30. Weaponizing the West: Part 2

The Americans who arrived on the Columbia in the 1830s and 1840s said that their power came from their God. The power was certainly there, and the zeal. From 1790 through 1840, the country found a new path to faith.

John Wesley Preaching to the Indians. Engraver Unknown.

In 1753, John Wesley, sailed from England to Georgia. His goal was to preach to the Indians. Due to a lack of preachers in general, he spent most of his time preaching to settlers.

This was a pattern that was going to be repeated in Oregon a century later, with equally mixed results. When Wesley’s faith turned hard as a result of a love affair that conflicted with his faith, he returned to England and eventually founded Methodism, a breakaway from the Anglican Church that at first held its services in homes and outside churches, rather than in them. This was by law, but it proved to be popular. This movement was, in other words, evangelical, revolutionary, ecstatic and intimate. We are a ways from the Columbia here, but not as far as one might at first think. Even this isn’t far:

John Wesley Preaching Outside a Church

Note the stress on “outside.”

This new faith offered a populist intellectual tradition and obedience & disobedience as a tight knot. Note the number of women present as well. In other words this movement fit the aspirations of a class (women) that was culturally given emotion as an intellectual avenue and a path towards family, social and political influence. Quite the mix. Oregon was going to be the testing ground for this squeeze. Just in case you missed how extraordinary the combination is, here it is in full, after a long, long journey:

Note the pink sign in the centre of the image.

Evangelical, revolutionary, ecstatic, intimate, populist, intellectual, obedient, gendered, emotional and political. Still.

In an American context, Oregon was just a stepping stone to this moment. In the context of the Pacific Northwest, it has a second trajectory. It began in the period 1790-1840, known as The Second Great Revival (of Christianity), and it took place in outdoor meetings, such as the one above. It looked like this:

Very Wesleyan!

Note the men inviting the women to join in, the preponderance of women, the guy flirting to the right, and the tents in the background. This was a camp out. Here are the tents again:


More tents!

Note the tree, too. Very important.

Like a cathedral, really!

And the log hut:

Adam and Eve should be so lucky.

And here is a congregation, well, congregating, on their way to a meeting.

Such camaraderie must have been hard to resist.

Really hard,. Here they are, once they worked some of the kinks out of the parade to church:

Entering Oregon on the Oregon Trail

This time the tents are moving! All that is missing is the log hut. Ah, here it is:

Waillatpu Mission

And the preacher and his emotional, proud, ecstatic wife? They are there, too!

Marcus and Narcissa Whitman

Note that like Wesley’s, their mission to preach to the “Indians” became after much failure and frustration a mission to serve American settlers. More than that, Marcus came to actively encourage the American settlement of Oregon Territory. The land would be settled, or tamed, even if its people couldn’t be. So to speak.

Without realizing that this method only had power within a specific cultural context, the Cayuse wanted a piece of it. And why not, Even the Boy Scouts wanted that:

Boy Scout Camp Roosevelt, 1920s (New Jersey)

In the Columbia, this drive was heartfelt. We will follow its spiritual story later. Right now, I’m hoping to help you ee the gap between its expectations and those of the Cayuse. To be fair to the Methodists, who were certainly not an insincere group, the pressure to evangelize didn’t just come from Methodist missionaries. It came from the Jesuits on the eastern side of Nimíipu’u Territory as well, invited there by Ignace la Mousse, an Iroquois who abandoned David Thomson’s 1809 brigade (along with 23 others!) to live among the Flathead people of the Bitterroot Valley. I’ve mentioned him before, and how he had been brought up in the Catholic mission at Kahnawake, outside of Montreal, and that his faith was a Christian-Iroquois mix that evolved into a religion of its own. I am mentioning him again, because that mixture of spiritual understandings and aspirations may have contributed to the misunderstanding in Cayuse Country.

Father DeSmet’s Flathead Mission, early 1840s.

For now, I think it’s fair to everyone’s aspirations to say that the missionaries were looking for a world religion, one that would save all human souls, while the Cayuse were looking for some spirit who could be the next horse, the next agent of transformation. It wouldn’t be a shaman this time, or a creature out of legend, as useful as they were, but a man of God. The is what they got:

Reverend Jason Lee

Not a shaman.

Lee was one of the first to come. He set up shop in the Willamette Valley. He converted absolutely zero souls, but did manage to turn Oregon from a spiritual wilderness to an industrial state. We will follow that process later, and its profound impact on Indigenous life and the land, but first, there’s the business of that creature out of legend.

And by legend, we mean the world before the transformation that made it physical and full of separate species.

In that world, this was a person like any other. Only humans weren’t present. How they were going to be cared for (or preyed upon) were the big questions of the day.

Here are the bones of a story I was once told over breakfast. In Secwepemc Country, the dog (Sqexe7, or dog) and the horse (big dog) were the two creatures willing to help poor, naked humans survive in the post-mythological world. In return, humans brought them right into their social lives. Much of life is based on their generosity. Skaha Lake (Dog Lake) south of Penticton was named by a Secwepemc guide to Northwest Company traders as they passed through the horse pastures above it, essentially extensions of the Penticton village.

A Dog, One of Father Pandosy’s Big Heads Looks Out over Skaha Lake.

Ironically, to the local Syilx, it was actually “Horse Lake”, not “Dog Lake.” Either way, the lake was a domestic space.

Here’s a part of an early 20th century Secwpemc story collected by Jame A. Teit, that illustrates how these stories, as culturally foundational, remain the same even as they profoundly change:

Here’s the source:


The story goes on from there, but I think you get the idea: horses are spiritual beings, and practical ones. At the same time. That’s not entirely different to how Methodist humans are spiritual beings (souls) with bodies that do work. Still, there I the question of fencing. Indigenous horses were kept by natural shapes of the land, in a wild or near-wild state, and selected when needed. Settler horses were more generally fenced in or hooked together into a work team.

Early American Days in Walla Walla Country

The method, the long training, that was the spirit of the thing.

Neither settlers nor the people of the grass were much interested in being fenced in or harnessed themselves. It was into this muddy intersection of spirituality and human bodies that Pandosy rode, singing hymns on the wagon train, praying in the dust and wind as the sun rose at dawn, and growing sick of porridge. For him, the porridge was the worst of it. He was hungry, and disappointed. He had been promised a wilderness, full of game and romantic “Indians.” In its place, he got a spring and summer of riding into the emptiness of a prairie cleared of both game and people by an avalanche of people like himself, shooting their soup pots full on the way West. His group, with all their porridge, were eating horse feed, because there was nothing else and they couldn’t afford to pack it. It was a romance gone bad (and it was even worse for Indigenous people, who didn’t even have horse feed.). Father, did you ever despair?

Pandosy: Every day, but we were Catholics, so we hitched our gowns over our trousers and synched them up with horse ropes and sang hymns.

Why the singing?

Pandosy: I love to sing. Besides, the stress, man. There was so much stress.

Stress? You didn’t even have a twitter feed.

Pandosy: I would have eaten one if we had found it, but our stress was that we were the next generation of weaponry. On this progression: Horse, Rifle, Prayer. And hope. Hope and prayer always go together. Plus the reestablishment of conservative ecstatic Catholicism.

Because you were oblates.

Pandosy: Confessional wafers, yes. It was our thing. We were nobody. Just God. Not his emissaries. Just God.

I’m surprised to see rifles in there.

Pandosy: There are always rifles. But not always hope. But we had that. We were convinced that prayer would level the playing field with the Americans. They were praying all over the place and carried black bibles like strategic nuclear weapons. Compared to that, we were mid-range, only. It was viscious, though. Do you know there was a test ban against us as soon as we arrived?

You’re referring to the US Army order that cleared all White men out of Indian territory so that the Cayuse would calm down?

Pandosy: It was a scorched earth policy, so that the Army would have a free fire zone. Anything that moved could legally be shot. (Mimes.) Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Mon Dieu! (Crosses himself.)

It was the end of a ritual game. Warfare that had long been fought as a game (a ritual) of bluff, and which had adapted to the new weapon, the horse, by integrating it into a spiritual system…

Deadly Lightning Flashing Out of Its Eyes, Smoke from Volcanoes, the Works

…wouldn’t survive a people who shot any native in sight. Again, the Iroquois had a part in this. Their extensive system of bluff and the rumours of bloodthirsty scalping they initiated to terrorize the Americans in the War of 1812 won the war for their allies, the British. Stories of the terror told by the Americans, many of them Kentucky men, kept them in whiskey for a generation, and their sons, who had just emigrated to Oregon, had listened well. In 1812, the Iroquois had bluffed to support their own imperial ambitions. In terrified American imaginations, the bluff became a series of conspiracy theories. Here’s one that was important on the Columbia:

General Isaac Brock and Chief Tecumseh Agree to Fight the Americans Together in 1812


With the British as present in the Columbia as the Americans, this was a touchy bit of history. There was little popular understanding that the War of 1812 was not lost due to British perfidy, betrayal, sneakiness and savagery but to American incompetence, especially the incompetence of volunteer civilian armies without the ability to procure supplies or create a unified command. In the main, Oregon was rapidly filling up with men who were just looking for a chance to get angry. This lot, more or less:

A militia group stands in front of the governor’s office after armed protesters occupied the State Capitol building during a vote to approve the extension of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order in Lansing, Mich., in April.Credit…Seth Herald/Reuters

The Cayuse had a different conception of war. As Robert H Ruby and John A. Brown document in The Cayuse Indians: Imperial Tribesmen of the Northwest

…when Cayuse men returned from a raid, village women formed two long ceremonial greeting lines on the approach to the village. The men rode in between them, and were caught by the women’s outstretched hands. Then the women started beating the prisoners.

Giant Wild Rye: Harold?

Yes, Mom?

Giant Wild Rye: You’re not imagining this correctly. You forgot about me.

I did?

Giant Wild Rye: I’m scattered all over the hills, right, and taller than a horse. The men are picking their way through me on their way home.

Ah, winding this way and that, with their horses?

Giant Wild Rye: Yes. I’m brushing at their thighs. I’m like 10,000 hands reaching for them.

And letting them go.

Giant Wild Rye: Of course. What are they going to do? Fall into my arms?

Um… why not?

Giant Wild Rye: You nut, it’s about women. They should fall into the women’s arms.

Ah, the women catch them, while you just let them go.

Giant Wild Rye: (Rustling.) Kind of. I slowwwww them.

So, a braking system. The women put your scattered growth into order. Not stalks knocked off by passing deer and their hunters but individually set into place like beads on a buckskin jacket.

Giant Wild Rye: What are you talking about?

After all, that’s what a village is. A jacket. You put it on against the cold.

Giant Wild Rye: A buckskin jacket?

With the fringes to draw off the rain. Just like your stalks.

Giant Wild Rye: Oh. Yeah. Right.

(She turns this way and that in the wind.)

The Iroquois had played it this way, too. As Rushworth narrates in Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France

As the returning warriors neared their village, the war chief signaled their arrival with a series of high-pitched cries, one for each captive in the party. In some accounts, individual warriors also cried out once for each of the captives they had taken. “As soon as he arrives, all the people of the village meet together, and range themselves on both sides of the way where the prisoners must pass,” wrote Sébastian Rale. (Jesuit Relations, LXVII, 173) “This reception is very cruel; some tear out the prisoners’ nails, others cut off their fingers or ears; still others load them with blows from clubs.” Among the most degrading of the gauntlet’s many torments was the participation of women and children, whose taunts feel with special poignancy on captured male warriors. Like the ceremonies that initiated the slave raid, the logic of subordination required that captives’ incorporation into village society be a public affair involving all segments of Native society.

Brett Rushforth

Given how pressure was put on the Great Basin (of which Waillatpu’u is a part) from the East, it is not inconceivable that the Cayuse learned the practice from outside of their territory. Let’s ask the great restless one herself.


What do you think?

Giant Rye: I think the wind is the spirit of the world and spreads my pollen.

A good observation. What about those Cayuse, though?

Giant Rye: I think they rode their horses through me in the wind. My pollen blew around them. It looked quite nice, really, like the opening of an epic movie.

Ah, yes. Let me get right down to it. Do you think they learned their practice of imperial slavery from experience as slaves in the Pays d’en la Haut?

Giant Rye: How on Earth did you ever get such a notion?

Ruby and Brown say that the Shoshone are Cayuse.

Giant Rye: So?

Rushworth notes that the Shoshone were targeted as slaves by the Sioux and given as imperial gifts to the French. They died as domestic servants in Montreal. Some as galley slaves on the Mediterranean.

Giant Rye: What’s Montreal?

A cold place.

Giant Rye: Let’s ignore it, then.

We can’t. It’s like the capital of the continent. You know, downtown.

Giant Rye: No, that’s Waiilatpu.

Good point. Still, it’s not unreasonable to draw these threads together into a further observation: the Cayuse adopted Sioux practices of slavery to replace the French, the Iroquois and the Spanish in your country. What do you think?

Giant Rye: Man, you gotta learn to bend with the wind, then use its energy to spring back, so that the wind will bend you again. It’s done with circles. Kind of.

Like a grass dance in a pow-wow?

Giant Rye: Well, duh. Either that, or the Sioux learned from them.


Giant Rye: Or my people extended their own indigenous slaving practices into an imperial form all on their own.

Ah, yes. I see. All are possible.

Giant Rye: Right, now that we have shaken these notions out of your head, let’s begin your dancing lessons. First, you take your right foot and extend it forwards……..

(And so, we spend a long afternoon practicing steps in the wind, until finally it blows us away in a yellow swirl of the sun.)


Next, a deepening of one of the themes from this post: Bears, Indigenous culture and cultural change. See you there!

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