When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I thought anything that happened in the 1800s was ancient history. It’s amazing how age has a way of putting things in perspective. As I was reading about Chief Joseph in preparation for writing today’s blog post, I was struck by the fact that the conflicts between the United States government and the Nez Perce Native Americans took place a mere 68-76 years before my birth.
Since I’m 67 years old, the number of years weren’t lost on me. It was only 49 years before my birth that Chief Joseph died on September 21, 1904. As I read various sources about Chief Joseph while researching today’s blog topic, in addition to putting the time frame in perspective, I was struck all over again with the fact that the United States government has always treated Native Americans horribly. Period.
Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt was popularly known as Chief Joseph. His tribal name translates into “Thunder Rolling in the Mountain” in English. He succeeded his father as a leader of the Wal-lam-wat-kain band of Nez Perce Native Americans. The Wal-lam-wat-kain lived in the Wallowa Valley in present-day Oregon.
Chief Joseph sought peace and wanted all people to live in harmony. The United States government didn’t share his philosophy of life. He tried repeatedly to come to a peace agreement with the federal government.
Background history – Chief Joseph’s Father
White settlers began settling in the Wallowa Valley around 1850. Chief Joseph’s father was the tribal chief at the time. He was welcoming to the intruders at first, but as their numbers grew they encroached onto more and more of the valley. When Chief Joseph (the elder) told the settlers they could take no land, the settlers took it by force.
As tensions grew, Governor Isaac Stevens of the Washington Territory created a council to try to establish peace. Through that council, the Treaty of Walla Walla was signed in 1855 by Chief Joseph (the elder) and the chiefs of nearby tribes. The treaty created a 7-million acre reservation that included the Wallowa Valley.
The treaty worked fairly well until a gold rush drew more settlers into the reservation land in 1863. A second treaty was signed, but it heavily favored the white settlers. The original 7-million acre reservation was whittled down to only 700,000 acres. The icing on the cake was the removal of the Wallowa Valley from the new reservation boundaries and all the affected tribes were forced to move to Idaho.
Some of the Nez Perce tribes accepted the terms and moved; however, Chief Joseph (the elder) and some others refused to go. The second treaty was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Chief Joseph (the elder) denounced the United States, even throwing away his Bible and burning the American flag. (He had adopted the Christian faith after visits by missionaries and was baptized and given the Christian name “Joseph” in 1838.)
What the US government never understood was the value the Native Americans put on the graves of their ancestors.
“Inside this boundary, all our people were born. It circles the graves of our fathers, and we will never give up these graves to any man.” ~ Chief Joseph (the elder)
Before Chief Joseph (the elder) died in 1871, he said the following words to his son in preparation for his succeeding him as tribal chief: “Never sell the bones of your father and your mother.”
The younger Joseph becomes Chief
More settlers arrived and tensions grew. Chief Joseph (the younger) was threatened with physical violence, but he always responded verbally. He held onto the hope that his people could stand their ground and outlast the white settlers. He knew if he retaliated with violence, the US government would wipe out his people. He couldn’t risk getting violent.
A third treaty was drawn up in 1873. It gave the Wallowa Valley back to Chief Joseph’s people. The treaty was broken four years later and US Army General Oliver Otis Howard set out to forcibly remove the Nez Perce from their lands. Chief Joseph (the younger) offered Gen. Howard a compromise. The Nez Perce would give up part of their land and some of them would leave.
When the two men were unable to come to an agreement, Howard gave the Nez Perce thirty days to vacate their lands. To not comply would be considered an act of war against the United States.
The Nez Perce War
Chief Joseph quietly moved his followers across nearly 1,200 miles, while other Nez Perce tribes chose to stay behind and fight. Chief Joseph’s people were able to avoid armed conflict with the US Army for the most part, but violence ran against the chief’s core values to the point that he couldn’t bear to see his people suffer any more. Even though Chief Joseph tried to avoid fighting the army, the conflict became known as the Nez Perce War because other tribes within the Nez Perce chose to fight.
On October 5, 1877, Chief Joseph surrendered to Gen. Howard. The speech Chief Joseph made that day is remembered to this day and often quoted:
“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 the young men [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, 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.” ~ Chief Joseph, October 5, 1877
The rest of the story
Chief Joseph and his followers were put on rail cars and taken to Oklahoma. Many died there from exposure to the elements and diseases they’d never been exposed to before. Getting nowhere talking to army generals, Chief Joseph went to Washington, DC and met with President Rutherford B. Hayes.
He pleaded his people’s case with the president, but there was not immediate resolution of the conflict. It was six years later that Chief Joseph and his followers were split up. Some were sent to a reservation near Kooskia, Idaho. Some were sent to northern Washington Territory. But Idaho and the reservation in northern Washington weren’t their homeland. Their homeland was the Wallowa Valley in northeastern Oregon.
In 1897, Chief Joseph returned to Washington, DC to try again to get permission for his people to move to the Wallowa Valley. He never quit trying peacefully to get permission for his people to return to their homeland.
Chief Joseph died 116 years ago today on September 21, 1904. His physician said Chief Joseph died of a broken heart.
No one can argue with that.
If the United States government authorities had just adopted Chief Joseph’s philosophy of life, our country’s history would be quite different. A lot of conflict, bloodshed, and misunderstandings could have been avoided.
Since my last blog post
I was saddened by the death on Friday by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She will go down in history as one of the most-gifted legal minds to ever sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.
I’m formatting for self-publishing the 174 local history columns I wrote from 2006 through 2012 for Harrisburg Horizons newspaper. I hope to get the book published this year in electronic form and paperback.
Until my next blog post
Thank you for reading my blog. Everyone is busy, so I appreciate the time you took to read my post today.
I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading The Book of Lost Names, by Kristin Harmel.
If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you have satisfying creative time this week.
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, please wear a mask to protect the people around you. Even if you’re not displaying any symptoms of the virus, you could be carrying it and infecting others.