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A Cayuse-Nez Percé Sketchbook


[17.jpg]WHEN, about the middle of the eighteenth century, the Cayuse and Nez Percé Indians of eastern Oregon and Idaho acquired horses from the Shoshones, their life was dramatically transformed. Within little more than a generation parties of them had become accustomed to cross the Continental Divide to visit the buffalo country, and there, said the missionary Asa Bowen Smith, in 1840, a party of them wintering on the Plains were caught by the smallpox epidemic of 1780. Venturing with the Kutenai, Flathead, and other Plateau peoples in groups sometimes numbering more than a thousand, armed with guns secured through the fur trade, they were able to stand off the Blackfeet and their allies so that by the time Smith wrote they had long since carved out for themselves a niche on the upper Yellowstone.

With the new life, they avidly took on the fashions and accoutrements of the Northern Plains, while retaining an underlying Plateau distinctiveness. Along with styles of dress, the parfleche, and the tipi, they took over the manner of decorating these items, the geometric art of Plains women and the representative art of the men. Wrote Herbert J. Spinden of the latter form among the Nez Percés, "Pictographs which served the double purpose of decoration and as an aid to memory were commonly painted in colors upon the buffalo and elk hide blankets and upon the skin tipis. These pictographs show considerable similarity to those of the Sioux." (1908:232)

That art, and that bygone life, are vividly evoked in a sketchbook recovered within the past decade by Halfmoon and now in the Special Collections of the University of Oregon Library. It came from an abandoned house being demolished on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Pendleton, Oregon. The house, one of a number of dwellings in the vicinity of St. Andrews Mission, had once belonged to one Cap' Sumkin, and though it had had later, temporary occupants, the location of the sketchbook when found links it in general to him and his household.

Cap' Sumkin was one of the notable figures on the reservation in the early twentieth century. A Cayuse-Nez Percé, sometimes thought to be a member of the Wallowa band of the latter tribe, he was the son and namesake of the Cayuse chief Telokaikt, who, suspecting Marcus Whitman of consuming his people in a measles epidemic, had joined in slaying him and destroying his mission. For this act, the father had been hanged at Oregon City in 1850. The son had subsequently served with the Army against traditional foes, in the Sheepeater campaign of 1878, as sergeant of Indian scouts. On the reservation, he was first captain of Indian police--whence his title--and later member of the Court of Indian Offenses.

Often recalled today as a "Bureau" Indian, during the final allotments of the reservation in 1916-17 Cap' Sumkin led a Cayuse faction favoring the inclusion of "mixed-breeds" among allottees, against a conservative group, led by Johnson Yumsumkin, opposing them. Despite his stand on such issues, Cap' Sumkin and his associates made no sharp break with the past, and Major Lee Moorhouse photographed him with ceremonial lance and shield in the traditional garb of the warrior. His house was the scene of frequent gatherings at which the great events of bygone days were sure to be reviewed.

Who among those who visited his household or were members of it left this sketchbook there cannot be determined today.

A tribal member, William Minthorn, suggests that it may have been Michel Thompson, "a kind of orphan," skilled with his hands, who was then a member of Cap' Sumkin's menage. Unfortunately, most members of that generation have long since departed, so that it is difficult today to corroborate his suggestion. The cover of the sketchbook bears on the upper right-hand corner what maybe a name inscribed in pencil, now so abraded as to be largely illegible, even under a microscope. What remains suggests another name; but not enough is left to furnish a solid lead.

Further inquiry has thus far been fruitless. In view of the recency of the sketchbook, it would be rash to preclude the possibility that the artist may have been a White attuned to Indian styles of drawing, or that the pictures might have been suggested by illustrations in a book. We write, however, in the absence of such evidence and under persuasion by the data that this is indeed an Indian perspective upon events from local Indian history. Evidence to sustain that view and to situate the sketchbook in time and place must be sought within its pages.

The authors express their gratitude to Philip Guyer and William Minthorn for their helpful comments on the Signal drawings, and to other tribe members for providing ethnographic and historical assistance. John C. Ewers, Senior Ethnologist of the Smithsonian Institution, has read versions of this paper and has given us helpful suggestions. Mrs. Doris S. Bounds kindly provided photographs of painted robes in her collection for comparison. We are indebted to the Chicago Natural History Museum for data on the Brooks robe and for the photograph of it, reproduced with their permission [not included in this Web presentation]; to the Washington State University Library for allowing us to inspect the drawings of Peopeo Tholekt in the McWhorter Collection; and to the Special Collections of the University of Oregon Library for permission to draw upon the Lee Moorhouse photographs. The quotation from the report of Samuel Black, now in the archives of the Hudson's Bay Company, is published by kind permission of that Company. Funds for the research, as part of a study of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, were provided to Stem from the Penrose Fund of the American Philosophical Society, and by the Faculty Research Fund of the University of Oregon. To all these, grateful acknowledgement is made.

The Lee Moorhouse collection, PH 036, consists of approximately 7,000 glass-plate negatives, dating from the 1880s to the 1920s. Moorhouse was, among other things, agent to the Umatilla Reservation, and took many photographs of encampments and people of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla--Cayuse, Walla Walla, and Umatilla. Some Nez Perce are also included. Other images depict the early years of the Pendleton Roundup, agriculture, transportation, and public events in Pendleton. Some images are available at boundless.uoregon.edu.

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Last revision: 9/25/06 by N. Helmer
Created by Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries
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