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The Lemhi People and Their Struggle to Retain a Homeland By: Shirley Stephens

Clark Canyon, MT

The Lemhi Indian people’s first recorded contact with non-Indians occurred in August of 1805, when the Lewis and Clark Expedition traveled through their homeland in the Lemhi Valley of east-central Idaho. Accompanied by Toussaint Charboneau and his wife Wadze-wipe (lost woman), the expedition chanced upon a band of Lemhi on the Lemhi River--a tributary of the Salmon--about seventeen miles south of present day Salmon City. Led by Wadze-wipe’s brother, Cameahwait, these Lemhi welcomed their lost relative and Wadze-wipe was given the name Sacajawea, which means “travels with the boat that is pulled.” Sacajawea’s people furnished the Expedition with pack horses and guides to continue their journey to the Columbia River. A loose band of Shoshone and Bannock, the Lemhi had frequent contact with neighboring tribes, the Nez Perce, Flathead, and southern Idaho Shoshone (Fort Hall Shoshone) who used the Lemhi Valley as a “refuge from the raiding Blackfeet.”

These tribes accompanied the Lemhi on buffalo hunts while all engaged in trade at Camas Prairie, south of Lemhi country. Sharing a home territory, the Lemhi Valley Shoshones called themselves salmon eaters, while the mountain bands identified themselves as sheepeaters. By 1850, a majority of the surrounding Shoshone mountain dwellers (sheepeaters) consolidated with the salmon eaters. The combined bands comprised two hundred families with a population of twelve-hundred “in a subsistence area of 27,000 square miles.” Taking advantage of the widely scattered subsistence foods while ensuring their survival, the Lemhi traditionally formed hunting and gathering groups. The mountains yielded seeds, roots, mountain sheep, deer, and salmon. From early spring until September, the Lemhi caught salmon from the Salmon, Lemhi, and Pahsimeroi rivers. In the summer, certain Lemhi groups traveled east to hunt buffalo. Hunting families traveled to the “upper waters of the Missouri and eastward beyond Bozeman and utilized areas immediately east of the Divide” and to the Yellowstone area.

Returning in the fall, Lemhi families camped in the Lemhi valley during the winter months. While both the Fort Hall Shoshone and Lemhi adopted aspects of “Plains cultural traits” encountered on buffalo hunts, “they incorporated these onto a different base.” According to anthropologist Julian Steward, the “natural landscape affects behavior patterns and the institutions of a culture.” The Fort Hall Indians with their Great Basin desert culture of “seed gathering, and communal rabbit drives, along with antelope drives, or sage hen drives. . . . held to a single, migratory cycle in which the entire band traveled together.” According to Brigham Madsen: Because of their location in the Salmon River mountains and the Lemhi Valley north of the Snake River Plains, the Lemhi Shoshone differed from their neighbors, the Fort Hall Shoshone, in some important ways. Living on the border of the Nez Perce country, they were exposed to Plateau culture of the farther northwest more than to Desert culture of the Great Basin. . . . trade between these somewhat hostile peoples promoted cultural interchange in that isolated country. . . . Plateau culture - - based on salmon fishing and camas digging in the early days - - fitted the Lemhi country well. . . . In 1863, the federal government began negotiating treaties with Shoshone nations to protect settlers and emigrant trails.

Fort LemhiPresident Lincoln appointed Utah Superintendent James Doty to head a special commission to negotiate with the tribes. The treaties did not involve land cessions; rather, they were designed to insure “peace and amity” between the Indians and non-Indians. In May 1868, the Indian Peace Commission dispatched General Christopher Augur to Fort Bridger to meet with the “Snakes, Bannacks, and other Indians along the line of the Union Pacific RR in Utah.” The resulting treaty, concluded on July 3, 1868, provided for, among other things, the right of the signatory tribes to hunt and fish on the unoccupied lands of the United States. Historically, the Lemhi have never been acknowledged as a party to this agreement, but Tay-to-ba, a sub-chief of the Lemhi, attended the negotiations, and his signature appears on the official document. Although a Lemhi reservation was not established in the Bridger Treaty, Tay-to-ba’s participation brought the Lemhi into the treaty’s rights and obligations. Some years later, Lemhi Agent John Wright referred to Tay-to-ba as being an influential Lemhi on the reservation. The Lemhi argued that they were being treated unfairly when they were denied a share in the presents and money given to the other parties of the treaty. While the reasons the Lemhi were never recognized as signatories to the treaty remain obscure even through the Indian Claims Commission settlement of 1970s, it is clear that they were denied treaty rights afforded to the other signatory groups. The implications of this oversight are far-reaching.

In September of 1868, the Lemhi, recognized as a distinct people, negotiated another treaty at Virginia City, Montana Territory. This agreement set apart two townships, twelve miles from Fort Lemhi on the north fork of the Salmon River. The Lemhi surrendered all land claims outside the reserve in return for yearly annuities, but the Senate failed to ratify the treaty. In 1868 Montana Superintendent of Indian Affairs Alfred Sully offered as evidence the Indians’ poor condition and the Senate’s failure to ratify the Virginia City Treaty as reasons for the need of Lemhi removal to the Fort Hall. On August 10, 1869, the Virginia City Republican stated that: Tendoy, their chief, is encamped with a hundred lodges near this city. . . . His lands are gone, his tribe is broken, they have nothing; they are starving. They have been ever kind to the whites, and the Great Farther [sic] has made promises to them which he has not kept. . . . Nevertheless, the Lemhi resisted removal efforts and struggled to retain their hold on their homeland. Miners, settlers, and ranchers continued to pour into the western territories, depleting the game and claiming the land upon which the Lemhi had traditionally depended upon subsistence. In 1871, the Indian office established the Lemhi Agency, appointing an Indian agent and appropriating $15,000 annually for the Lemhi’s subsistence. However, when Harrison Fuller assumed charge of the agency in April 1873, he found them “poor clad and provided for, the year’s appropriations and products of the [agency] farm exhausted.”

Although the Lemhi continued to hunt, they often returned empty handed with no means to alleviate the hunger of their family members. In May the Indian office informed Fuller that the Lemhi were to be removed to the Fort Hall Reservation and he presented the letter to Chief Tendoy and the other headmen. Fuller reluctantly informed the Indian commissioner that “The Indians were much disappointed and dissatisfied to learn that it is contemplated to take them away from this valley, and, in fact, positively refused to go.” He explained to the commissioner that the Lemhi would reject government aid rather than be removed from their homeland. George Shoup, a local Salmon businessman serving in the House of Representatives for Idaho Territory, intervened for the Lemhi, requesting the help of Idaho’s Congressional Delegate John Hailey in securing a permanent reservation for the Lemhi. President Grant signed an executive order on February 12, 1875 establishing a reservation that comprised one hundred square miles, considerably larger than the reserve outlined by the unratified treaty concluded at Virginia City in 1868. In October 1875, Fuller reported that there were 1,050 Indians receiving supplies: 210 Bannocks, 500 Shoshones, and 340 Sheepeaters on the Lemhi Reservation. Removal, however, continued to be the goal of the Indian Office. Commissioner Ezra Hayt was committed to “the concentration of smaller bands on larger reservations,” and he made his intentions clear concerning the future of the Lemhi Reservation.

It is intended to consolidate the Lemhi and the Fort Hall Agencies in Idaho,” Commissioner Hayt explained, “by removing to Fort Hall the 900 Indians who are unfavorably located at Lemhi.” Pursuing this goal in 1880, federal officials decided to use a more diplomatic approach, inviting Fort Hall and Lemhi chiefs and headmen to Washington, D.C. The commissioner believed the Indians, impressed by the “power and grandeur of the government,” would agree to the department’s proposals. On May 14, 1880, one year after “bitterly protesting removal,” Tendoy and three of his sub-chiefs signed an agreement that provided for the Lemhi’s removal to Fort Hall where they were to live on allotted lands. In compensation, the federal government pledged to pay the Lemhi twenty annual payments of $4,000. For the agreement to be binding a majority of the male population of the Lemhi Reservation were required to approve it. This stipulation impeded the Indian Office’s demands for removal for the next twenty-five years. Although it appeared to the Indian Office that Tendoy was willing to surrender his people’s ancestral land that was not the case. Tendoy knew that his signature was not binding until a majority of the Lemhi adult males signed it. Tendoy, therefore, did not promise to relinquish the home of his fathers by singing the agreement. Rather, his was a pledge to present the agreement to his people for their consideration. Tendoy kept his word to the federal government and discharged his duties as chief. As tradition dictated, he presented the agreement to the Lemhi for their consideration. Undaunted by the power of the federal government, they rejected removal once again.

Tendoy was well versed in the process of arbitration. Although the Lemhi had negotiated the Virginia City Treaty with the federal government in 1868, no one accused the federal government of misleading Indians in these negotiations because it was understood that agreements such as these required Senate approval. The 1880 agreement was no different. This time, however, it became the prerogative of Indian people to ratify or reject it. Tendoy understood this process. Nonetheless, criticism that he failed to honor his pledge or that he “welched” on an agreement haunted him for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, the Indian Office stubbornly refused to take no for an answer, dedicating instead a generation of effort to hounding, coercing, and brow-beating the Lemhi into submission. Throughout these years, the Lemhi resisted the authority of non-Indians. Agents complained that despite years of civilizing efforts the Lemhi continued to be, in their words, non-progressive and backward. The Lemhi were traditionalists and they resisted the assimilation efforts of the federal government. They balked at the education of their children and encouraged them to continue using their native tongue. Despite regulations to the contrary, the Lemhi continued to wear long hair, beads, and feathers. As late as 1897, three-fourths of the Lemhi still lived in the traditional teepee. The federal government ordered them not to do so, but the Lemhi continued to hunt and fish on their aboriginal lands drawing the ire of settlers.

By 1905, the Lemhi faced an uncertain future. White encroachment made it difficult for them to use their ancient hunting trails. Game was scarce; the salmon runs had been reduced by the traps of white settlers, and government rations were reserved only for the disabled. In December, Indian Inspector James McLaughlin, experienced in difficult Indian removal negotiations, was dispatched to the reservation to accomplish a task that no one had managed to do in the intervening twenty-five years since the 1880 agreement: obtain the necessary signatures for removal. McLaughlin declared to the Lemhi that the government would no longer support them at the reservation and that they would never again have the opportunity to accept the money and land the federal government was offering. McLaughlin reported that the agreement had been signed on December 18, 1905, and he transmitted a copy of the document to the interior secretary on December 19. Despite its legalistic clarity, the 1905 agreement was silent on several key elements. It contained no acknowledgment that from 1880 to 1905, the Fort Hall Reservation had been reduced from 1,202,230 acres to 447,940 acres. Nor did it take into account the appreciation of value of the Lemhi Reservation. McLaughlin reported simply that the Lemhi willingly agreed to leave their homeland.

President Theodore Roosevelt approved the 1905 removal agreement on January 27, 1906. In addition to the provisions for allotments on the Fort Hall Reservation and twenty annual payments of $4,000, the Lemhi insisted that they be paid for their improvements on the Lemhi Reservation. McLaughlin, however, did not believe that compensation for the improvements would exceed $7500, because he considered “the buildings of the Lemhi Indians quite small and of little value, [and] their cultivated fields . . . small and most of the fences poor. . . .” Mclaughlin’s report states that eighty-six of the 137 adult male Lemhi signed the final agreement, giving the government the majority required to make the 1880 agreement binding. The eighty-six signatories represented the total number of Indians present on the reservation at the time. Inspector McLaughlin claimed the sixty-five Lemhi present in the signing council agreed to removal without protest. He did not explain how the remaining eleven signatures were obtained. McLaughlin’s removal document bears the signatures of the four government employees who witnessed the signing, but the spaces for Lemhi signatures, marks, or thumbprints are blank. After twenty-five years of resistance, it is unlikely that the Lemhi would suddenly and amicably decide that distant land and federal money were more important than their homeland. The move threatened their very existence.

Numerous Lemhis protested removal after McLaughlin’s visit to the reservation, and prominent citizens joined in their protest. J.M Ingersoll, chairman of the Pocatello Commercial Club, foretold the future of the Lemhi people with unsettling accuracy: If the Lemhis are moved to the Fort Hall lands, they will become the most homesick and disconsolate lot of poverty stricken Indians to be found anywhere in this great country of ours; and it will be years and years, if ever, before it will be possible to get them to settle down, as they will long for their old haunts and will spend so much of their time tramping back to their old winter hunting and fishing grounds on the Lemhi and Salmon rivers and their tributaries, and to the cool summer hunting and fishing grounds that abound in the shadow of the continental divide near the Lemhi reserve, that they and their fathers have been accustomed to for centuries. The year 1906 was a time of indecision and hardship for the Lemhi. Amidst plans for the transfer, the Lemhi continued to petition that the removal order be rescinded. The commissioner informed Lemhi Agent August Duclos that the Lemhi would be removed by wagon no later than September 15.

While he acknowledged that the Lemhi “were very much opposed to leaving [their] reservation,” Duclos assured the Indian office that he could accomplish it. The Lemhi informed him that they preferred to wait until the next spring fearing that they would have to live through the winter without proper houses or water. The commissioner granted their request for a delay. Tendoy never moved to Fort Hall. He died on May 9, 1907. Toopompey succeeded his father as chief of the Lemhi. On June 15, 1907, the Idaho Recorder reported that the first few hundred Lemhis had arrived at Fort Hall. “They filed across the Snake River near Blackfoot,” the newspaper reported, “and came up to Ross Fork to take up their abode in their new home.” The second and third groups arrived at Fort Hall the following week. They passed through Blackfoot, “with all their horses, guns, lodge poles, squaw saddles and spring wagons.” By June 27, most of the Lemhi were relocated to the Fort Hall Reservation and a June 30, 1907 census indicates that 474 Lemhi had been removed. Many families refused to leave their homes, remaining in the Lemhi Valley, where they lived on land that no longer belonged to Indian people. Removal left the Lemhi people a fragmented group of refugees. Those who remained behind lived without sanction in a place that held the graves of their ancestors.

Those who went to Fort Hall arrived as outcasts, bullied from their homeland by non-Indians and the federal government. Until their removal in 1907, the Lemhi clung to their homeland, and their traditional culture. Despite the words attributed to him by non-Indians who attended the 1905 agreement negotiations, Tendoy ultimately rejected removal one last time. He made plans to live his last days in the Pahsimeroi Valley. After his death, other Lemhi protested the removal to influential white men, but to no avail. In the end, the Lemhi lost federal sanction of their homeland and the government won the dubious honor of having transformed the Lemhi people into refugees. The Lemhi’s traditional remote and isolated setting was a world apart, far removed, from the cultural crossroads of Pocatello, Fort Hall, the Snake River Plains, and Great Basin culture. The removal of the Lemhi to Fort Hall entailed far more than a geographic move of two hundred miles. As Plateau Indians, the Lemhi left behind a homeland that had sustained them and defined who they were as a people. They had hunted and fished in the mountains and streams of the Salmon River country for centuries. What McLaughlin’s administrative and bureaucratic agreement ignored were crucial, human intangibles: pathos, grief, and the impact of rejection and ejection. The 1905 agreement was not a bargain: it was a “steal,” wrung from the Lemhi by a generation of coercion.

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Also read: "Sacajawea's People The Lemhi-Shoshones and the Salmon River Country" By John W. W. Mann

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"Sacajawea's People: Who Are The Lemhi And Where Is Their Home?" By: Professor Orlan J. Svingen History Department, Washington State University