Chief Joseph :: He Opened a Window on the Soul

Column Name: Remembering The Great Chiefs
Byline: Joyce Worley

Subhead: An Introduction

Each step on the trail of the Great Chiefs is a bloody footprint. As we follow their paths in order to see the world they faced, we can only weep when we recognize their pain. There is no way for it to be undone; no way we can bring smiles to their sorrowful faces. Woe and misery were the rewards of leadership.

The Great Chiefs were faced with impossible challenges. We honor them all, whether they led the brave-yet-futile struggles against immeasurable odds, or whether they faced the challenge of helping their people make the transition from freedom to imprisonment, from plenty into poverty.

As the end grew closer, the wise men of the western tribes knew their cause was lost. Yet hearts longed to be free, longed to roll back the months and years to the days of their fathers. The Great Chiefs felt this same desire, felt the shame and agony of the inevitable defeat, and struggled mightily against the chains that would soon bind the tribes. Failing, they then faced the harder task of accepting their fate and guiding their people into the unthinkable nightfall of Native America's golden age.

Today's story won't make you happy. It's the tale of a man who struggled, knowing he must fall, the story of eyes that saw the future and wept tears of blood. In his pain, he did what was necessary to save the tattered remnants of his tribe. But even as he capitulated, he poured out his anger; he showed the world his broken heart.

And, by so doing, he forged a key that would eventually open the doors to compassion and understanding. His grief became a touchstone of understanding that very slowly grew to be the rock we stand upon.


Subhead: Chief Joseph - He Opened a Window on the Soul

460px-Chief Joseph-1877When the great explorers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark with 31 others, made their famous trek into unknown territories, they penetrated the heart of the Northwest. Between 1804 and 1806, the Lewis and Clark Expedition spent time with dozens of groups, trying to untangle the bewildering relationships between the tribes.

In fact, this was a difficult task. There were many bands in the Northwest, often with very different cultures and even different languages. Most were friendly and interested in these men who were unlike any they'd known before. They were especially intrigued by the useful objects that the explorers brought with them, such as cooking pots and metal knives, and eagerly accepted the presents they were offered. They had little recognition that these tokens heralded the beginning of the end for the style of life they'd known for thousands of years.

In fact, life remained more or less the same for another 20 years or so. Canadian fur traders occasionally made contact with some tribes, but this didn't disturb the status quo until the excursions into Oregon became more significant. Dr. John McLoughlin, born in Quebec in 1784, became a partner in the North West Company, which soon merged with the Hudson's Bay Company. He was sent to Fort George in the Columbia District in 1821, and then to Fort Vancouver in 1825. He was responsible for building a new fort, and establishing a 3,000-acre farm where he grew wheat and raised cattle. He also founded the first school in Oregon in 1832, and about 20 trading posts. Yet even then, the Northwestern tribes were still intact and following the paths of their ancestors.

Real change started in 1836 with the arrival of Henry and Eliza Spaulding, along with Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, Presbyterian missionaries. The Whitmans established a mission at Wailatpu (near present day Walla Walla, Washington) and the Spauldings set up a mission at Lapwai (near present day Lewiston, Idaho). The quartet were determined to bring Christianity and Civilization to these people whom they considered savages.

The Nez Perce were part of the Shahaptian family of tribes, and included six distinct groups. Chief Tuekakas was the leader of the Willewa band of Nez Perce in Wallowa County, Oregon. He was one of the Spauldings' first converts, and they gave him the name Joseph. When Joseph's son was born in 1840, in a cave on what is now called Joseph Creek in Northeast Oregon, they first named him Hinmahtooyahlakekht (loosely translated as Thunder Rolling in the Mountains) but he eventually was also renamed. His father became known as Old Joseph and he was called Young Joseph.

The Nez Perce received Lewis and Clark and their men with friendship in 1805, and their peaceful contacts with the newcomers continued throughout the first half of the century. They were neutral in the Cayuse War in 1847 when the Whitmans were killed, and actually helped the settlers in the Yakima War in 1855-56. Old Joseph stayed friendly, but in the mid-50s, began to have second thoughts about the white settlers and doubts that Christianity was for him and his family. However, he signed the Walla-Walla Treaty of 1855, and helped set the boundaries for a 5,000-square mile reservation.

The peace might have held except for one thing -- the same thing that caused trouble for so many other western tribes. Gold was discovered in their territory in 1860. The government took back almost six million acres of land, and left the Nez Perce with a plot of land only a tenth of what had been promised. And, the Wallowa Valley wasn't included. By 1862, an estimated 18,000 white men had settled on their land. In 1863, a new treaty set new boundaries.

Old Joseph was enraged. He destroyed his American flag and burned his Bible, then dug in his heels and refused to sign the new treaty. He also refused to leave his home ground. Before his death in 1871, he told Young Joseph to continue to resist, and that he must "never sell the bones of your father and mother."

At first the government officials were sympathetic, and a federal judge issued an order to evict all whites from the Wallowa Valley. But that piece of real estate was all together too valuable, and the order was reversed. In 1877 General Oliver Howard gave the tribe a month to move to the reservation in Idaho, and the chiefs agreed to go.

Young Joseph was, by this time, Chief Joseph. As one of the band's most important leaders, he and three other chiefs visited Washington in 1868. He thoroughly understood the might of the white people, and was thoroughly convinced the Native Americans had no chance of defeating them in warfare.

He didn't want to leave his ancestral land, but eventually he had no choice. He had always preferred peace to warfare, because, as he said, "it is better to live at peace than to begin a war and lie dead."

But there would be no peace. Even while the tribe was leaving Oregon, a handful of young Nez Perce braves decided to seek revenge for a kinsman who'd been murdered by settlers. One thing led to another, and 17 more whites were killed to revenge the 40 or so Nez Perce that had been killed by ranchers and miners in settlements along the Snake and Salmon Rivers.

That started the war. The Nez Perce knew they'd be hunted, so they hid in White Bird Canyon, but they were attacked on June 17, 1877, by a force made up of both soldiers and civilians. There were only two braves injured and none killed, but a total of 34 whites were slain.

Now they knew they were in trouble, and continued to flee toward the new reservation. But there were several battles along the trail, and even after they crossed the reservation boundaries there were two more attacks. It was obvious there was no refuge for the Nez Perce there.

Thus began the most famous retreat in history. The band now consisted of only a couple hundred men and 550 women and children. They rounded up 2,000 horses and headed toward Montana, buffalo territory, hoping to join with their friends among the Crow. A warrior chief, Looking Glass, marshaled their forces. After the success at White Bird, hope strengthened the weary travelers. But it wasn't going to last long.

On August 9, while the band camped at Big Hole River, Colonel John Gibbon led the Seventh Infantry in a surprise attack. After the first wave, sharpshooters held off the troops, while Joseph took survivors to safety. The Native Americans killed 31 and wounded 38 soldiers (including 14 of the 17 officers.) But the action was costly: There were 89 Nez Perce killed, most of them women and children.

After this, the band was less anxious to follow Looking Glass, and rallied around Chief Joseph and Chief Lean Elk. Joseph organized the women, children and elderly, and Lean Elk regrouped the warriors. They headed for Yellowstone.

But they couldn't buy a break. Along the way, many of the wounded died. Despite the warnings of their elders, some young warriors raided ranches for horses and for blood. And General Howard and his troops were on their trail. Yellowstone provided no haven; it was already a National Park and the eastern newspapers fanned the flames by writing stories of the dangers facing tourists. And it was all true; there were several tourists killed and wounded, more ranch burnings, more atrocities.

The Crow knew that if they took in the Nez Perce refugees, the Army would march on them too. They denied help to their old allies, and turned the suffering band away. We can only imagine the despair that must have gripped them when they lost that hope.

But the Nez Perce wouldn't give up; they couldn't. They fastened their hope on the Sioux. Sitting Bull and his followers had fled to Canada after the Battle of Little Big Horn the previous year. So they turned north and continued to push toward freedom.

The final drama played out in late September. The troops caught up with them about 40 miles from the Canadian border, and there was one last battle, near Bear Paw Mountain. Joseph and his braves managed to hold off the soldiers while Chief White Bird led approximately 175 Nez Perce to safety in Canada.

By this time, Looking Glass was dead, and Joseph was the only authority with the band. They were weary; they'd traveled 1,400 miles, harried all the way by soldiers and hostile civilians. They needed to make a winter camp; they needed food and blankets; they needed their home fires. So Joseph surrendered on October 5, 1877, along with 86 other men, 184 women and 147 children. General Howard promised that they could live peacefully on their reservation.

Of course, it didn't happen that way. Chief Joseph and his people were sent to Indian Territory (Oklahoma.) The climate was bad for these northerners and the area was plagued by disease; many sickened and died in captivity. Joseph worked endlessly on their behalf, making several trips to the East Coast to plead for better terms. He told and retold the epic of the Nez Perce ordeal, trying to gain sympathy for their cause. His eloquence touched many hearts, but it took eight long years before the government agreed to let the tribe return to the northwest.

Even then, there was one more great severing to endure. The tribe was not permitted to stay together. The Nez Perce Christians were allowed to go back to Idaho. But Joseph and about 150 non-Christians were sent to Colville Reservation in Washington State, to live with the Colville, the Nespelem, the San Poil, the Lake, the Palus, the Wenatchi (Wenatchee), the Chelan, the Entiat, the Methow, the southern Okanogan, and the Moses Columbia tribes.

Joseph lived there the rest of his days, giving comfort to his band. He was a great leader, teaching his people the Nez Perce history and ways. He died at age 64 on September 21, 1904, a hero who was admired by not just his own people, but by many whites as well. Buffalo Bill befriended him, and so did General Gibbon. And he died at peace, or as much peace as a Native American could expect: in his own lodge, sitting by the fire. But his heart was broken by the sorrow he had seen.

Chief Joseph was not a great warrior, though people who didn't know him called him "The Red Napoleon". He definitely preferred diplomacy to warfare, and although he shepherded his tribe well during the troubles, it is his wisdom and statesmanship that became his legacy. He is still honored for his honesty and courage everywhere his name is spoken.

Most of all, it is the beauty and pathos of his words that make him live in our hearts. Many of his speeches have been preserved, and they are things of beauty. But his surrender speech was printed in every newspaper, and since then has been included in textbooks, read by every school child in America, admired for its poetry and pain.

It was that heartfelt outpouring of words that touched the hearts of people everywhere. It provided a stone to stand upon, a common ground that all could understand, no matter white or red. Joseph's words created a tiny crack in the wall of fear and hatred, by showing the hunger and pain of his people. His words made everyone understand that we are all humans, all frail creatures who need the comfort of home and family. Not savages, not ruthless marauders, but flesh and blood with hearts that can break from pain.

And through that tiny crack has come all the mutual understanding that the races now try to expand.

This is what Chief Joseph said as he surrendered in the Bear Paw Mountains in 1877:

"Tell General Howard that 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, Tuhulhilsote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who now say yes or no. He who led the young men [Joseph's brother Olikut] is dead.

"It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people -- some of them have run away to the hills and have no blankets and no food. No one knows where they are -- perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead.

"Hear me, my chiefs, my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever."

(Joyce Worley is proud of her Cherokee heritage. A well-known journalist and historian from Missouri, Joyce now resides in Nevada.)