Why did Elliot West think we needed another story about the Nez Perce War? The story of the rebellious Nez Perce nontreaty bands attempting to cross the Canadian border to avoid the reservation is the second-most discussed subject in Indian history besides the Battle of Little Big Horn. Another telling of this story may seem unnecessary when so much early Western and Indian history still needs to be discussed. However, West’s book, The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story, is not a mere retelling of the war but uses it as a case study to promote a new, different historiographical perspective on the Reconstruction era of American history.
The purpose of the book for West is to prove that the standard historiography of “Reconstruction” is incomplete. In order to fully understand Reconstruction, the story of our nation’s expansion to the Pacific coast and the story about the reintegration of the South into the Union must be unified. West argues the United States underwent a Greater Reconstruction between 1845 and 1877 during which the federal government was concerned with the same fundamental questions for Western expansion and Southern reintegration: (1) How could the South and the West be incorporated while maintaining a unified nation? (2) How would the central government be structured and executed in both these regions? (3) What is the nature of citizenship in the nation and how did it extend to former black slaves, Indians, and Southern whites?
Despite the strongly grounded standards of Reconstruction against him, West effectively shows the interconnectedness of the Civil War and western expansion by proving each of his three fundamental questions.
West is also the master of narrative digressions or what he calls “step-asides”. He utilizes these in order to incorporate larger factors that explain the circumstances that spurred certain actions in the main narrative and discuss general trends in Western Reconstruction. West discusses the dwindling number of bison in North America due to the systematic hunting and commodification of bison by whites and Indians in the mid-nineteenth century. This five-page step-aside related to the narrative in two ways. The more specific tie was that the Nez Perces were ultimately caught and defeated because they were desperate for food and stopped to hunt bison at Snake Creek. The general tie was that Indians played a major part in their own demise by introducing bison to whites through trade. Bison became a highly prized commodity in the world market, resulting in the Great Hunt that cut out trade with the Indians and the endless and wasteful killing of bison. As a result, it eliminated the ability for Indians to trade and sustain themselves and whites saw the Indians as expendable.
In conclusion, this book will appeal to a diverse array of readers. It will draw casual readers in with its enticing narrative and context-building step-asides. It is also a pioneering revision of the mid-nineteenth century United States that should at least somewhat persuade historians of the United States, the West, and the Indians.
Reviewed by: Demetrios Giannios