Excerpt from 'The Dying Grass'

The Dying Grass

By William T. Vollmann


Copyright © 2015 William T. Vollmann
All rights reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-670-01598-6


Grass-Texts: A Speech and a Report (1877-78), 1,
The Dying Grass, 9,
I Indian Service (1805-77), 11,
II Edisto (1862-74), 201,
III The Burial of Lieutenant Theller (June 1877), 225,
IV I Am Flying Up (June-July 1877), 311,
V The Rest of My Days (July-August 1877), 323,
VI Very Beautiful and Almost Automatic (August-September 1877), 643,
VII Detached Pictures (September-October 1877), 959,
VIII I Raised My Eyes (1877-78), 1075,
IX The Americans are Your Friends (1877-1904), 1089,
Dinosaurs and Cyclads (1878-2013), 1159,
A Chronology of the Seven Ages of Wineland: V. The Age of Dying Grass, 1219,
Glossaries, 1229,
I Glossary of Personal Names, 1230,
II Glossary of Orders, Isms, Nations, Hierarchies, Races, Shamans, Tribes and Monsters, 1248,
III Glossary of Places, 1255,
IV Glossary of Texts, 1263,
V Glossary of Calendars, Currencies and Measures, 1264,
VI General Glossary, 1265,
Orthographic Notes, 1269,
Sources (and a Few Notes), 1271,
Acknowledgments, 1355,


Indian Service


The Indian service now devolving upon our army is necessarily arduous and unpopular. It involves a work that our peace-loving people think might be avoided. But fair-minded Americans cannot ignore, or fail to commend, the ability, industry, and perpetual sacrifices of their soldiers.

Brigadier General Oliver Otis Howard, U.S.A., 1881

    And the Water and the Grass

    and the water and the grass
    and the white ripples on grey water, and white clouds among grey clouds
    and the wrinkled young silver skin of the water
    and life-bright lichens on black branches

    and on the still, bright river, a man and woman slowly poling their
    log canoe

    and the spiderweb (golden-green seed-wings already growing above the
    darker leaves of maples this early in August)

    and the smell of evergreens
    and the living grass,
    then the dying grass, brighter than an Indian basket



and at the foot of Chief Joseph's grave, in the crotch of another tree, a wilting feather, rags, and a twisted white stick dangling

Plenty of Indians All Over the Country


... and then a pencilled manuscript on crumbling sheets in a beige folder, Blurick 1876, from between two of whose pages a yellow photograph sidled out like a flat-bellied cockroach. That was how I met the gaze of a fine half-breed girl who is dirt and bones now, with maybe a hank of grey or black hair to keep her company, or even a shred of moldy buckskin like a crumbling sheet in a beige folder, never mind a shard of bone breastplate trampled and lost like our memory of Blurick, on earth as it is in Heaven; come to me, girl, I'll be d — — d if you won't do as I say! Don't look at me like that, or I'll ... — I beg you, sir! No, please don't. I swear my heart is very good; there is not a bit of bad in it. — But none of that was written anywhere. Yellow locusts danced between the rocks. Even though the grass is dying we will do our best to find you a good reservation. But first we will do very well to establish ourselves. Nobody can be expected to put savages ahead of people. Get away from here or I'll put a bullet in you, I say! Why won't she look at me now? By God, she puts me in mind of White Bird hiding his face behind an eagle's wing! And then there's Joseph, whose eyes absorb my vision without giving me anything ... In the Grande Ronde Valley (aspen leaves shimmering like coins, and distant cloud-shadowed pines blue like water) and then farther down that snaking creek-canyon of reddish-brown rock cutting deep into the yellow grass, way down in Wallowa, there used to be friendly or at least equivocal Nez Perce families some of whom spoke a kind of primitive English, called Chinook, and even helped us, more or less, back in 1853 or thereabouts, in the days when we read Horn's Guide and shop foremen still wore silk coats; Blurick's first wife lived above the grass, and even our tramps and socialists hesitated to go on strike — good years, one might suppose, but the cholera and the malaria were playing hide-and-seek in our American river towns. Poor Mrs. Blurick! Had her constitution possessed a trifle more "sand," she'd be a hundred and eighty-one years old to-day, in which case her husband might never have left home. He'd already disinterested himself in Nez Perces once he learned that they weren't really Pierced-Noses; don't ask me how they got their name. They were fine riders; I'll give them that. Some made fair Army scouts against other Indians. They were confiding, interesting, bewildering, intractable, ungrateful. Roaming Indians, we called them. In the end they declined to avail themselves of the advantages offered for their improvement. I'll grant that they themselves requested the Good Book — or, as they named it, the Book of Light. Reverend Spalding's log house, and the fruit trees of Lapwai, and all those Nez Perce farms of vegetables and corn made for a pretty picture, which might as well have been painted on the stage curtain of an opera house; presently it would split down the middle and withdraw into the walls, revealing the real entertainment. When we found gold in their country, Chief Joseph's father, who I am sorry to say had turned apostate, throwing down the Book of Light, tearing up the treaty that dispossessed him, then erecting a Dead Line of poles around Wallowa; and Old White Bird, who always waited before he spoke, both tried to keep us out (Old Looking-Glass was more politic), but we proved that it would profit them to oblige us. Old Joseph demanded: What is your law? We replied that he'd figure it out! We'd already dragged a previous treaty out of them, after the Cayuse War and before the final Rogue River War. Generally speaking, the first treaty with any nation of Indians goes down pretty easy, before we bind them to their promises and get out of ours. They still held a good piece of Northwest, as explained by the Indian Superintendent: The Nez Perces Reservation is an immense tract of six thousand square miles, a territory far larger than the States of California and Rhode Island united. But just then, as I was saying, we saw color in the quartz — bright yellow like a buffalo calf! — after which how could a just (and justly undermanned) Government exclude the miners? As for the rest of us, the railroad promised: Your prairie farm will be a savings bank. The Nez Perces accommodated themselves, or not. The descendants of those who signed the treaty and obediently Christianized themselves still dwell around Lapwai, even in this twenty-first century of ours. As for the others, such as Old Joseph, Old White Bird and the other malcontents, we could rely on their presence there in and out of the remnants of their allotment, right up until the summer of 1877; they made good neighbors throughout those seventy-two American years from when Captains Lewis and Clark first discovered their existence; right on through and beyond George Catlin's map of 1833, which is as elegant after its fashion as the crosses, diamonds and angular hourglasses of Sioux horse-beadwork; for across its wide white latitudes, horses and buffalo still run nearly wild across the golden grass through which the Columbia winds west by southwest to the Pacific, meeting Chinook Indians at its end, and before them, the Chilts; and in the upriver direction, after a blankness extending considerably east by northeast our voyage, the Flatheads, whom we'll soon pull in, because (as General Howard once explained to me) the partner of the player winning the first trick gathers the tricks for that deal. Futurity grins like the grass-skinned gape of a Nez Perce sweathouse, whose ears are interlaced poles — but from here to there will be awhile yet; as long as we camp here, the trail to there remains as long as the mummy-wrapped braids of that Brule Sioux chief Spotted Tail, as far as General Howard's pursuit of Joseph, as high as the Americans' God and as dark as an Indian's eyes. Hence why not leave the future to itself? Catlin closes his eyes to it; the Nez Perces can scarcely see it, being dazzled, no doubt, by the ever-rising luminosity of our cause: twenty-two years remain before the railroad treaty at Walla-Walla (here comes another long snake of Nez Perce riders with feathers in their streaming hair, waving an American flag, ready to trade horses with us), eight more until the transaction they'll call the thief treaty and we'll name Necessity, then the last fourteen up to the war. Chief Joseph is unborn and General Howard three years old; don't imagine we're not on guard. In the vast triangle between the Columbia, the Multinomah and the Rocky Mountains, our mapmaker interrupts his whiteness with a discreet indication of the Snake Indians, to whom, they being enemies of our soon-to-be enemies the Blackfeet, we'll do the kindness of dealing with later, our oxen grazing for the night, and then our line of pale-tented wagons creeping forward. Southeast of that interesting tribe, not quite on the Multinomah, Catlin engraves our Nez Perces, rich in horse herds. So you see, getting at them is as convenient as palming the cards at euchre. Rush on to the seven-section map of Charles Preuss, published in the happy year 1846 — thirty-one years of neighborliness left to go — and suggestively entitled Topographical Map of the Road from Missouri to Oregon. Congress prints ten thousand copies, so just maybe someone desires us to take that road (on which I will soon spy the torn beige canvas top of Blurick's wagon and its squeaking left front wheel): through the Buffalo Country and into the desert, until we come out into the bright river-breath at Farewell Bend, fording and ferrying west into Oregon, ascending the military road into orange grass swales and grey-green sagebrush (on the ridges the same dark green-grey cloud-shadows as at Little Big Horn), riding north-northwest past white outcroppings in the orange hills, crossing over a yellow-splashed ridge of orange grass and grey-lavender hills, approaching the bright yellow-green marsh-grass and yellow hill-horizons of the Grande Ronde country where Chief Joseph winters his horses along that high river resembling a late blue afternoon sky. — Old Joseph is dead by now; he has left tall poles to mark the boundaries of his country; Young Joseph has sworn never to sell his grave. But in Montana our steamboats now ascend through the Crow, Blackfoot and Flathead zones all the way to Fort Benton. In season we'll ring them all in. Sherman to Grant, 1868: The chief use of the Peace Commission is to kill time which will do more to settle the Indians than anything we can do. Why do these tribes hide from us whatever they have, like a squaw covering up her camas baking-pit? Just as here in America we play whist for a triple stake — this much a trick, that much a game, and this much a rubber — so in our Indian wars we venture such and such upon a battle, then whatever upon the inevitable outcome, and finally God knows what upon our secrets in Washington. It will be seen by this report that the Commission failed to settle the difficulties with the non-treaty Nez Perces but made certain definite recommendations. — Anyhow, why fight the Nez Perces? Haven't they been good Indians? — Yes, but they're now in the way of our stock animals. Besides, it's not merely Wallowa they claim. To hear them tell it, they're lords of a million acres! (Certainly no right to the soil can be obtained before confirmation by the Senate.) Section VII, the best Preuss ever drew, stretches leftward, westward, from the Snake River or Lewis Fork of the Columbia (Blurick's party was now but two days eastward of here, having obtained the latest Indian news at Fort Hall, where our California-bound gold-seekers passed the hat to tip Captain Travis and the scouts, said farewell to the caravan, and took the left-hand road, some few of the ladies waving their handkerchiefs good-bye), flowing away from the kindness of Latter-day Saints, above a blankness entitled SNAKE INDIANS, then leftward along a curving flap of landscape which resembles meat bisected by veins and arteries and ending in dangling flaps of furry skin, westward and westward to the Powder River and GRAND FORD, across the narrow whiteness of BLUE MOUNTAINS — from whose vantages our aspiring ranchers may find it pleasant to dream north-east, watching how those silver-blue Wallowa peaks draw the storm-clouds in — then down the narrowing meat-flap around the Wallah-Wallah River to Fort Wallah-Wallah, above which, north of Longitude 118° and west of Latitude 46°, lies a kidney-shaped blankness entitled NEZPERCÉ INDIANS, where the journey ends, so it must by definition be the goal. And these Nez Perces swore that their hearts were good; they swore it three times. Hence we were still their loving neighbors, treating them as befits allies of Americans. Underground germinated order #016026, a beige-orange cross-reference card in a wooden drawer in the Oregon Historical Society: Nez Perces, date unknown, location Idaho. A Nez Perce woman and a boy in pretty white man's clothes crouch by a rock wall, in stereo view, their faces foggily peering off into an alternate past, the woman long-braided, and ... Don't glare at me with those Indian eyes! I don't know you or your child. Where have your horses grazed now? Where's the frontier? And where could they have gone, our medals from Oregon's several Indian Wars? There was plenty of Indians all over the Country, says Blurick, so mustn't there have been plenty of wars? Now in hot attics and institutional vaults of decidely sub-archival womblike moistness our campaign ribbons have turned the colors of cattails and yellow grass. Our gratefully recognized services to Oregon have broken into brittle bits in acidic folders. And our forced marches in the State of Montana, our vigilance, courage and intelligence; the battles we lost in Idaho and the natural advantages we improved in Washington, all of which places used to be Territories, and before that Indian forests and golden grass, no, please don't. The treaty of 1855 and the Nez Perce War of 1877, the hazy grey ridge to the south and black birds on the lake, well, the way I look at it, we will have done very well to save any scraps of those whatsoever. Blurick 1876, there's a shard of Oregon peacetime! And then that's as old fashioned as a plug hat. And at that time, runs Blurick's manuscript, we had 105 men able to handle a rifle. So with 105 of the old rimfire rifles and 32 wagons with families and men on horseback we left Kansas city with a man by the name of Travis or Captain Travis with 6 Scouts on Horseback that Sure Could Shoot. And on the front porch of his two-storey house, date 2002, location Portland, Oregon, former headquarters of the Department of the Columbia (Brigadier General O. O. Howard commanding), where streetcars, steel bridges and raspberries fight against the golden grass, tall, lean Mr. Thomas Robinson lights another fluent cigarette. The street is hot and the grass is brown. Tom squints. He enjoys his tobacco slowly. Then it's darkroom time again. The safelight is already active, its housing closed down to bloodshot near-blindness; and the tray siphon runs as quiet as the voice of the Crow squaw Kills-Good. Tom closes the door behind him. Beside the paper safe, instants of Indian war, fixed on slices of silvered glass, await replication. That's how they survive a trifle longer — and reveal their tones to us. Once Tom printed a plate that appeared to be solid black; he left it under his cold light for a day and a half, until the silver halides on the paper found out what hid there: Kwakiutls in canoes, paddling across some coastal bay. Back then, so I've heard, there were plenty of Indians all over the country, Comanches launching their final raids out of Mexico, Crows fighting Sioux and hunting buffalo, Cheyennes riding the high and low plains, Apaches defying us in the desert mountains (pour him another drink, and Doc will describe to you from head to toe the corpse of a white woman he once found violated in the dirt and bristling with their ar- rows, back when he served in Crook's army); Modocs pleading to be left alone on their lava beds (now they'll rise up), Flatheads even yet asserting that our shadows are our souls, Umatillas and Cayuses running loose, Nez Perces not entirely reduced to reason. Well, Tom can print several tribes at once; for don't think he's a mere one-enlarger man! A trifle sallow, like a first-stage fixing solution tinted with stop bath, he can expose near about as well as Doc could shoot. He guards the whites of Blurick's eyes, to keep them white. That's the mark of a fine art print. (Never mind if they're actually bloodshot.) He sights his grain focus magnifier on the many shining buttons on Colonel Miles's bearskin coat. He hunts shadows around Joseph's out-of-focus daughter — her name was Sound Of Running Feet — preserving tonal variation no matter what else has gone. He burns and dodges with both hands, all the while footpedaling his enlarger on and off like a one-man band; I have never seen as acrobatic a darkroom artist as Tom. When the wand whirls in his left hand and the hole-cut card shimmies in his right, Chief Joseph's face shines wanly greenish-grey on the easel at f/5.6, all tones reversed — and the timer beeps, Tom steps on the pedal, and Joseph goes dark. Now Tom repositions his tools, having nothing to go on but his miraculous positional memory, then toe-taps the pedal, so that the sad chief comes pallidly back, while the dodging wand now holds back the light from the gorget at his throat. Meanwhile Tom darkens the fringed edge of the Pendleton blanket in the dead photographer's studio. For years he has bought up the relics of deceased lensmen: their half-blind dusty old bellows cameras, their trays, tongs, enlargers, contact printers, and above all their negatives, some of which are glass plates whose scratched silver- black memories have begun to frill at the edges. Talk about dust and time! He blasts away dust with an isothetical air compressor. He keeps his fading color slides in freezers. Sheet film and roll film lurk in their private archival cabinets. Here's a daguerreotype of General Howard when he was young, clenching his brows, which are near about as low as General Sherman's, and in the background, Lincoln faces General McClellan in the stifling shade of a Sibley tent, both their foreheads branded with stripes of sun-glare. — Tom, my friend, you'd better hoard that image beneath a marble slab. — The timer chirps like a prairie dog, and another picture of Kills-Good practically prints itself; she's kneeling in the grass by her kettle, boiling buffalo bones for soup, while the Crow Agent poses behind her with his left fist on his hip. Howard's bunch never met her when they were chasing Joseph through Yellow Stone, but Looking-Glass must have been a friend of hers. Now for a glass plate portrait of Colonel Perry, whom our Nez Perces whipped at the Battle of White Bird Cañon. In his latest rubberbanded bundle of scratched tintypes, for which he paid bottom dollar at a Pendleton estate sale, Tom possesses, maybe, a likeness of Lieutenant Wilkinson, Howard's wily aide-de-camp, although I'm actually more curious to lay eyes on the late Lieutenant Theller. The sulphurous fumes of fixer, less sweet in the nostrils but sweeter on the tongue than the powder-cloud from a Sharps carbine, prevent the landscapes of this old war-dream from darkening away; long have they pass'd, hurrah, hurah, hurrah! When Tom dies, his treasures will be inherited by that ungrateful university whose darkroom became first a larder of janitorial supplies, banker's boxes and adding machine tapes, and then, once the plumbing leaked, a room used by nobody — for Tom's out of style now, like a buffalo hunter. He owns more silver halide glimpses, glances and stares than any one soul could ever take in, but he has catalogued them by the tens of thousands and he has printed thousands and there are some he knows very well. Had he time enough to live, he would print up the Nez Perce War as lovingly as Peopeo Tholekt drew his horses on the pages of old Boston ledgers, making the animals blue, yellow, grey or vermilion, carefully shading them every which way, and sometimes braiding their tails — but photo-chemicals are getting expensive, and Tom's collection is as mortal as all of us. When old negatives begin to perish, they sometimes give off a vinegar smell. Tom has to print those fast. In a year or two, the contrast will go; they may turn pink; then they fade away, like the ambrotype of the second Mrs. Blurick, who like her predecessor died young. A certain war haunts me like a certain creek, scarlet with alkali, which bleeds into the Powder River; and what if its glass plates deteriorate to nothing before Tom prints them? General Howard is its hero, Chief Joseph its villain; and Blurick figures in it only by way of Doc, who may be our greatest American ever. Just as we refrain from shooting buffalo when we are creeping up on Indians, so I won't nail Doc just yet in this book about the Nez Perces. Tom has already shown me a dozen portraits of Joseph, and I am hoping that he possesses at least one plate depicting Shooting Thunder, who was accomplished at whistling for elk through an elderberry stalk and who while spying out good horses to steal helped his war-friends murder a music teacher named Richard Dietrich in Mammoth, Wyoming, as the day dimmed and the summer of 1877 approached the end of its pale yellow straining. To the Nez Perce remained nearly a month of flight until Colonel Miles trapped them at Bear's Paw. (This Miles is likewise a great American. That's why he died a general.) — First to spy the victim was White Thunder, better known by his nickname Yellow Wolf on account of a certain Wyakin vision which he won as an adolescent in the Wallowa Mountains; his white necklace and long black locks had not yet been tonally reversed by any silver halide process; long have they pass'd. His mother Swan Woman was Joseph's first cousin; she dwelled on Looking-Glass's allotment until one dawn when the Blue-coats attacked it; as for his father Horse Blanket, he had aided the previous generation of Bluecoats in battle against Chief Kamiakun at Walla-Walla, and, when they looked to be overwhelmed, led them onto safe paths by night. Call them as grateful as leeches. Although his fury at Cut Arm* had by now refined itself such that whenever the Bostons saw his expression they were pretty sure that he must be a bad Indian, perhaps White Thunder would have let Richard Dietrich live, at least until all the Bostons' horses were stampeded off; but Shooting Thunder and Naked-Footed Bull, having shot some other Bostons so that the rest were hiding in the bushes, now converged in the hollow where the shadows were as dark as a smoked hide, and noticed this man standing in the doorway of the hotel as if he owned the right to exist exactly here, in considerable advance of the prairie schooners with their heavy freight, so that Naked-Footed Bull (whose hair was handsomely fixed with bone) therefore reminded White Thunder: My youngest brothers and my next-younger brother were not warriors. They and my sister were killed at Ground Squirrel Place (now Big Hole, formerly Ross's Hole —not marked on Colton's map), where dawn fog rises thicker and thicker from rocks as half-indistinct as buffalo dozing on their knees in mist:

Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. p E83.877.G1 1988 RESTRICTED. Gibbon, John (1827-1896). From where the sun now stands: a ms. of the Nez Percé war:

Concealed by the thick timber of the mountains we succeeded in getting to the vicinity of Joseph's camp without being discovered, playing my high cards,

while back on the Idaho side of Lo Lo, General Howard is still considering ladies' seal sets, muff and boa, reduced from eight to four dollars; once this campaign gets wound up he may order some for Lizzie, Bessie and Grace.

Hold your fire when you see Joseph, because he may be keeping Mrs. Manuel —

Gonna whap that steel on down, o, Lord. Gonna whap that steel on down

for the sake of our unborn children and for all our ladies in their dark bell skirts:

See that tipi down there? Get it well ablaze.

Montana Historical Society Archives. PAM 3339. A Vision of the "Big Hole," by John Gibbon, Colonel, 7th Infantry:

By noon we top the main divide of all,
The trail being fresh and plainly marked before,
And march along through glades which gently fall
Toward that spot we soon will dye with gore.


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