Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé

Perhaps my greatest disappointment with Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
is the lack of coverage of the Cherokee Trail of Tears, perhaps the greatest injustice done to Indians in our long, sordid history of dealing with Native Americans. That said, it is a stunning condemnation of the racism and greed that drove the whiteman’s treatment of American Indians. I suspect if I’d read it before attending college that I would not have signed up for ROTC and certainly wouldn’t have signed up for the Armor branch, the heir of the cavalry.

I must admit that as I grew older and learned more about Geronimo, and seen through the lens of my Vietnam experiences, I saw him, at best, as a seriously flawed “hero.” Dee’s work certainly reinforces that ambivalence.

If I still believed in heroes, regrettably I don’t, Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé would probably best fulfill that role. He was a defensive warrior, one who refused to sign away his people’s rights, but was wise enough to know that he could not stand and fight.

Like the Cherokee, the Nez Percé had a long peaceful history with the whites, managing not only to coexist but to successfully adapt and trade with each other:

IN SEPTEMBER, 1805, when Lewis and Clark came down off the Rockies on their westward journey, the entire exploring party was half-famished and ill with dysentery-too weak to defend themselves. They were in the country of the Nez Percés, so named by French trappers, who observed some of these Indians wearing dentalium shells in their noses. Had the Nez Percés chosen to do so, they could have put an end to the Lewis and Clark expedition there on the banks of Clearwater River, and seized their wealth of horses. Instead the Nez Percés welcomed the white Americans, supplied them with food, and looked after the explorers’ horses for several months while they continued by canoe to the Pacific shore.

Thus began a long friendship between the Nez Percés and white Americans. For seventy years the tribe boasted that no Nez Percé had ever killed a white man.

But white men’s greed for land and, gold finally broke the friendship.

And for those who’ve read the rest of the book, all that follows is all too familiar. Racism and greed are a deadly combination, as Americans should know all too well by now

Chief Joseph’s Nez Percés were given a short reprieve after he petitioned Washington:

He petitioned the Great Father, Ulysses Grant, to let his people stay where they had always lived, and on June 16, 1873, the President issued an executive order withdrawing Wallowa Valley from settlement by white men.

Faced with mounting pressure from settlers and gold seekers, Grant’s executive order was soon rescinded:

Meanwhile, white settlers were encroaching upon the valley, with their eyes on the Nez Percé land. Gold was found in nearby mountains. The gold seekers stole the Indians’ horses, and stockmen stole their cattle, branding them so the Indians could not claim them back. White politicians journeyed to Washington, telling lies about the Nez Percés. They charged the Indians with being a threat to the peace and with stealing the settlers’ livestock. This was the reverse of the truth, but as Joseph said, “We had no friend who would plead our cause be- fore the law council.” Joseph knew now that he had no alternative. To defend the valley with less than a hundred warriors was impossible. When he and his subchiefs returned home they found soldiers already there. They held a council and decided to gather their stock immediately for the move to Lapwai. “The white men were many and 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 made them. They were not, and would change the rivers and mountains if they did not suit them.”

Unfortunately for Joseph and his people, their departure was not meant to be peaceable.

While they were camped in the canyon, a small band of warriors slipped away one night, and when they returned the Nez Percés could no longer claim that they had never killed a white man. The warriors had killed eleven, in revenge for the theft of their stock and for being driven from their valley.

Like many another peace-loving Indian chief, Joseph was now trapped between the pressures of the white men and the fury of his desperate people. He chose to stay with his people. “I would have given my own life,” he said, “if I could have undone the killing of white men by my people. I blame my young men and I blame the white men . . . . I would have taken my people to the buffalo country [Montana] without fighting, if possible.”

It’s hard to imagine how an honorable chief could have done otherwise, even though his choice doomed his tribe. What followed, though, was a victory of sorts, as Joseph led his on a three-month-long retreat, covering 1,700 miles fending off attacks by vastly superior Army units, finally meeting defeat 70 miles from the Canadian border:

On the night of August 9, the One Who Limps (Colonel Gibbon) brought up a mixed column of local volunteers and mounted infantrymen and concealed them on a hillside overlooking the Nez Percé camp on Big Hole River. As dawn approached, the volunteers asked Gibbon if they should take prisoners during the attack. Gibbon replied that he wanted no Indian prisoners, male or female. The night air was cold, and the men warmed themselves by drinking whiskey. At first daylight several were drunk when Gibbon gave the command to attack. The infantry line began firing volleys, and then charged the Nez Percé tepees. It was a cavalry charge ordered by Bear Coat Miles, whose Indian scouts a few hours earlier had picked up the trail of the Nez Percés. Riding with the charging cavalry were the thirty Sioux and Cheyenne scouts who had been bought by the Blue- coats at Fort Robinson, the young warriors who had turned their backs on their people by putting on soldier uniforms-an action which had precipitated the assassination of Crazy Horse.

The thunder of six hundred galloping horses made the earth tremble, but White Bird calmly posted his warriors in front of the camp. As the first wave of pony soldiers swept clown upon them, the Nez Percé warriors opened with deadly accurate fire. In a matter of seconds they killed twenty-four soldiers, wounded forty-two others, and stopped the charge in a wild scramble of plunging horses and unsaddled troopers. “On the fifth day,” Joseph said, “I went to General Miles and gave up my gun.”

Joseph is often remembered for his eloquent surrender speech, as quoted by Dee, even though it has been suggested that the speech was probably embellished by the translator, Lt. Wood:

He also made an eloquent surrender speech, which was recorded in the English translation by Lieutenant Charles Erskine Scott Wood, and in time it became the most quoted of all American Indian speeches:

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. Toohoolhoolzote 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 [Ollokoti 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, 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! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.

Although he gained fame through his tribe’s remarkable retreat and his oft-quoted speech, Joseph was never allowed to return to his homeland as he thought he had been promised by General Miles when he surrendered:

Bureaucrats and Christian gentlemen visited them frequently, uttering words of sympathy and writing endless reports to various organizations. Joseph was allowed to visit Washington, where he met all the great chiefs of government. “They all say they are my friends,” he said, “and that I shall have justice, but while their mouths all talk right I do not understand why nothing is done for my people . . . . General Miles promised that we might return to our own country. I believed General Miles, or I never would have surrendered.”

Although some survivors were permitted to return to their reservation at Lapwai:

Chief Joseph and about 150 others were considered too dangerous to be penned up with other Nez Percés, whom they might influence. The government shipped them to Nespelem on the Colville Reservation in Washington, and there they lived out their lives in exile. When Joseph died on September 21, 1904, the agency physician reported the cause of death as “a broken heart.”

I could spend the next week or two summarizing similar incidents related in Dee’s powerful indictment, but it’s time for me to move on. It’s been a painful read, stirring old memories that are probably best not forgotten, while reminding me why I originally began this blog as a protest against America’s invasion of Afghanistan. While listening to My Top Rated songs on my iPod yesterday I was reminded of an earlier entry I wrote about Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes.”

This is painful reading about a dark time in American history, but it is one that we must examine if we are to truly understand ourselves and avoid past mistakes.