During the late 18th century, according to tribal oral history, Nez Perce spiritual leaders predicted that a major change was coming to their culture. This change would come from the east, the tewats said, and the Nez Perce people would have difficult times for five generations.
~ Epilogue to The Fifth Generation: A Nez Perce Tale
Linwood Laughy’s first novel, The Fifth Generation: A Nez Perce Tale is set in the area around Kamiah, Idaho. The protagonist, Isaac Moses, is a 32-year-old Nez Perce man, living alone in his family home. Over the course of a year, Isaac’s life changes as he stops the destructive drinking which has marred his life, and seeks to reclaim his heritage. This is a story of self-discovery and hope for the future. My review of this novel has just been accepted for publication by the Western American Literature journal at Utah State University and I will post a link to it, via Project Muse, when it is printed later this year.
In alternating chapters, the story of Isaac's life and the history of his family are revealed. Each of the historical chapters focuses on one of Isaac's ancestors, and exposes events which have ultimately shaped his life.
Prologue – 1953
Isaac Moses leaves home at midnight and walks through ‘the five-block town’ (p 3) to the Boots & Saddles Bar with a crowbar hidden down the leg of his trousers.
Chapter 1 – 1918
Eighteen-year-old Jimmy Girardoux and his friend Henry Old Beaver look down from a hilltop onto the town of Kamiah, the ‘Indian Village’ and the river that runs between them. Henry tries to dissuade Jimmy from joining the army and going off to fight in the war:
“It’s a white man’s war!” Henry’s declaration was as firm as the layers of basalt that lay beneath them. “If some Indian boys have to go over there, let them Carlisle Christians go. They’re the ones always backing up the white man.” (p 6)
Recalling a vision in which arrows flew toward him, only to fall at his feet, Jimmy is certain that ‘an enemy could never kill him’ (p 6).
Chapter 2 – 1952
After a drunken brawl, Isaac lies in the gutter outside the Boots & Saddles Bar. Picking himself up, he heads out of town.
Five cracks in the sidewalk brought him to Uncle Bill's Pawn Shop, where he stopped, puked on his well-scuffed Redwing boots, then searched the contents of the pawn shop’s window with the aid of a flickering street light. A fiddle, two vases, radios, a saddle, pocket watches – and blue beads wrapped around the handle of an eagle feather fan. Through this window he had watched his people disappear piece-by-piece – beaded leggings and painted parfleches, cedar root baskets and corn husk bags. At times he had made his own contributions to this slow parade into oblivion. (p 15)
At the age of thirty-two, Isaac is alone in his family home. His sister has moved to Seattle, and his mother has moved to Oregon with a Cayuse man she met at a pow-wow.
Isaac stayed, for the fish and the fruit and the worn familiarity of the trails he followed through the darkness of his life. But mostly he stayed for the voices, waiting for them to tell him who he was and what his life would be. (p 20)
Chapter 3 – 1918
The story of Isaac’s mother, Mary Moses, and her brief time with Jimmy Girardoux - the father Isaac never knew. Born to a Christian father and a Dreamer mother, Mary had been sent to the Carlisle Indian School, two thousand miles away in Pennsylvania. There, along with hundreds of other Indian children from tribes around the country, she was subject to Richard Henry Pratt's plan to 'Kill the Indian, [and] Save the man' (p 26).
Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Pennsylvania, circa 1900. This photo is in the public domain.
‘Dressed in white shirt and sorrow, [Mary’s] father had taken her to the train depot, horse and wagon moving as if in a funeral procession’ (p 24). For nine months, she experienced ‘a quiet withering’ (p 22) of her Nez Perce identity before the school was closed, and she was sent home. Back in Idaho, in the summer of 1918, she is ‘a returned one now, typed and tainted, a new form of breed trained white’ (p 21). There, she meets Jimmy, who has just completed boot camp and is briefly home before his departure for France. By mid-December, though, Jimmy is dead from the influenza epidemic, and his body has been returned to Kamiah for burial. Isaac is born in the spring.
Chapter 4 – 1952
As Isaac and the rest of the Nez Perce await government checks in repayment for gold illegally taken from their land during 19th century gold rushes, he tallies his mounting debts. After months of extended credit, he owes $692 and is now ‘out of wood....out of food....[and] out of time’ (p 40). Looking through his mother’s precious Carlisle ledger, he studies the drawings of children with ‘large, quiet eyes’ who ‘wore sadness like a shroud’. Half of the children in the book are depicted in traditional dress; half are dressed in ‘collared uniforms and...gray woolen dresses’ (p 39). With nothing left of value, Isaac pockets the book and takes it and his chainsaw to Uncle Bill’s Pawnshop.
Chapter 5 – 1889
The story of Mary's mother Walking Woman. As Walking Woman waits for her husband to return from a meeting with Measuring Woman (Alice Fletcher) who ‘had been sent by the government in Washington to draw more lines on the earth so that more fences could be built’ ( p 42), she remembers the flight of 1877, the battles and Big Hole and Bear Paw, exile, and the return to Idaho. The tribe is divided, the Christian Nez Perce on the west side of the creek, and the non-treaty Nez Perce on the east.
Chapter 6 – 1952
When Isaac’s check finally arrives on November 17th, he sets off on a well-rehearsed plan to settle his debts. He pays for the work on his pickup, but by the time he reaches the pawnshop to reclaim his mother’s ledger, the shop is closed. The date for redemption, stamped on his pawn tickets is for the next day, but a note in the window says the shop won’t reopen until the day after. This interrupts his plans, and he is drawn into the Boots & Saddles Bar where people have gathered to celebrate their windfall. For those who settle their bar tabs, the first drink is on the house. Isaac knows all the figures by heart. He pays the $88 debt, and adds another $10 for credit.
He knows the danger that comes with having too much cash in his possession, the temptations and the risks. In the men’s room, Isaac secrets away the bills in his pocket to ensure he will have money to pay his debts: money for his hardware bill going into his left boot; money for his grocery bill, new coat, new boots, and pawnshop tickets in the right. Between two bricks, deep inside a hole in the wall behind the urinal, he hides another $200. As the night wears on, he ‘pitche[s] himself through the usual stages of fun and anger, pity and pain’ (p 59). Leaving the bar, Jimmy Lean Elk announces the arrival of ‘new broads at the Kooskia Inn’ (p 59) and invites Isaac to join him.
Chapter 7 – 1889
Billy Moses attends a meeting with Measuring Woman, ‘to talk about land and citizenship for all the Indians’ (p 63), though he knows his wife Walking Woman does not approve.
Chapter 8 – 1952
Isaac goes with Jimmy to the Kooskia Inn. There, he is recognized by two white men as the former high school basketball star. When Jimmy goes upstairs with one of the new prostitutes, the men offer Isaac a ride home. Instinctively, he knows this is not a good idea - everyone knows the Nez Perces have money in their pockets this night – but he allows himself to be ushered out of the bar and into the men’s pickup. Instead of taking him home, they take him to another brothel, and when Isaac resists he is beaten. He escapes by falling into the icy river and climbing ashore downstream. Following the railway tracks through the snow, he makes his way towards home. Nearly frozen, he is guided by a coyote to the abandoned house where missionary women once lived, and many of the events from his family’s past merge together.
Chapter 9 – 1877
Speaks-in-Tongues, mother of Walking Woman, recounts the events recorded on the story string of her life. As she fingers the string, she remembers her childhood friend, Liza, the daughter of the missionaries, Henry and Eliza Spalding. The girls had be ‘bound by a language only the two of them could fully understand, English and Nez Perce words intertwined like wild clematis in a clump of ninebark’ (p 89). At the age of ten, Liza was sent to the Whitman Mission ‘to be with white children’ (p 89). Though she survived the massacre, she never returned to Kamiah.
Speaks-in-Tongues becomes a go-between, passing messages to and from the chiefs and Spalding. Unknown to Spalding and the white men who meet with him, she understands English and is able to pass their true words to her people, warning them of the impending betrayal.
Chapter 10 – 1952
Isaac is found in the old missionaries’ house and a doctor is called:
Isaac felt fingers on the side of his neck, then a hand traveling down his side, along his right thigh to his knee, then up to his wrist. The hand stopped, measured the slow drumming rhythm where bone and flesh and blood intertwined. (p 97)
He is patched up and returned home, and after several days, he is well enough to make the journey back into town to try to recover his mother’s ledger. At the pawnshop, he is told he is too late, and that the book will be better off in someone else’s hands. Sheffield, the pawnbroker, takes the money Isaac has brought to reclaim his chainsaw, but sweeps the remaining hundred dollars to the floor. Too proud to crawl around the floor, with his injured leg, Isaac leaves.
Chapter 11 – 1877-1878
In the Bear Paw Mountains, the Nez Perce have nearly reached safety in Canada when soldiers attack before dawn. Medicine Dog, the 14-year-old brother of Swan Feather (later known as Walking Woman) is shot and injured. At the end of the fighting, many are dead and many others wounded. Unwilling to surrender, Medicine Dog joins a party led by Chief White Bird who escape north to Grandmother’s Land. Injuries having left him blind in one eye, Medicine Dog becomes Raven Eye. Homesick for his own country, Raven Eye returns south with a small party of Nez Perce.
A full year had passed since the start of their journey. Cornered, they had fought; chased, they had run. Hunger and pain had filled their days, fear and hope their nights. But they had survived. The circle was complete. They were home. (p 122)
When the party find they are no longer welcome in their own homeland, and face arrest at the hands of the Christian Nez Perce, Raven Eye sets off alone.
Chapter 12 – 1952
At his doctor’s suggestion, Isaac seeks out the tewat (traditional healer) Raven Eye, now an old man living alone in the woods. Raven Eye is not surprised by Isaac’s arrival, and knows what Isaac does not – that he has come not just for healing to his injured knee, but to reconnect with his people and to find out who he is.
Chapter 13 – 1877
The story of Two Crows, the division of the Nez Perce, the broken treaties, and the start of the war. At a council at Lapwai, the Indian agent tells the Nez Perce ‘that Washington ha[s] decided that all Indians must come on the reservation and must do so immediately’ (p 135), bringing the contentious 1863 treaty into effect. Refusing to acknowledge the autonomy of the widespread bands of Nez Perce, the white men insist that the minority of chiefs who did not sign the treaty must acquiesce to the majority. If they do not willingly move onto the reservation, they are told, they will be driven there by force.
Chapter 14 – 1953
Isaac receives an invitation from his mother to come and see her in Pendleton. Needing money for gas, he thinks again of Sheffield’s insult and the money he left scattered on the pawnshop floor, as well as that hidden in the wall behind the urinal in the Boots & Saddles Bar, the retrieval of which would be ‘a test of his sobriety’ (p 146).
He goes to the bar, but before he can get to the men’s room, he is stopped by the friendly barmaid who asks after him and offers him a beer. ‘Isaac felt like a rabbit in the gaze of a lynx, at that moment when two paths cross and lives can change in an instant’ (p 148). He resists, and retrieves his money.
Following the Clearwater downriver on his way to Pendleton, he stops at Spalding Park where the first Christian mission was planted a century before. He is drawn into the museum where he finds ‘the largest collection of beads and buckskin, fans and baskets, stone tools, quivers and drums he had ever imagined’ (p 151). As he looks around, he sees his people ‘boxed and shelved and hung, all in this small back eddy building at the edge of a monument to missionaries who had rent the fabric of the Nez Perce culture' (p 151). He is unsettled by the memorial, but knows that ‘this place, too, was a part of the stitching together of the visions and voices in his life’ (p 152).
His mother is away when he arrives at her home in Oregon, but there he meets Bernice, a young Indian activist.
Chapter 16 – 1953
At his mother’s home, Isaac listens to Bernice’s argument. ‘“It’s the buffalo all over again”’ (p 155), she tells him, as she describes the effects that damming the rivers will have on the salmon population. ‘She [is] a dreamer and believer, he ha[s] decided, not of the old ways but of the future, a woman bending anger into action’ (p 167).
When she asks about the Carlisle ledger, telling him that it’s an important record, Isaac assures her of the book’s safety. Before he leaves, she tells Isaac that Raven Eye is her mother’s brother, his uncle. Back in Kamiah, ‘his mother’s inquiry about the Carlisle ledger book weighed on Isaac like a long winter’s snow load on a deserted trapper cabin’ (p 175), and he returns to the pawnshop. Sheffield tells him the book is gone, but when Isaac moves toward the open vault and Sheffield draws a gun, Isaac's suspicions are confirmed. He is certain the book is still there.
Chapter 17 – 1836
At the rendezvous, Wren Song wakes to find her husband, Runs-Like-A-Deer, injured from the wolf attack. He remembers nothing, apart from a recurrent dream where he is visited by a wolf. They soon learn that he is not the only one to have been attacked in the night. Nine others bear similar injuries, all of them men with white blood.
The rendezvous over, the Nez Perce return home, accompanied by white spirit talkers (the Spaldings and the Whitmans). On the journey, Runs-Like-A-Deer becomes more and more distant as the rabies progresses. Preferring to die alone, he disappears one night, leaving the pipe tomahawk and the rest of his possessions, with his wife. Wren Song, now pregnant, carries the next generation of Runs-Like-A-Deer's line back to the Weippe Prairie.
Chapter 18 – 1953
Isaac goes to the sweat lodge with Raven Eye. ‘“A long, long time ago,”’ Raven Eye tells Isaac, ‘“our tewats knew that strangers would come from the east”’ and that because of them ‘“[o]ur hearts would ache for five generations”’ (p 188).
His visits to the healer becoming more frequent, Isaac learns about the medicinal uses of plants. Raven Eye has selected him to carry the old ways into the future, ‘-knowledge gleaned from thousands of years of living the landscape’ (p 191), and teaches him through story and through song. Isaac builds his own sweat lodge.
Here, the story circles back to the prologue, as Isaac prepares to go to the pawnshop, crowbar in hand.
Chapter 19 – 1806
Beginning the story of Two Stars and her love for Drouillard, with the tewats' prophecy that there would be aching hearts for five generations. Two Stars and her friend Spotted Fawn each find love with one of the men who came from the east. After the men leave, Spotted Fawn follows the party across the mountains (where she settles with the Salish and gives birth to Daytime Smoker). Two Stars remains behind on the Weippe Prairie.
Chapter 20 – 1953
Mirroring the prologue, Isaac steps off his porch at midnight, carrying the crowbar ‘like an abbreviated cane, curved end filling the inside of his fist, its chiseled tip dangling above the ground’ (p 205). He arrives at the Boots & Saddles Bar just before closing time and steals himself away in the men’s room as the bar is locked up for the night. When he is certain that he is alone, he takes his crowbar and meat saw, and makes a hole into the vault of the neighboring pawnshop.
Chapter 21 – 1806
Having set out to recross the Bitterroots, the Corps find their route through the mountains blocked by snow. Drouillard returns to the Nez Perce to find a guide to lead them and he is able to spend one last night with Two Stars. A mixed-blood Shawnee, Drouillard sees himself as ‘a witness at the jagged edge of two Americas' (p 220). He knows what the future holds for the Indians, and warns Two Stars that there will be both war and peace in the time ahead, but that ultimately the Nez Perces would lose their land. Before Drouillard leaves, he gives Two Stars a pipe tomahawk, symbolizing the mixed fate that awaits her people.
Chapter 22 – 1953
Inside the cluttered pawnshop vault, Isaac searches for his mother’s ledger. He finds drawers full of arrow heads and basalt pestles, a buckskin dress, and many other Nez Perce artifacts. When the batteries in his flashlight fail, he lights a kerosene lamp. Finally, as he is about to give up hope, he opens a drawer and finds the ledger. As he tucks the book into his shirt and picks up a pipe tomahawk, his bad knee buckles and the lamp drops to the floor. Fire quickly spreads along the oiled floorboards, and Isaac escapes back through the bar and into the street as dawn approaches.
Chapter 23 – 1953
Isaac goes to Raven Eye and shows him the pipe tomahawk. Raven Eye tells him of his great grandmother, Two Stars, who bore Drouillard’s child. Knowing that Isaac is in trouble, he tells him to go quickly and follow his people.
Chapter 24 – 1953
Driving towards the Bitterroots, in the direction that the non-treaty Nez Perce fled, Isaac sees their tipis and their herds of horses. Following this vision, he arrives at a place he recognizes from Raven Eye’s description, the hole in the sky ‘where prayers could more easily find their natural path’ (p 241). Here, he sleeps beneath the jaws of an ancient creature, turned to stone, and dreams that he is visited by a warrior. When he wakes, he finds the footprints of a grizzly bear nearby.
Chapter 25 – 1953
He knows now that he is meant to follow his people to Canada, but finding the mountain road blocked with snow, he is forced to turn back. At a gas station in Weippe, not far from his home, he reads about the fire and learns that arson is not suspected. Scanning the paper, he learns of Raven Eye’s death, and makes the decision to return home.
Chapter 26 – 1953
Isaac places the pipe tomahawk in Raven Eye’s grave, bringing to an end, the five-generation curse. Returning to the old man’s house, he takes the dried plants and roots they have collected. It is his turn, now, to carry on the traditions of his people. In taking up Raven Eye's role, Isaac has created a new future for himself. In the final scene, he fills the gas tank of his pickup and prepares to drive to Pendleton to bring Bernice back to his cabin in Idaho.