The Native Americans of California were “as gentle as the climate in which they lived.” But after the Gold Rush of 1848, white settlers poured into California, first weakening and then exterminating entire tribes of Native Americans.
This opening arguably smacks of condescension and infantilization—it portrays the Californian Native Americans as golden-hearted children, in contrast to the pernicious, demonic white settlers (who, in all fairness, were responsible for some genocidal crimes).
One notable exception to the gentleness of the California Native Americans was the Modoc tribe of Oregon. After white settlers failed to exterminate the Modoc, the tribe ambushed settlers. In the 1850s, however, the Modocs were led by a young chief named Kintpuash. Kintpuash began to push for peace between his tribe and white settlers in California. He made treaties with government representatives, but the treaties forced his people into a territory that belonged to another native tribe, the Klamaths. As a result, Kintpuash’s people began to go hungry.
Kintpuash began his career by lobbying for peace with the U.S. government. Like so many of his predecessors, Kintpuash believed that politics could solve his people’s problems by ensuring that they could coexist with whites. However, as time went on, this hypothesis was proven wrong: white settlers thrived while the Modocs starved.
By the 1870s, the Modocs were starving. Kintpuash led his people south in search of land, but troops ordered him to return. When he refused, soldiers tried to transfer the Modocs back to their territory by force. The soldiers tried to disarm Kintpuash and his men. When Kintpuash hesitated to drop his weapons, the soldiers became furious, and in the ensuing fight, eight Modocs had been killed or wounded.
Kintpuash began to militarize his people in response to the growing hunger crisis. Then, when soldiers tried to prevent him from leaving his territory (another genocidal act, since in practice it would have caused the Modoc tribe to starve to death), the soldiers murdered eight Modocs. Clearly, they wanted the Modocs to die no matter what.
Kintpuash led his remaining warriors away from the army in search of the California Lava Beds, the sacred Modoc sanctuary. Around the same time, another group of Modocs got in a fight with American soldiers, and in the gunfire several American soldiers and settlers died. Now, Kintpuash knew he’d be punished for his men’s misbehavior.
Kintpuash struggled to control his own people, perhaps reflecting the Modocs’ desperation: they tried anything to ensure that they’d have enough food to survive. As a result of the hunger crisis, then, war broke out.
In early 1873, Modocs at the Lava Beds spotted U.S. forces approaching. The majority of the Modocs voted to fight the soldiers to the death. In the fight, the American soldiers were forced to retreat. Soon after, government representatives arrived, calling for peace talks. The representatives, defended by General Edward R. S. Canby, claimed that the Modocs who’d killed American troops would receive amnesty in exchange for a promise of permanent peace. But over the next few days, the representatives withdrew their offer and demanded that Kintpuash give up his men so that they could be transferred to a reservation.
Notice, first, that the Modocs were democratic and voted on whether to fight U.S. troops or not. Second, notice that Canby behaved dishonestly and changed his offers from day to day. The contrast between the moral, democratic Modocs and the devious, authoritarian U.S. generals is striking, and it upends the propaganda of the time, which claimed that Native Americans were “savages.”
By the middle of March, Kintpuash and his followers sighted Colonel Canby approaching the Lava Beds. Kintpuash’s warriors, who’d been responsible for killing American soldiers, surrendered to Canby. However, while at the military camp, a white soldier revealed that Canby intended to arrest and try the warriors. Before being arrested, the warriors were able to escape Canby and alert Kintpuash that Canby had tried to trick him.
Canby tried to trick the Modocs, who up to this point had been models of honesty and forthrightness. Clearly, Canby didn’t consider the Modocs to be true human beings, and therefore didn’t waste politeness or honesty on them.
The government now offered Kintpuash a new deal: he could surrender to the American government, with a guarantee of protection. Kintpuash was “caught in a classic dilemma”—he could save his followers by surrendering, but in doing so he’d be giving up the men who’d killed the troops. Meanwhile, more American troops joined Canby’s army.
Kintpuash was forced to choose between two different groups of loyal followers because the U.S. military was unwilling to negotiate further with him: they wanted to punish the Modoc warriors, no questions asked.
A few days later, Kintpuash sent the military a message. He said he wanted to be able to move his people back to their old territory in Oregon. When the military pointed out that Oregon was now a settlers’ community, and one where the Modocs had shed white blood, Kintpuash made a second request—to be allowed to live with his people in the Lava Beds. The military representatives refused, so long as Kintpuash protected the men who’d killed U.S. soldiers.
The military representatives cruelly denied Kintpuash’s innocent requests to live with his people in the Lava Beds, a small, strategically useless piece of land. They did so because they wanted to pressure Kintpuash to give up his warriors.
Among his own people, Kintpuash was suspected of being in league with the U.S. military. Some of the Modocs wanted to kill the peace commissioners as soon as possible. They threatened to kill Kintpuash unless he killed the negotiators. Reluctantly, Kintpuash agreed to kill Colonel Canby, unless Canby accepted his peace terms.
It’s a mark of the disintegration of Modoc community that Kintpuash’s men, previously loyal and honest, now threatened to murder Kintpuash. And this is exactly what the U.S. military wanted: Canby was trying to destroy the Modoc leadership, not just punish a few Modoc warriors.
On Good Friday, 1873, Kintpuash went out to speak with the peace commissioners. Canby made a long speech to Kintpuash about the need for peace. Kintpuash responded by demanding the right to stay in the Lava Beds. When Canby refused, Kintpuash became aggressive. He and his men drew their weapons and killed Canby and his men.
Up to this point, Kintpuash had seemed to be aiming for peace at all costs. But pressured by Canby and also by his own men, he finally resorted to violence, convinced that there was no other way.
In the aftermath of the shooting, war broke out between the Modocs and the U.S. The U.S. soldiers’ superior firepower forced the Modocs to flee. Before long, the military had arrested most of the fleeing Modocs. Some of the same Modocs who’d pressured Kintpuash to kill Canby now turned on their chief and promised to track him down in exchange for amnesty. Kintpuash was caught a few weeks later. He surrendered and said, “I am ready to die.”
In the end, the Modoc tribe collapsed. Where before it had been united and democratic, it now splintered into a set of rival factions. Kintpuash seems to have remained calm and collected even at the very end of his life: he accepted responsibility, knowing that his execution would allow the rest of his tribe to survive unpunished.
Kintpuash was convicted of murder. No defender was assigned to him, and no witnesses for the defense were summoned. Kintpuash was allowed to make a closing statement. In broken English, he said, “You white people conquered me not; my own men did.” He was hanged a few days later. Decades later, however, the few dozen Modocs who were still alive were allowed to return to their Oregon reservation.
As with many of the other Native American characters in this book, Kintpuash was convicted of murder without a proper trial. This reiterates the point that Native Americans were not considered true citizens of the United States (and in some ways weren’t really considered human beings), underscoring the inherent contradiction of Native Americans attempting to use legal, political means to push back against the U.S.