Tracing the Trail of Tears

For Cheewa James, a former Ashlander whose ancestors — men and women — fought the U.S. Army in the Modoc Indian War, researching and writing her new book, "Modoc — the Tribe That Wouldn't Die," was a Trail of Tears like the one her ancestors made in 1873.

Three years in the making, James' research uncovered troves of old letters, documents and photos — and put her in touch with relatives in the Klamath Tribe and in the Oklahoma Modocs, the "hostiles" who resisted white conquest and, after six months of war that riveted the nation, were exiled halfway across the country.

What she found, says James, is that it was a war that shouldn't have been, but land speculators agitated all parties — soldiers, settlers and Native Americans — and the Army "blundered into it."

James unveiled her book and sold hundreds of copies in a June lecture and book signing among the Klamath Tribe. Sponsored by the Southern Oregon Historical Society, she will speak and sign books Saturday at 2 p.m. at U.S. Hotel in Jacksonville. Admission is $5 and the book is $20.

"Modoc" is an award-winner in the Native American Books category of the National Best Books 2008 Awards, sponsored by USA Book News. Information is at

As word of her book project got around the internet, people with documents related to the Modocs and the war e-mailed her. One woman on the East Coast informed James that her ancestor was a soldier in that war and, "Would you be interested in his letters?"

Realizing she was the first one to read the letters in 135 years, a flabbergasted James found 2d Lt. Harry DeWitt Moore "writing about the futility of war and 'what are we doing here?' The Indians aren't at fault. It's just a stupid war. He wrote how, from his tent at night, he could see the fires of the Modocs burning behind their lava rock fortifications" in what is now Lava Beds National Monument, a half hour south of Klamath Falls.

Moore wrote, "I know you cannot understand why we have not been more successful "¦ the Modocs know all these trails and when we advance upon them they glide out like snakes and we see nothing of them "¦ The Modocs in the first fight captured 8 of our rifles and quantities of ammunition. Since then they have captured more from the dead men "¦ They can always supply themselves with ammunition by going over the ground occupied by our lines. They can shoot with great accuracy."

James, 69, was born on the Klamath Reservation to Clyde James, a Modoc; and Luella Meuller, a German; and raised in Taos, N.M. Clyde James' father, Clark James, was born 1873 in the Modoc Tribe to Shacknasty Jim (Shkeitko) and Anna Miller as the indians resisted the Army in the many caves, canyons and crevasses of the Lava Beds.

Jim was among the Modoc party that, at peace talks on April 11, 1873, killed Gen. Edward Canby, Oregon Superintendent of Indian Affairs; Alfred Meacham and Lt. William Sherwood, whose rifle and chest are still on view at the Lava Beds Visitors Center.

"There was also a legend about a woman warrior among the Modocs. They (historians) were silent about that. But I found three documents and newspaper clippings. That woman was my great-great-grandmother Sallie, the mother of Shacknasty Jim."

James details the trial and hanging of Modoc leader Captain Jack and three others, and unlike many other books on the Modocs, tracks their lives in the ensuing 13 decades as two separate tribes, whose people happen to have many of the same stories, names, pictures and rites — and, says James — who long to get back together for a reunion in the ancestral lands. James is seeking a reality show as the vehicle.

James' parents in 1945 rediscovered and restored the graves of the four executed Modocs at long-abandoned Fort Klamath. Photos show James at age 6 at the rediscovery and in the present, with the graves now marked by stones.

In her research, James found that the tribe's indian agent in Oklahoma pocketed the funds meant for medical supplies and the tribe, soon after their Trail of Tears (by train) to Oklahoma, "dropped like flies" from tuberculosis.

"That's where I got the title, 'The Tribe That Wouldn't Die,' writing late at night about the war and disease. We should all be dead," says James. "I would be up writing late into the night and crying at my computer, afraid I would lose the inspiration if I went to sleep. Then, next morning, I couldn't get out of bed. I was devastated. My son came in and said, 'Gosh mom, this happened 135 years ago. Get over it.'"

Because a recounting of history can be dry, James decided to sprinkle 30 segments of fictional — but based on fact — narration around the book to give the reader a better feel for the tragic struggle, which brought more than 1,000 soldiers in conflict with only 55 Modoc warriors.

An example of her fiction segments: "At exactly 12 minutes after noon, Captain Jack raised his gun from a distance of five feet, pointed it at Canby's head and fired. Toby Riddle screamed. Toby could not believe what she saw. The gun had misfired. Why did Canby not run? Why didn't he fight back? He sat, perhaps in shock. Jack re-cocked the gun and fired again, delivering the death shot below the left eye. To everyone's disbelief, Canby struggled to his feet and ran some 40 yards before thudding to the ground dead."

In 1980 James was visiting her ancestral lands in the Klamath Basin when she was spotted by KOBI-TV in Medford and hired as a reporter and co-anchor, with Robin Lawson of the P.M. Magazine show — a career move that led her to her present work, based in Sacramento, Calif., as an inspirational and keynote speaker. She has worked at a Park Service ranger at Lava Beds. On the side, she is into tennis, skiing and competitive ballroom dancing.

In her book, James does not take sides, but takes the position that there are good people in every tribe, battalion and community and that the real evil is war itself.

Her mission, she says, is to heal the tribal split, so that the people who "were taken away, the peaceable warriors, can reunite with the people they left behind, moaning and groaning 135 years ago. I've interviewed them and, in Oregon and Oklahoma, they have the same stories and pictures but they don't know each other.

"They said they'd love to see them. One girl asked me, 'Do the kids look like me and play like me?' The ones in Oklahoma have never seen their ancestral lands and the ones in Oregon have never seen the graves of their ancestors who fought in the Modoc War."

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