Warren’s “Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce”

I must admit I was not particularly looking forward to reading Warren’s “Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce” because, as I’ve admitted before, I’m not particularly fond of long, extended poems where all too often it seems to me that the poetic form gets in the way of the story. (Of course, it might be argued that I have a limited attention span.) Neither am I overly fond of fictional “historical” works where modern authors find ways of putting their ideas into the mouths of historical personages. (Pretty soon you have a hard time telling the difference between truth and fiction, don’t you? And it’s already too damn hard to tell the difference, as far as I’m concerned.)

Perhaps it speaks to the merit of this long poem, then, that I found it particularly compelling, though, admitedly, that may be because my prejudices in this case so neatly dovetailed with Warren’s own views of Chief Joseph.

Living in the Northwest, I’ve long been acquainted with the story of Chief Joseph, and it has long struck me as one of those great injustices, like the Trail of Tears, that Americans, at best, gloss over, or, at worst, distort into some kind of great Army victory rather than admit that it is proof that even America great injustices have often been done to minorities.

The poem is prefaced by a page-long note which briefly summarizes the story of Chief Joseph, ending with the line, “The physician of Colville, somewhat unscientifically, filed the report that the chief had died of a broken heart.” That hook, caught me, and I was on Warren’s side the rest of the way.

I am particularly fond of the way Warren works actual quotations into his poem, adding perspective to both his poem and the historical events. Warren’s portrayal of Joseph’s thoughts:

My father held my hand, and he died.
Dying, said: ‘Think always of your country.
Your father has never sold your country.

Has never touched white-man money that they
Should say they have bought the land you now stand on.
You must never sell the bones of your fathers-
For selling that, you sell your Heart-Being.’

Is followed by:

I think it a great mistake to take from Joseph and his band of Nez Perces Indians that valley [Wallowa].
General 0. 0. Howard

A historical way of affirming Warren’s interpretation of history and Joseph’s thoughts.

Often a particularly poetic interpretation of Joseph’s inner thoughts:

“But then, my heart, it heard
My father’s voice, like a great sky-cry
From snow-peaks in sunlight, and my voice
Was saying the Truth that no
White man can know, how the Great Spirit
Had made the earth but had drawn no lines
Of separation upon it, and all
Must remain as He made, for to each man
Earth is the Mother and Nurse, and to that spot
Where he was nursed, he must,
In love, cling.”

Will be followed by an actual translation of Chief Joseph’s speech:

The earth, my mother and nurse, is very sacred to me: too sacred to be valued, or sold for gold or for silver … and my bands have suffered wrong rather than done wrong.

Chief Joseph to the Commissioners of 1876

Which allows the reader to simultaneously experience the poet’s interpretation and the translator’s interpretation of Chief Joseph’s thoughts.

This same technique alllows us to see the subtle, and not-so-subtle, lies that creep into historical “intrepetation” as Warren’s interpretation of the battle:

Like the buffalo herd stampeded at cliff-edge
The sands redder go. Like old women, some soldiers
Lose mounts. Flee on foot.
In blind corners die.
All flee. Miles we chase them. Coats, weapons, we take.
Scalps never. We touch not the locks of the honored dead.
Now rifles we have, sixty-three by our count.
Now braves-hide their bows. Now rifles they have!
And pistols. Ai, the white friend is kind!”

is followed by “historical” markers at the site of the actual battle:

Before you … lies the historic battle ground of the Nez Perce Indian War in which 34 men gave their lives in service for their country.
Marker on White Bird Battlefield

Of course, retelling the story from the poet’s perspective rather than just from historical documents gives him the freedom to set the reader up by offering one perspective of the battle:

“Near dawn they struck us, new horse-soldiers. Shot
Into tepees. Women, children, old died.
Some mothers might stand in the river’s cold coil
And hold up the infant and weep, and cry mercy.
What heart beneath blue coat has fruited in mercy?
When the slug plugged her bosom, unfooting her
To the current’s swirl and last darkness, what last
Did she hear? It was laughter.

followed by a later insight when the Nez Perce regroup and revenge their loses:

“Few laughed as naked they lay there. Our own hearts
Were swollen with rage, but rage like great joy.
And gratefulness. The Chief-in-the-Sky-
He had seen our need. He smiled on us.
He said: ‘Know now you are men. Be men!’

Of course, readers who limit themselves to traditional history textbooks, or apparently historical markers, would never see the battle from this perspective.

Warren is also able to point out some truly historical ironies in his narrative retelling of history. After focusing on Miles’ egotistical attempts to gain fame in his battle with Chief Joseph, it is he who ends up defending him:

Only one man, with an uneasy conscience, might
Speak out the truth, and the truth be heard,
And was it integrity, or some
Sad division of self, torn in ambition
And ambition’s price, that at last made Miles
The only staunch friend of Joseph for all
The years? In his rising success, did something make Miles
Wonder what was the price of a star?

Of course, it was Miles that made the promises, promises that were never kept to Chief Joseph that finally convinced Joseph to surrender rather than to fight on against hopeless odds.

The greatest irony of all, though, came much later in Joseph’s life after he had been honored, though the pledges to him had never been so honored:

Great honor came, for it came to pass
That to praise the red man was the way
Best adapted to expunge all, all, in the mist
Of bloodless myth. And in the predictably obscene
Procession to dedicate Grant’s Tomb, which grandeur
Was now to hold the poor, noble dust of Appomattox,
Joseph, whose people had never taken
A scalp, rode beside Buffalo Bill-

Who had once sent his wife a yet-warm scalp
He himself had sliced from the pate
Of a red man who’d missed him. Joseph rode
Beside Buffalo Bill, who broke clay pigeons-
One-two-three-four-five—just like that.

Joseph rode by the clown, the magician who could transform
For howling patriots, or royalty,
The blood of history into red ketchup,
A favorite American condiment. By his side
Joseph rode. Did Joseph know
Of the bloody scalp in love’s envelope, know
That the dead Grant had once, in the White House,
In his own hand, certified the land
Of the Winding Waters to Joseph’s people-
“Forever”-until some western politico, or such,
Jerked him by the nose, like a bull with a brass
Ring there for control?

Buffalo Bill, whose Wild West Shows somehow symbolize the West that never was, stands as a startling contrast to Chief Joseph, who symbolizes the price that’s always been paid for conquest. Warren, of course, sees Chief Joseph as a real hero while Buffalo Bill is nothing more than a “clown” who could transform the blood of tragedy into “red ketchup/ A favorite American condiment”

A final perspective is shone on these events when the poet and his friends visit the famous battle grounds:

I turned to my friend Quammen, the nearer. Called:
“It’s getting night, and a hell of a way
To go.” We went,
And did not talk much on the way.

Indeed, it was a hell of a way to go, but the final irony is that the poet who makes his living through words has nothing left to say at the end of his own poem.

There are a number of intersting sites on the web devoted to Chief Joseph that shine further light on this powerful poem:

P.B.S’s Chief Joseph, with multiple links

Chief Joseph, Nez Perce (Nimiputimt) at Indians.org

Chief Joseph at Indianquides.com