Most of us have heard of many of the more famous Indian chiefs, Cochise, Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and other lesser lights . . . but most of us have not been exposed to one of the more outstanding Indian Chiefs . . . a Chief who was not only a masterful warrior and war strategist, but was also a logical and humanistic thinker. He was also an eloquent speaker and spoke often, and to influential people, about the human rights issue, the value of Mother Earth, and the pain of discrimination against the Indian peoples.
His name was Chief Joseph, of the Nez Percé.
At the end of this cover story, we will cite a number of speeches and commentaries made by Chief Joseph. Even the most critical of minds will agree, his logic was outstanding, his simple earnest presentation totally believable. He inspired confidence in his listeners and readers.
Far in the Northwest of our country lived the Chopunnish or Nez Percé Indians, a powerful tribe. Chopunnish is an Indian word, but Nez Percé is French and means pierced noses. The name comes from the fact that these Indians used to pierce their noses and wear rings in them.
The man who became a national celebrity with the name "Chief Joseph" was born in the Wallowa Valley in what is now northeastern Oregon in 1840. He was given the name Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, or Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain, but was widely known as Joseph, or Joseph the Younger, because his father had taken the Christian name Joseph when he was baptized at the Lapwai mission by Henry Spalding in 1838.
Joseph the Elder was one of the first Nez Percé converts to Christianity and an active supporter of the tribe's longstanding peace with whites. In 1855 he even helped Washington's territorial governor set up a Nez Percé reservation that stretched from Oregon into Idaho. But in 1863, following a gold rush into Nez Percé territory, the federal government took back almost six million acres of this land, restricting the Nez Percé to a reservation in Idaho that was only one tenth its prior size. Feeling himself betrayed, Joseph the Elder denounced the United States, destroyed his American flag and his Bible, and refused to move his band from the Wallowa Valley or sign the treaty that would make the new reservation boundaries official.
When his father died in 1871, Joseph was elected to succeed him. He inherited not only a name but a situation made increasingly volatile as white settlers continued to arrive in the Wallowa Valley. Joseph staunchly resisted all efforts to force his band onto the small Idaho reservation, and in 1873 a federal order to remove white settlers and let his people remain in the Wallowa Valley made it appear that he might be successful. But the federal government soon reversed itself, and in 1877 General Oliver Otis Howard threatened a cavalry attack to force Joseph's band and other hold-outs onto the reservation. Here is an account by General Howard:
“The men of the tribe are large and tall and strong, and they are very proud and warlike. Every year they went far away, even one thousand miles, to hunt buffalo, while the women planted little patches of Indian corn and the boys rode ponies or fished for salmon in the rivers. Now and then the Nez Percés fought, as all Indians do, and their enemies were especially the Blackfeet and Snakes, but they never killed a white man. Governor Stevens, one of the first white governors, gave these Indians a large tract of land bigger than New York State, where they lived and were very happy. After a while some missionaries came to live among them and started a big school where many Indian children studied and learned the white men's ways. Among these Indian children were two boys, the sons of a powerful chief called Old Joseph. Young Joseph and Ollicut went to the school for a short time, but while they were still very small their father became angry with another chief and moved off to Wallowa, a place far away on the Nez Percé reservation.
Then the white people began to see that this country was a good place to live in, and they asked Uncle Sam to give them some of it. Most of the Indians agreed to sell part of their big reservation and live on a part called the Lapwai lands, or reservation, but after this was arranged it was found that several bands of Nez Percés lived outside of this smaller reservation the White Birds under their leader, White Bird; other Indians under a chief called Looking-Glass; several other bands, and some Indians led by Young Joseph, who had become their chief after Old Joseph died. These many bands of Nez Percés came together and made Young Joseph their chief. They said that the other Nez Percés had no right to sell their land, and that they did not wish to leave their homes.
In April, 1877, I took some soldiers and went to a fort near Walla Walla, Washington, many miles south of Fort Lapwai. Here I met Ollicut, who came to represent his brother, who was sick. At his request I agreed to meet Joseph and his friends or Tillicums in twelve days at Lapwai, Idaho, and we all hoped that the meeting would result in a good peace. When I arrived at Fort Lapwai twelve days later an immense tent was ready for the council. Joseph, with about fifty Indians, had spent the night near by in handsome Indian lodges. His many ponies, watched by Indian lads, were feeding on the banks of Lapwai Creek. All was excitement, as with some officers I waited for the Indians to come that sunny morning to the "big talk." At last they came, riding slowly up the grassy valley, a long rank of men, all on ponies, followed by the women and children. Joseph and Ollicut rode side by side. The faces of all the Indians were painted bright red, the paint covering the partings of the hair, the braids of the warriors' hair tied with strips of white and scarlet. No weapons were in sight except tomahawk-pipes and sheath-knives in their belts. Everything was ornamented with beads. The women wore bright-colored shawls and skirts of cotton to the top of their moccasins.
They all came up and formed a line facing our square inclosure; then they began a song. The song was wild and shrill and fierce, yet so plaintive at times it was almost like weeping, and made us sorry for them, although we could not but be glad that there were not five hundred instead of fifty.
They turned off to the right and swept around outside our fence, keeping up the strange song all the way around the fort, where it broke up into irregular bubblings like mountain streams tumbling over stones.
Then the women and children rode away at a gallop and the braves, leaving their ponies, came in all in a single file with Joseph ahead. They passed us each one formally shaking hands, and then we all sat down in the big tent. After a prayer I spoke to Joseph and told him that his brother Ollicut had said to me twelve days ago in Walla Walla that he wished to see me now I was ready to listen to what he wished to say. Joseph then said that White Bird's Indians were coming; they were to be here soon and we must not be in a hurry, but wait for them. So we put off the "big talk" till the next day.
Again the Indians went through the same performance and again we were ready. White Bird had arrived and with a white eagle wing in his hand sat beside Joseph. .Joseph introduced him to me, saying: "This is White Bird; it is the first time he has seen you." There was also an old chief, Too-hul-hul-sote, who hated white men. When they were seated again I told them that the President wanted them all to come up to Lapwai, to the part where nobody lived, and take up the vacant reservation, for the other lands had been given to the white men.
Joseph said: "Too-hul-hul-sote will speak."
The old man was very angry and said, "What person pretends to divide the land and put me on it?" I answered: "I am the man." Then among the Indians all about me signs of anger began to appear. Looking Glass dropped his gentle style and made rough answers; White Bird, hiding his face behind that eagle wing, said he had not been brought up to be governed by white men, and Joseph began to finger his tomahawk and his eyes flashed. Too-hul-hul-sote said fiercely "The Indians may do as they like, I am not going on that land."
Then I spoke to them. I told them I was going to look at the vacant land and they should come with me. The old man, Too-hul-hul-sote, should stay at the fort with the colonel till we came back. He arose and cried "Do you want to frighten me about my body?" But I said: "I will leave you with the colonel," and at a word a soldier led the brave old fellow out of the tent and gave him to a guard.
Then Joseph quieted the Indians and agreed to go with me. We did not hasten our ride, but started after a few days. We then rode over forty miles together. Once Joseph said to me: "If we come and live here what will you give us-schools, teachers, houses, churches, and gardens?" I said, "Yes." "Well!" said Joseph, "those are just the things we do not want. The earth is our mother, and do you think we want to dig and break it? No, indeed! We want to hunt buffalo and fish for salmon, not plow and use the hoe."
"Yours is a strange answer," I said. After riding all over the country the Indians called it a good country, and they agreed to come and live there. The land was staked out, and Too-hul-hul-rote set free, and it was arranged that in thirty days all the outside Indians should be on the reservation, and we parted the best of friends.
Now, about this time Joseph's wife was taken sick, so he left his band and stayed away some distance with her in his lodge. While he was away some of the young warriors came to a farm house and began to talk with two white men. For some reason they did not agree, and a young Indian tried to take a gun out of the farmer's hand. At once the farmer was frightened and called to the other white man for help. That white man ran up and began to shoot, killing the Indian. Now began all sorts of trouble. The Indians stole horses, burned houses, robbed travelers, and the whole country was wild with terror.
Joseph at first did not know what to do, but at last he broke his agreement with me and all the outside Indians went on the war-path. For many months there were battles-battles -battles! Joseph was a splendid warrior, and with many of Uncle Sam's good soldiers he fought. I followed him for over fourteen hundred miles, over mountains and valleys, always trying to make him give up. At the last I sent two Nez Percé friends, "Captain John" and "Indian George" to Chief Joseph's strong place in the Little Rockies with a white flag to ask him to give up Joseph sent back word: "I have done all I can; I now trust my people and myself to your mercy."
So the surrender was arranged, and just before night on October 5, 1877, Joseph, followed by his people, many of whom were lame and wounded, came up to me and offered his rifle.
Beside me stood General N. A. Miles, who had helped me and fought the last battle, and so I told Joseph that he, General Miles, would take the rifle for me.
Thus ended the great Nez Percé War, and Joseph went after a time to live with Moses, another chief of whom I will tell you some day.
Twenty-seven years later I met Chief Joseph, the greatest Indian warrior I ever fought with, at the Carlisle Indian School, and there he made a speech: "For a long time," he said, "I did want to kill General Howard, but now I am glad to meet him and we are friends!"
Source: Famous Indian Chiefs I have Known, by Major-General O.O. Howard, US Army, 1908
Other views and commentary from that era: George Collier Robbing says in his "Pioneer Reminiscences",
"In Southern Idaho, Indian women and children were killed in attacks made by volunteer soldiers." A citizens committee posted rewards for Indian scalps; $100 far a buck's, $50 for a squaw's, and $25 for anything in the shape of an Indian under ten.
Ulysses S. Grant, then president of the United States, conceded the right of Joseph's people to the land but under pressure from groups both in Oregon and in the office of Indian Affairs, reversed his position and declared the land open to homesteading. The government pressed for removal of the tribe from the valley to the Lapwai reservation.
In the mind of the resident Indian agent there was no question: "There is not enough to give heads of families twenty acres apiece."
In spite of this, the commission concluded that the Lapwai reservation was suitable and concluded their proceedings with the admonishing that "Unless they come to Lapwai and settle in a reasonable time they are to be placed by force upon the reservation.
A minority report was submitted in which it stated: "The Government has so far failed to comply with the treaty of 1855 that none of the Nes Percé are bound by it. I recommend that although Joseph's band must be ultimately;. removed, yet until Joseph commits some act of overt hostility, force shall not be used to put him upon any reservation."
The minority report was duly read and quickly forgotten. Before the Nez Percé war, Too-hul-hul-sote spoke out vehemently against the orders of General Howard who had been called in to execute the removal of the Indians.
"You have no right to compare us, grown men, to children. Children do not think for themselves. Grown men do think for themselves. The government at Washington cannot think for us. The Great Spirit Chief made the world as it is and as he wanted it, and be made a part of it for us to live upon. I do not see where you get authority to say that we shall not live where he placed us."
The old chief was arrested for his outburst.
Still hoping that a war could be be averted, Joseph at last agreed to leave the land of his fathers and move onto the Lapwai reservation, holding that he had not sold the land, that though he might never live there again, the land still belonged to his people. And again General Howard pointed out that they would have one month to make the move and that unless they were upon the reservation at the end of that month, he would send troops for them.
In late May, 1877, the four non-treaty tribes began their march to Lapwai. They were due back on June 14. Knowing the time was short and not wishing troops should be sent out against them, they hurriedly gathered up what was theirs and paid final farewell to the Wallowa valley as they brought in the herds of cattle and horses. On June 8, the non-treaty tribes rendezvoused at Rocky Canyon before the final march to Lapwai.
An undercurrent of bitterness ran like wildfire through the camp. All the old wrongs were aired and repeated in variation throughout the night. Revenge was asked for and only Joseph remained immobile in his insistence on keeping peace at all cost. A council was held, unattended by Joseph whose wife was expecting a child and they lived apart from the encampment. Even Joseph's brother, Ollicutt, counseled war, as strongly as Joseph counseled peace.
On the night of June 13, four warriors of the tribe led by White Bird could endure the rising tide of emotion no longer. They left camp and before morning the war that had been smoldering for so long flamed into violence. They rode into camp the following, day with horses and rifles they had taken from the bodies of the settlers they had killed.
Joseph, who had been gone during this time, returned to learn of the bloodshed. He had counseled peace but peace was no longer possible. Although he had opposed war, Joseph cast his lot with the war leaders.
General Howard led the cavalry against the Nez Percé and in the succession of battles, White Bird Canyon, Cottonwood, and Camas Meadows, he learned first hand, the amazing military genius of this chief of the Nez Percé. He outfought and outwitted the best of the U. S. Army along a battle line that led from the banks of the Snake River to within thirty miles of the Canadian border.
Joseph had watched and learned from the white training during the years of peace and he deployed his own troops with the same effectiveness that had subdued other nations. His few hundred warriors fought greater odds in every battle and still came out the victor and handed the army victory without reward. Always he had women and children to consider and his only thought was to get them across the Canadian border and into safety.
Still hoping to make Canada and safety, Joseph turned his tribe northward again. The winter was setting in now and they had little food and clothing when the snow began to fall.
Within thirty miles of the long-sought after border and freedom, Joseph built camp. He felt he had a few days lead on the pursuing forces and posted no guards nor sent out scouts and later he was to admit to this mistake. It was here that the final battle occurred in the shadow of Bear Paw Mountains.
When the battle broke out, Joseph sent riders to Sitting Bull for aid and he fought a bitter delaying battle, hoping for reinforcements from the leader of the Sioux Nation and the hero of the Little Big Horn. The battle lasted for five days and it was then that it became evident no aid would come to help them. Joseph, realizing the futility of further resistance, surrendered to General Howard on the morning of October 4 with these famous words:
"Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Tu-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets; little children are freezing to death. My people, some off them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food; no one knows where they are perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead, Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more. Forever."
White Bird, with what remained of his band, escaped during the night across the border. He, whose people had been responsible for the war, found freedom in Canada.
By the time he formally surrendered on October 5, 1877, Joseph was widely referred to in the American press as "the Red Napoleon." Joseph's widely reprinted surrender speech has immortalized him as a military leader in American popular culture:
Of Joseph's family there was left his daughter, a baby of some five months old, another daughter, Sarah, was in exile with White Bird. He had lost two wives in the battle of Big Hole; his brother, Ollicut.
The record lists eleven engagements in all, five being pitched battles of which Joseph lost one, tied one, and won three. He had marched his people across a trail that stretched out some 1,400 miles and 75 days.
General William Tecumseh Sherman could not help but be impressed with the 1,400 mile march, stating that "the Indians throughout displayed a courage and skill that elicited universal praise... [they] fought with almost scientific skill, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines, and field fortifications."
In over three months, the band of about 700, fewer than 200 of whom were warriors, fought 2,000 U.S. soldiers and Indian auxiliaries in four major battles and numerous skirmishes. The troops had lost 126 men and 140 wounded while Joseph had 151 and 88 wounded which did not include the loss of women and children.
Joseph and his people were taken first to eastern Kansas and then to a reservation in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) where many of them died of epidemic diseases. Although he was allowed to visit Washington, D.C., in 1879 to plead his case to U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes, it was not until 1885 that Joseph and the other refugees were returned to the Pacific Northwest. Even then, half, including Joseph, were taken to a non-Nez Percé reservation in northern Washington, separated from the rest of their people in Idaho and their homeland in the Wallowa Valley where they were never again permitted to live.
The remnants of the tribe were split. Those of Looking Glass and White Bird’s bands were returned to Lapwai. Joseph’s band wound up at the Colville Reservation in Northern Washington. They settled near the sub-agency on the Banks of the Nespelem River. Here he spent his remaining years. He married twice more in spite of objections by missionaries. To them he replied:
“I fought through the war for my country and these women. You took away my country: I shall keep my wives.”
In his final years, Chief Joseph spoke eloquently against the injustices of U.S. Government policies and racial discrimination against indigenous peoples and he held out hope that America's promise of freedom and equality would one day be fulfilled for Native Americans as well.
Equal rights for American Indian peoples was a pretty big dream for our Native ancestors at the turn of the 20th century (late 1800s) when we stop to consider that most Indians were not even allowed to become U.S. citizens until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 was made into law. On September 21, 1904, Chief Joseph died at the young age of 67, at his lonely place of exile at Nespelem on the Colville Indian reservation, in Washington State, surrounded by a small band of his intimate friends. An indomitable voice of conscience for the West, he died, still in exile from his homeland, according to his doctor "of a broken heart."
His last funeral rites were performed in 1905. A granite monument, built with funds donated by James J. Hill, railroad magnate, was dedicated at that time and his personal possessions were distributed among his relatives and the members of his tribe.
He was reburied at the base of the monument, facing the East. On the column is his likeness and is inscribed on one side with the name the White man knew so well and on the other, Hin-mah-too-yah-kekht—Thunder Rolling In the Mountains.
At the ceremony, the aged half-blind Chief Yellow Bull spoke:
I am very glad to meet you all here today, my brothers and sisters and children and white friends. When the Creator created us, He put us on this earth, and the flowers on the earth, and He takes us all in his arms and keeps us in peace and friendship, and our friendship and peace will shine forever. Our people love our old customs. I am very glad to see our white friends here attending this ceremony, and it seems like we all have the same sad feelings and that fact helps to wipe away my tears and the loss of our dead chief.
Joseph is dead, but his words will stand as long as this monument.”
So be it.
Source: This page part of the Wallowa County AGHP Site
Contributed by Jim Reavis
Chief Joseph Speaks
Selected Statements and Speeches
by the Nez Percé Chief
The first white men of your people who came to our country were named Lewis and Clark. They brought many things which our people had never seen. They talked straight and our people gave them a great feast as proof that their hearts were friendly. They made presents to our chiefs and our people made presents to them. We had a great many horses of which we gave them what they needed, and they gave us guns and tobacco in return. All the Nez Percé made friends with Lewis and Clark and agreed to let them pass through their country and never to make war on white men. This promise the Nez Percé have never broken.
For a short time we lived quietly. But this could not last. White men had found gold in the mountains around the land of the Winding Water. They stole a great many horses from us and we could not get them back because we were Indians. The white men told lies for each other. They drove off a great many of our cattle. Some white men branded our young cattle so they could claim them. We had no friends who would plead our cause before the law councils. It seemed to me that some of the white men in Wallowa were doing these things on purpose to get up a war. They knew we were not strong enough to fight them. I labored hard to avoid trouble and bloodshed. We gave up some of our country to the white men, thinking that then we could have peace. We were mistaken. The white men would not let us alone. We could have avenged our wrongs many times, but we did not. Whenever the Government has asked for help against other Indians we have never refused. When the white men were few and we were strong we could have killed them off, but the Nez Percé wishes to live at peace.
On account of the treaty made by the other bands of the Nez Percé the white man claimed my lands. We were troubled with white men crowding over the line. Some of them were good men, and we lived on peaceful terms with them, but they were not all good. Nearly every year the agent came over from Lapwai and ordered us to the reservation. We always replied that we were satisfied to live in Wallowa. We were careful to refuse the presents or annuities which he offered.
Through all the years since the white man came to Wallowa we have been threatened and taunted by them and the treaty Nez Percé. They have given us no rest. We have had a few good friends among the white men, and they have always advised my people to bear these taunts without fighting. Our young men are quick tempered and I have had great trouble in keeping them from doing rash things. I have carried a heavy load on my back ever since I was a boy. I learned then that we were but few while the white men were many, and that we could not hold our own with them. We were like deer. They were like grizzly bears. We had a small country. Their country was large. We were contented to let things remain as the Great Spirit Chief made them. They were not; and would change the mountains and rivers if they did not suit them.”
“Let us put our minds together and see what future we can make for our children.”
[On a visit to Washington, D.C., 1879]
At last I was granted permission to come to Washington and bring my friend Yellow Bull and our interpreter with me. I am glad I came. I have shaken hands with a good many friends, but there are some things I want to know which no one seems able to explain. I cannot understand how the Government sends a man out to fight us, as it did General Miles, and then breaks his word. Such a government has something wrong about it. I cannot understand why so many chiefs are allowed to talk so many different ways, and promise so many different things. I have seen the Great Father Chief [President Hayes]; the Next Great Chief [Secretary of the Interior]; the Commissioner Chief; the Law Chief; and many other law chiefs [Congressmen] and they all say they are my friends, and that I shall have justice, but while all their mouths talk right I do not understand why nothing is done for my people. I have heard talk and talk but nothing is done. Good words do not last long unless they amount to something. Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country now overrun by white men. They do not protect my father's grave. They do not pay for my horses and cattle. Good words do not give me back my children. Good words will not make good the promise of your war chief, General Miles. Good words will not give my people a home where they can live in peace and take care of themselves. I am tired of talk that comes to nothing. It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and all the broken promises. There has been too much talking by men who had no right to talk. Too many misinterpretations have been made; too many misunderstandings have come up between the white men and the Indians. If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian he can live in peace. There need be no trouble. Treat all men alike. Give them the same laws. Give them all an even chance to live and grow. All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers. The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it. You might as well expect all rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases. If you tie a horse to a stake, do you expect he will grow fat? If you pen an Indian up on a small spot of earth and compel him to stay there, he will not be contented nor will he grow and prosper. I have asked some of the Great White Chiefs where they get their authority to say to the Indian that he shall stay in one place, while he sees white men going where they please. They cannot tell me.
I only ask of the Government to be treated as all other men are treated. If I cannot go to my own home, let me have a home in a country where my people will not die so fast. I would like to go to Bitter Root Valley. There my people would be happy; where they are now they are dying. Three have died since I left my camp to come to Washington.
When I think of our condition, my heart is heavy. I see men of my own race treated as outlaws and driven from country to country, or shot down like animals.
I know that my race must change. We cannot hold our own with the white men as we are. We only ask an even chance to live as other men live. We ask to be recognized as men. We ask that the same law shall work alike on all men. If an Indian breaks the law, punish him by the law. If a white man breaks the law, punish him also.
Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think and act for myself -- and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty.
Whenever the white man treats the Indian as they treat each other then we shall have no more wars. We shall be all alike -- brothers of one father and mother, with one sky above us and one country around us and one government for all. Then the Great Spirit Chief who rules above will smile upon this land and send rain to wash out the bloody spots made by brothers' hands upon the face of the earth. For this time the Indian race is waiting and praying. I hope no more groans of wounded men and women will ever go to the ear of the Great Spirit Chief above, and that all people may be one people.
Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekht has spoken for his people.
[TEXT: Chester Anders Fee, Chief Joseph: The Biography of a Great Indian, Wilson-Erickson, 1936.]
Helen Hunt Jackson recorded one early Oregon settler's tale of his encounter with Chief Joseph in her 1902 Glimpses of California and the Missions:
"Why I got lost once, an' I came right on [Chief Joseph's] camp before I knowed it . . . 't was night, 'n' I was kind o' creepin' along cautious, an' the first thing I knew there was an Injun had me on each side, an' they jest marched me up to Jo's tent, to know what they should do with me ... Well; 'n' they gave me all I could eat, 'n' a guide to show me my way, next day, 'n' I could n't make Jo nor any of 'em take one cent. I had a kind o' comforter o' red yarn, I wore rund my neck; an' at last I got Jo to take that, jest as a kind o' momento."
Chief Joseph, leader of the Wallowa Valley Nez Percé, and General John Gibbon, whom Joseph defeated at the Battle of the Big Hole in 1877, pose together in 1889, twelve years after Joseph's epic retreat.