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Interview with author "Julia Sullivan"

Julia Sullivan believes that access to justice is a shared theme between her many years in law and her debut novel, Bone Necklace. Over the course of her law career, Sullivan represented inmates on death row, undocumented immigrants, and victims of domestic and elder abuse. She provided countless hours of pro bono work as Executive Director and Chairman of the Board of MAIP. She could not help but notice how justice seemed to only be afforded to corporations or the very wealthy – while lower income individuals frequently had their entire lives destroyed by a system meant to treat everyone fairly.

After taking an interest in the history of the Nez Perce War of 1877, Sullivan spent twenty-one years researching, drafting, and editing what would eventually become Bone Necklace – a story from multiple perspectives, underscoring just how access to justice could have prevented the David and Goliath battles known as the Nez Perce War.

In the following article, Sullivan describes the history behind the famous Nez Perce War, and goes into further detail about her career in law, and the thematic connection between her work and her debut novel.


Attorney and Former Executive Director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project (“MAIP”) Julia Sullivan Pens Debut Novel Bone Necklace Detailing the Nez Perce War of 1877

What was it about the story that made you want to write Bone Necklace?

I became fascinated with the story of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War of 1877. My initial interest arose because one of the most famous battles of the war occurred not far from my home in the Bitterroot Valley, Montana. But the more I learned about the story, the more I felt myself drawn deeper.

Many of your readers have probably heard of Chief Joseph. There is a town named after him in the Wallowa Valley in Oregon, as well as a newspaper. Recently, the governors of Oregon and Idaho had a very public disagreement about which had the better claim to contribute a statue of the famous Nez Perce to the National Statuary Hall next to the Rotunda at the U.S. Capitol building.

During the Nez Perce War of 1877, the Weekly Kansas Chief called Chief Joseph the “Red Napoleon,” and the name stuck. Nobody was more surprised by Joseph’s military genius than he was. The Nez Perce had never viewed him as a war chief; he was a soft-spoken, elegant, and eloquent man, a diplomat who often represented his people in negotiations with the government. He would have done anything to avoid the war that made him famous.

Over the course of the war, the military skill of the Nez Perce and their generosity toward wounded soldiers who fell into their hands caused public opinion to shift strongly in their favor. At the start of the war, a newspaper in Portland, Oregon suggested that “extermination” of the tribe was “the only safe and permanent” solution for Indigenous “treachery.” Shortly after the final battle, the ladies auxiliary in Bismarck, South Dakota, invited Chief Joseph to a luncheon honoring the tribe’s bravery and humanity.

But what was even more interesting, to me, was the story of Chief White Bird, whose fame somehow never matched Chief Joseph’s. Towards the end of the final battle, White Bird and Joseph were the only surviving chiefs. White Bird led 290 able-bodied survivors on foot through snow and ice to Canada, where they received political asylum, and camped with Lakota refugees headed by Chief Sitting Bull. Chief Joseph, though still strong, stayed behind with 417 others who were too weak to travel the final distance, though his daughter (Sound of Running Feet) and her mother (Springtime) would escape with White Bird.

It is interesting that few accounts of the war, then or now, acknowledge that a large portion of the tribe never surrendered. Contrary to popular conception, those Nez Perce who escaped with White Bird – representing more than 40% of the tribe – were neither doomed nor defeated. They took on the U.S. Army and, in the end, prevailed. They were David and Goliath all over again. What’s more, they lived in Canada in peace – suggesting that there was nothing inevitable about the Nez Perce War. The two cultures could have potentially lived together, side by side, on both sides of the border.

How did you find yourself interested in the so-called Last Indian War?

In 1999, I visited the Big Hole Battlefield in Wisdom, Montana, and became fascinated by the Nez Perce story. I bought some books at the gift shop and discovered that Chief Joseph had visited the nation’s capital three times during his life. He met with President Hayes in 1879, President McKinley in 1897, and President Roosevelt in 1903. On his first trip to D.C., he delivered a lecture at Lincoln Hall, which formed the basis for an article he later published in the North American Review.

At the time, I was working at a large law firm in Washington, D.C. I went to the Library of Congress and found a copy of Chief Joseph’s article, which was quite remarkable. Then I went to the National Archives and started reading the handwritten transcripts of Joseph’s speeches at various treaty councils with the government. Pretty soon, the story really had me hooked. Today, I have several bookcases filled with material on the Nez Perce War.

Can you briefly describe the event for those who are unfamiliar with it?

The Nez Perce lived in peace with American settlers until 1860, when a white trespasser named Elias Pierce discovered gold on their vast reservation. The Indians’ land was quickly overrun with the worst representatives of white society. The miners formed their own government and passed a law that prohibited Indigenous Peoples (and other minorities) from testifying against whites. It was this law that probably made the war between the races inevitable.

The Indigenous were beaten, murdered, raped, and robbed with impunity. In 1877, Chief Joseph went to General Oliver O. Howard, the Commander of the Department of the Columbia, with a list of twelve white murderers he wanted the government to either prosecute or turn over to the tribe for punishment. Instead, General Howard ordered them to give up their land and move to a crowded reservation in Lapwai, Idaho, within 30 days.

Joseph and the other chiefs promised to comply with the order, but a young man named Wahlitits, whose father had been murdered, refused to submit. He and his friends killed seventeen whites, including a young mother, sparking outrage among the settlements.

The chiefs offered to turn Wahlitits over to the government for punishment, but it wasn’t enough. Militias were raised in every settlement, and they started shooting at any Nez Perce they saw. The Nez Perce fought a series of defensive battles across 1,100 miles of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. At the conclusion of the final battle in the Bears Paw Mountains, Chief Joseph surrendered with 417 others, while Chief White Bird escaped with 290 Nez Perce. To this day, there is a small Nez Perce diaspora in Canada.

Can you talk a little bit about your research process while drafting Bone Necklace? How long did it take you to write the book?

I worked on Bone Necklace, on and off, for twenty-one years. I spent years researching the Nez Perce War in the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and historical societies throughout the pacific northwest. I traveled their entire 1,100-miled Nez Perce trail. I read published and unpublished accounts and histories of the war and conducted lengthy interviews with the former Chief of the General Council of the Nez Perce tribe. I published an article in the Idaho Law Review based upon some of my research back in 2004.

I wanted to write a novel, but I didn’t know how to do it. I put the manuscript on a shelf for years at a time, but I always came back to it. I hired five different editors. I forced myself to add a sex scene, which will be blacked out in the copy I give my parents. In short, I made myself crazy. Nevertheless, here we are.

Along with being a novelist, you also worked as an attorney. Can you briefly explain your background in law and your pro bono work?

I am a commercial arbitrator with more than thirty years of experience in the energy industry. Throughout my career in corporate law, I also followed the guidance of the American Bar Association to provide free (“pro bono”) legal services to clients who could not afford counsel. As part of my pro bono commitment, I served as the Executive Director and Chairman of the Board of MAIP, which is part of a national coalition of organizations dedicated to freeing people who have been incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. In addition to my work with the Innocence Project, I have represented death row inmates, undocumented immigrants, and victims of domestic violence and elder abuse.

Can you describe your involvement with The Innocence Project?

I am really proud of my work with MAIP, which was started by a small group of lawyers in Washington, D.C. in 2000, about the same time I started my research for Bone Necklace. MAIP works to prevent and correct the conviction of innocent people in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. It has one of the highest success rates in the country for exonerating those who have been wrongfully accused and advocating policies that can help prevent wrongful convictions.

One of the best things I did at MAIP was to help recruit an amazing board and to hire an exceptionally talented lawyer named Shawn Armbrust as Executive Director. Since 2000, MAIP has helped secure the release or exoneration of 37 people in the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia region, who collectively served more than 742 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.

The people MAIP represents have nowhere else to turn. Many have been convicted of terrible crimes and have been written off by society and sometimes even their own families. Often, they have never had competent legal representation. MAIP gives hope to people who feel that they are out of options.

Do you see a thematic connection with that work and the story you tell in your novel?

Definitely. It’s all about access to justice. If I had to identify the single-most important cause of the Nez Perce War, it would be the law that prohibited the Indigenous from testifying against whites. The courthouse doors were

What would you like the reader to take away?

The Nez Perce War didn’t have to happen. It wasn’t destiny or fate. It wasn’t inevitable. According to an October 1877 article in the New York Times it was “a gigantic blunder and a crime.” It could have been avoided.

Some people say that the Nez Perce refused to adapt to the dominant culture. My research showed otherwise. As early as 1832, the Nez Perce sent four emissaries to St. Louis, Missouri – essentially, the Lewis & Clark expedition in reverse – looking for white teachers. Two missionary couples arrived in present-day Idaho four years later, but as it turned out, they couldn’t stand each other. One of the couples – the Marcus and Narcissa Whitman – moved on to live with the Cayuse tribe. The other – Henry and Eliza Spalding – spent eleven years with the Nez Perce.

At the time the war began, thanks largely to the missionaries, the Nez Perce knew how to read and write in English and in their own language (using the Pickering alphabet which the missionaries had taught them), cultivate crops, mill lumber and grain, and weave cloth. They had thousands of well-bred horses which they could trade for anything they wanted in the white settlements, including Georgia cotton, Virginia tobacco, New Orleans molasses, Wisconsin cheese, Caribbean chocolate, sugar, coffee, knives, kettles, and, of course, guns.

The one thing the Nez Perce lacked was access to the courts. Despite this, the majority of the tribe continued to seek non-violent solutions when crimes were committed against them until the war broke out.

Chief Joseph turned out to be a military genius, but it was his conduct after the war that won him a place on great bronze door at the Library of Congress (1897). He became a prominent advocate for Native American rights. He also welcomed the teenage son of Charles Erskine Scott Wood, General Howard’s aide-de-camp, into his home for two summers. Here are a few of the things Joseph taught the boy:

  • Everyone is equal. Chief Joseph spoke of “equal rights” in a way that wouldn’t be accepted into law for nearly a century.

  • Tell the truth. The Nez Perce could tolerate a certain amount of exaggeration, but once a person repeated something three times, it had better be the truth.

  • Never say good-bye. The Nez Perce had no word for “goodbye.” They would say qo'c 'ee hexnu, meaning, “until I see you again.”

Are you working on any other books at the moment?

Yes. I am working on another historical novel, inspired by the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, which brought the US and the USSR to the brink of conflict in the Middle East. The book explores how religious differences, like race, can divide people unnecessarily, and how these divisions can be exploited for geopolitical gain.


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