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Chief Joseph, leader of a Nez Perce band that lived in the Wallowa River Valley of present-day Oregon, embodies Native American heroism. With his courage and wisdom, he offered his people hope for the future; with his intelligence and oratory skills, he impressed his white adversaries. Best remembered for his leadership during the Nez Perce War of 1877 and the eloquence of his surrender speech, Chief Joseph was also highly respected by numerous white Americans for his attempts to negotiate his people’s return to the Wallowa Valley following their surrender.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
By the time Chief Joseph was born in the Wallowa Valley in what is now Oregon, his people were well known to nineteenth-century white settlers in the Pacific Northwest. Although his given name was Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, or Thunder Rolling in the Mountains, he was widely known as Joseph, or Joseph the Younger, because his father, one of the first Nez Perce to convert to Christianity, had adopted the Christian name Joseph.” The Nez Perce had maintained peaceful relations with the settlers since their 1805 encounter with the Lewis and Clark expedition, and Joseph the Younger was educated in Christian mission schools.
As white settlement increased during the 1850s, the United States federal government pressured the Nez Perce to sign treaties relinquishing their territories in exchange for money and reservation land in western Idaho. However, following an 1863 gold rush into Nez Perce territory, the federal government took back almost six million acres of this land. Once a proponent of amiable dealings with the settlers, Joseph the Elder denounced the United States and refused to both move his tribe from the Wallowa Valley and sign the agreement that would officially recognize the new reservation’s boundaries.
Like his father, whom he succeeded as chief in 1871, Chief Joseph and other Nez Perce chieftains questioned the validity of the U.S. government’s treaties, arguing that the signers did not represent all of the Nez Perce people. For the next six years, Chief Joseph and his band passively resisted white encroachment until 1877, when even more whites began settling in the Wallowa Valley. The federal government gave the Nez Perce living in the region thirty days to relocate to western Idaho, threatening a cavalry attack to force Chief Joseph and his people onto the reservation.
Retreat and Surrender
Enraged and unwilling to submit to such intrusion, Nez Perce warriors mounted a series of attacks on the settlers. As the U.S. Army detached troops for retaliation, Chief Joseph and approximately eight hundred Nez Perce men, women, and children retreated from the Wallowa Valley and headed to Canada. Pursued by federal troops, the Nez Perce trekked across Idaho, Ohio, Montana, and Washington under the military leadership of Chief Joseph. During the march, which lasted several months, the Nez Perce engaged U.S. troops on at least thirteen occasions and either defeated them or fought them to a standstill.
After traveling more than fourteen hundred miles, Chief Joseph and his band were finally surrounded by federal forces in the Bear Paw Mountains of Montana, only thirty miles from the Canadian border. On October 5, 1877, Chief Joseph surrendered, giving his famous speech to an Army scout who then relayed the message to American commanders. Although the band of Native Americans under Chief Joseph surrendered, approximately two hundred other Nez Perce did manage to reach Canada.
Much to Chief Joseph’s dismay, the terms under which he surrendered were not upheld. Instead of being allowed to return to a reservation in the Wallowa Valley, Chief Joseph and his people were relocated to reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma, where many of them became sick and died. He traveled to Washington, D.C., twice in 1879 to present his case to the federal government, and in its April 1879 issue, the North American Review published ”An Indian’s Views of Indian Affairs,” an article written by Chief Joseph that gave an account of his people’s dealings with the whites.
During his trips east, Chief Joseph gained the respect and support of many influential Americans who lobbied the federal government for the return of his people to the Pacific Northwest. In 1885, the Nez Perce were relocated to a reservation in Idaho. For the remainder of his life, Chief Joseph lived on various reservations in the Northwest and continued his efforts to negotiate his people’s return to the Wallowa Valley. On September 21,1904, Chief Joseph died alone in his lodge, still in exile from his homeland; his doctor reported that he died of a broken heart.
Works in Literary Context
Chief Joseph has proven to be an enduring symbol of the tragedy suffered by nineteenth-century Native Americans. Chief Joseph’s popularity with the American public has been partly a result of the fact that his powerful speeches and writings carry strong echoes of a familiar theme: freedom. According to scholar David M. Buerge,
—– Sympathy for Joseph and the cause of his people has never flagged,… and his dramatic appeal has not lessened, and his poignant efforts to sustain his peoples’ hopes continue to haunt the popular mind. He remains an outstanding native leader and his appeal to both native and white audiences serves, as he had hoped it would, as a bridge of understanding between two races estranged and yet bound together by history.
Linguists often commend the simplicity and conciseness of Native American languages. Free from the English language’s rules of rhetoric, Native Americans could eloquently express their feelings with a directness not commonly found in the orations of white men. Scholar Thomas H. Guthrie quotes John Hecke-welder in 1819: ”The eloquence of the Indians is natural and simple; they speak what their feelings dictate… and when they mean to persuade . . . they take the shortest way to reach the heart.” (In fact, Chief Joseph repeatedly referred to his heart and the hearts of others when addressing the whites.) Guthrie reasons that ”a thought presented in one word is more vivid and stimulating to the imagination, more individual and picturesque, than when narrated in a number of words.” As evidenced by the brevity of Chief Joseph’s surrender speech, he surely understood the force of his succinct sentiment.
The main message of Joseph’s surrender speech, and a theme found also in ”An Indian’s Views of Indian Affairs,” is that of pacifism, or the rejection of violence as a means to solve problems. The most famous line of his surrender speech is its last: ”From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” In these words, Chief Joseph expresses his realization that the war against white settlers was not worth the cost paid by his people, and that other solutions must be found. In ”An Indian’s Views of Indian Affairs,” Chief Joseph states that violence was never initiated by his people, and that the only thing he and his tribe members seek is fairness and the fulfillment of promises made by the United States government.
Works in Critical Context
As the public became increasingly aware of Chief Joseph’s story, he emerged as a champion of freedom. Along with ”An Indian’s Views of Indian Affairs,” every speech he presented and every interview he granted received favorable press. Whether or not they agreed with his position, audiences throughout the United States recognized that Chief Joseph’s eloquent arguments came from an intelligent and penetrating mind.
When Chief Joseph surrendered, the American press widely referred to him as the ”Red Napoleon,” an insult comparing the Nez Perce chief to Napoleon Bonaparte, the French Emperor (1804-1815) who was forced twice to surrender to opposing forces and eventually exiled to an island under British supervision. However, public perception of the Nez Perce leader changed markedly when Chief Joseph’s surrender speech circulated in print, followed by ”An Indian’s Views of Indian Affairs.” Even his harshest critics were impressed by the intensity of his writing. Indeed, writes Native American scholar Buerge,
The beauty and sadness of his surrender speech, his compelling argument on his peoples’ behalf, and the sheer moral force of his presence won him admiration and even adulation among those disposed to be sympathetic toward his people. As a man of principle and courage defeated by a powerful and relentless foe, he became an attractive symbol to many.
- Brown, Mark H. The Flight of the Nez Perce. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1967.
- Chalmers, Harvey. The Last Stand of the Nez Perce: Destruction of a People. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1962.
- Josephy, Alivin. The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965.
- McAuliffe, Bill. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce: A Photo-Illustrated Biography. Mankato, Minn.:Bridgestone Books, 1998.
- Shaughnessy, Diane, and Jack Carpenter. Chief Joseph: Nez Perce Peacekeeper. New York: Rosen Publishing Group’s PowerKids Press, 1997.
- Taylor, Marian W. Chief Joseph: Nez Perce Leader. New York: Chelsea, 1993.
- Warren, Robert Penn. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. New York: Random House, 1983.
- Yates, Diana. Chief Joseph: Thunder Rolling Down from the Mountains. Staten Island, N.Y.: Ward Hill Press,1992.
- Buerge, David M. Chief Seattle and Chief Joseph: From Indians to Icons. Retrieved August 27, 2008, from http://content.lib.washington.edu/aipnw/ buerge2.html.
- Guthrie, Thomas H. Good Words: Chief Joseph and the Production of Indian Speech(es), Texts, and Subjects. Retrieved August 25, 2008, from http:// ethnohistory.dukejournals.org/cgi/reprint/54/3/ 509.pdf.
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