25 February 2017

An Interview With Captain Jack


A
nd now we move from Sheol to Vernalia, the season of the sun, according to the ancient traditional calendar I invented a few years back, based more on the length of the day than the time of the season. The weather is still abominable here in the Northern Hemisphere, but we can fall back on our memory to assure ourselves that less horrible times are coming.
The 25th of February in 1873 was also the date that Edward Fox, reporter for the New York Herald, wrote his (relatively) famous story beginning “I write this dispatch in Captain Jack’s cave.” His paper had sent him out to get an interview with the hostile leader of a tribe of insurgent native Americans, and damned if he didn’t do it, against red tape, likely death, and all the odds.
It’s probably an understatement to say that the Modoc War is not the most famous of the genocidal conflicts conducted on the North American continent in order that a thoroughfare for freedom could beat down the wilderness from sea to shining sea. Compared to the war for the Black Hills, in which Generalissimo Custer sacrificed his reputation on the sword of vanity, or the war for the Wallowa valley, concluded when Chief Joseph announced that he would fight no more forever, the siege of the Lava Beds has sunk into eternal gloom. It had its points, however. And one of them is the point of this piece—assuming that this piece has any point.
I don’t know that this makes it unique, but the Modoc War is at least unusual in that we have some sort of contemporary records by the Native American participants as well as from the Euro-American warriors. It is not particularly unusual to have retrospective accounts by participants—but these suffer inevitably from the damages of time and dimming of memories. Thanks however to the war being essentially an extended siege, both government officials and private citizens were able to get accounts from the insurgents, at least some of which survive. All things considered we have an unusually clear picture of the factional disputes and internal dissention within the Modoc ranks, as well as a list of items their leaders thought would be the basis for a reasonable compromise to end the conflict.
It’s better than nothing—but far from perfect. And Fox’s interview with the Modoc leaders perfectly illustrates the lack of perfection.
For the most part, the Modoc leaders spoke no English. Their preferred interpreter was a young man known as Bogus Charley, and Fox explicitly notes that he interpreted the earlier informal talks on the night of the 24th. The translation arrangements for the official conference on the 25th are not stated, but the husband-and-wife team of Bob and Matilda Whittle were the official translators for the expedition, and it is likely that they carried out this function. Making that assumption, then, when Modoc insurgent leader Schonchin John spoke, Matilda Whittle will have translated what he said into Chinook Jargon, and her husband Bob will have rendered the Jargon into English. Fox then will have written down (as best he could, under less than ideal circumstances) what Bob Whittle said, and thus have created the master document from which our redactions come.
But as far as I know, however, this document is now lost. At least I have found no indication that Fox’s papers survive anywhere, and as it was just work notes, he may not have bothered to keep it after its utility was ended. What we do have are two edited accounts embedded in two stories covering the conference—the first shorter account sent out immediately by telegraph, and the second fuller version sent by mail. Both of these of course went through an editing and printing process before appearing in the paper.
If I don’t screw this up I’m going to discuss some of the issues this raises in a later installment.

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