An Indian's Perspective, Chief Joseph

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An Indian's Perspective, Chief Joseph

Chief Joseph was the heroic leader of a large band of Nez Percé (a misnomer, meaning "pierced noses") who had been converted to Christianity in the early nineteenth century. He was born in 1840 in the Wallowa valley of Oregon. Like many other tribes, the Nez Percé negotiated treaties with the American government, only to see the treaties violated, tensions erupt, and conflict ensue. In 1877, after mont of ferocious fighting and a spectacular retreat across Idaho and Montana, Chief Joseph's band of some 400 Indians surrendered with the understanding that they would be allowed to return home. Instead, they were taken first to Kansas and then to what is now Oklahoma. Joseph thereafter made repeated appeals to the federal government to let his people return to their native region; he visited Washington, D.C. in 1879 to present his grievances against the federal government to President Rutherford B. Hayes. But it was not until 1885 that he and several others were relocated to Washington state, where he died in 1904.

White men 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 Perce wishes to live at peace. . . .

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.

Tell General Howard that I know his heart.1 What he told me before I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. . . . The old men are all 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 against the white man.

At last I was granted permission to come to Washington and bring my friend Yellow Bull and our interpreter with me.2 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 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. . . .

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.

1. This section refers to events after Chief Joseph's surrender in 1877.

2. This section refers to Chief Joseph's visit to Washington, D.C., 1879.

[From Chester Anders Fee, Chief Joseph: The Biography of a Great Indian (New York: Wilson-Erickson, 1936), pp. 78-79, 262-63, 281-83.]

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