neutral word divide, implying some sort of equal treatment, but disguising the essential fact that the land was all the Indians’ in the first place. Warren employs other means to reinforce the ideological position presented by his verb use in addition to the examples cited above. He is especially kind to Lewis and Clark who Warren would have us believe were merely disinterested, scientific explorers not also agents for the fur trade. But it is with his verbs that Warren reveals his true attitudes toward the Indians.


VI. Time, to stop it

          As for the rest of Texas, if we don't count the wild

          Indians ... there were only 1,000 people.

          —Remember the Alamo!, Robert Penn Warren


          It is obvious that I have many disagreements with Warren, with his attitude toward the American Indian, toward our history, and with what he considers to be good poetry. There are, in addition, more reasons why I think Warren is simply not capable of writing an historical poem about American Indians.  Warren has revealed himself in so many of his other writings to be not able to understand the history of Indian-White relationships that are necessarily so central to any narrative of the life of Chief Joseph.

          Only a few years before writing Chief Joseph Warren wrote on the subject of poetry and policy a book called Democracy and Poetry.  I want to look at his attitude toward the individual and toward land.  Warren states his opinion about what is the characteristic of real poetry:”What poetry most significantly celebrates is the capacity of man to face the deep, dark inwardness of his nature and his fate.” With this belief, it is not surprising that Warren turns the reluctant peace chief, Chief Joseph, into a war leader who is preoccupied midst the battles with a Hamlet-like speculation on freedom, necessity, and manhood.  Warren creates Joseph in Warren's own image, not to give homage to an admittedly great historical figure, but to ultimately attempt to glorify himself.

          The source of Warren’s misconception about selfhood comes, I believe, from his refusal or inability to see what this democracy that he claims to value is really based upon.  American democracy is founded on land, private property; and, the inescapable fact about this land is that it was (and is) stolen from the Indian.  This though is how Warren sees it:

          Let us pause and look back.  In one perspective our history seems a little short of miraculous.  Two hundred years ago a handful of men (sic.) on the Atlantic seaboard with a wild continent at the back (They are facing the ocean?), risked their necks and their sacred (?) honor to found a new kind of nation, and thus unleashed an unprecedented energy (Therefore absolving them of any responsibility, guilt, or the need for reparations?) that succeeded to a power and prosperity beyond their most fantastic dreams.


Who does Warren speak for when he says our forefathers?  Does he speak for the Indian who did not consider the continent wild? And how are we to understand his evoking a higher power to justify the conquest of the Indian nations? How can the Indian wars be still considered our sacred task? Must we destroy that part of our collective memory that still remembers that such was the language of Cotton Mather and perhaps Warren’s Puritan forefathers? Can we accept Warren speaking for us when we know that his sacred task meant the destruction of numerous Indian nations and the uncompensated labor of millions of Black slaves, Chinese laborers, and immigrant wage-slaves? His is a curious look at history since it was these men, and women who he refuses to acknowledge, whose energy gives us our present prosperity, not some mystical “energy” but stolen excess value. And, according to Warren, his honorable men succeeded because the land was free, and this supposedly free land allowed them to escape the confines of European values which did not provide for the rugged individual.  Warren’s is an elementary logic and an elementary school logic. And it is entirely fallacious.

          Poetry becomes a travesty of human value when Warren attempts to write of a man who was the respected peace chief of a people who had no such conception of land as “free for the taking”, who saw the individual preoccupation of self-seeking glorification as an aberration, and who suffered near-annihilation so that Warren’s individualism might flourish. By contrast, Gidley’s work presents none of these distortions, and it is no poem. But it is the promise of a poetry, a poetry that stays close to the real, that respects the facts and the people who determine those facts, a possible poetry written by a whiteman about an Indian; all of this Gidley offers to us. From this possible poetry an honest poetry can emerge. Warren by contrast hides any such possibilities under the shadow of his destructive ego as assuredly as the Puritans he claims as his forefathers offered to cover the Indians with pox-infected blankets. He gives us instead of poetry only more “talking by men who had no right to talk.” Instead of poetry, propaganda.


Verbs and Talking Indian

          I divide Warrens verb use into four parts:

          A.   positive actions done to the Indians by Whites—all indicated by active verbs, showing that the whitemen acted responsibly and meant well;

B.   negative actions done to the Indians by Whites—all, indicated by passive verbs, showing that the whites’ actions were fated since they were not the agent of these actions;

C.   Indian actions—all indicated by active verbs, showing that the Indians were responsible for their own fate, i.e. the loss of their lands and the destruction of their culture; and

D.   other verb use, including relational verbs and verbs not otherwise accountable by A, B, or C.


Of the 42 verbs used, 5 are described by A, 10 by B, and 18 by C.  5 are relationals, 1 seems to be an exception to A but is really a disguised case of A, and 2 seem to be exceptions to C but are cases of passives where the agent is easily recoverable. 

          Here is the beginning of Warren’s “Note”:

The Nez Perce ... entered [C] history as the friendly hosts to the explorers Lewis and Clark, and took [C] care of their superfluous possessions when the expedition made [other, a “neutral” verb use] the last push to the Pacific. The Nez Perce were [other, but note the implication that they are no longer] a handsome and very vigorous people ... they refused [C] scalping.  They moved [C] about with the offerings of the seasons .... for buffalo, which had already disappeared from their land  [B, note the implied passive—the buffalo just disappeared. The buffalo had in fact disappeared from their lands many hundreds of years before, but the Nez Perce did hunt buffalo on the plains and return with the hides and meat.  But Warren's language here is not unlike present reporting on the “disappeared” in Latin America where the people are kidnapped and murdered by U.S. equipped and trained police forces.].... The Nez Perce, however, were [other] .... The lands where the fathers were buried [other, though passive it stands outside of the categories of my analysis] ,... the fathers kept watch [C] ... truth was spoken [other] ... each showed [C] .... The first treaty, of 1855, guaranteed [A] ...." etc.


Works Cited



Chief Joseph.  “An Indian’s Views of Indian Affairs.”  North American Review, 128, 1879, 412‑33.


Curtis, Edward.  The North American Indian.  New York: 1972.


Gidley, Mick. KOPET: a Documentary Narrative of Chief Joseph’s Last Years, Seattle: 1981.


Hallowell, Irving. Culture and Experience. Philadelphia: 1972.


Howard, General O. O. “The True Story of the Wallowa Campaign.” North American Review, 129, 1879, 533-64.


Josephy, Alvin M., Jr.  The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest, New Haven: 1965.


Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth.  Hiawatha. Lancaster, Pennsylvania: 1944.


Olson, Charles.  “Human Universe”,Selected Writings. New York: 1966.


Spinden, Herbert J.  “The Nez Perce Indians,”  Memoirs of the American Anthropological Assosciation, Vol II, part 3, 1907-15.


Vizenor, Gerald.  Earthdivers: Tribal Narratives of Mixed Descent. Minneapolis: 1981.


Warren, Robert Penn.  Brother to Dragons.  New York: 1953.


          Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, New York: 1982.


          Democracy and Poetry, Cambridge: 1975.


          Remember the Alamo!  New York: 1958.