Fake news is always with us

If you imagined that 'false news' was a contemporary phenomena, think again! It is a recurrent theme. Wherever competing interests exist to be communicated, there it will be. This was brought home to me whilst reading Kent Nerburn's excellent, "Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce".

The Nez Perce first encounter with the white man was peaceable (and ennobling). It was with the expedition of Lewis and Clark as they made their way to and from the Pacific. The Nez Perce lived as independently minded groups in what is now Idaho, Montana and Washington. Intermingling with other tribes, through trade and marriage, differentiated from others by enmity.

As the pressures of white settlement mounted, much nobility evaporated and under increasing pressure, some chose the way of agriculture and Christianity, others, however, found themselves on an epic journey of months as they fled the pursuing US Army (and assorted vigilantes including other indigenous tribes, often lured by the Nez Perce's wealth especially their exceptionally well-bred horses). This flight was necessitated by an atypical act of violence against white settlers when the Nez Perce's patience at white depredation finally snapped.

The journey ended (after successful flight and fights) near the Canadian border. The Nez Perce were encircled, too exhausted to fight their way out, and reduced to a bare rump. They were shipped to Kansas and a reservation where they suffered further indignities (including at the hands of a Quaker Indian agent) until they finally find themselves either back with their settled Christian kin or in another tawdry reservation in Washington, trying to follow the old ways, ruptured by defeat and displacement.

One of the ironies Nerburn explores is that Chief Joseph though singled out by the press (and subsequent mythologizing) as the leader of the Nez Perce (and brilliant military leader), in fact, was only one amongst a number of chiefs, by no means, until the very end, the most important and spent most of his time on the flight looking after the needs of the elderly, the women and children; and, rarely having the opportunity to fight himself! You see compellingly (and dispiritingly) how the news about this unfolding event was simply and radically distorted by its reporting - savage Indians on the rampage or noble victims of bungling US government policy - with very little attempt (on any side) to arrive at balance or rounded judgement. A balance of which Nerburn's book is a beautifully written example.

Sadly, not only 'false news' is an ongoing reality so is the plight of indigenous people - as I write they are being widely either deprived or patronised. Their land stolen for resource extraction, their way of life condemned as primitive. In both cases standing in the way of 'civilisation' - for Joseph this was agriculture and Christianity - now, no doubt, it is wage labour and atomisation compensated for by the prospect of shopping!

If we do make progress, it is slow. Towards the end of his life, we find Joseph discovering the power of the media, and the image, for himself; and, interestingly the employment of the law to file for 'land rights' for a community rather than for individual property rights. Both of which have been, and continue to be deployed, to argue for indigenous rights, with some, if too little and fragile success.

It is a sad, instructive book - of the resilience and fragility of culture, of the realities of discrimination and power, and of a noble soul who endured it all and died defeated 'of a broken heart' and yet had never, in that same heart, surrendered.


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