Chief Joseph

I’m ashamed to say that I know very little of the history of Indian people because whenever I approach it, it makes me cry. Not in a superficial way, but deep in my spirit. And then I am crying for all of humanity, because Native American history is the story of virtue’s failure in the terrible conquest that gave birth to America.

It is the story of evil winning out over good and it wounds me. It is the story of the world, and greed, and man’s struggle for dominion in an attempt to shoo away the irrational fear that devours a mind which doesn’t recognize the beautiful indestructible light at the center of all beings. The fear that nurtures the incorrect belief that by taking from another one will somehow have enough.

The worst thing about Native history is that it’s a story nobody really wants to hear or tell, and so it goes untold. We get the Columbus fairy tale instead, and little white American children go on safe in their belief that they are entitled to what they have. We are told that Native Americans were a proud and vanquished race; that we exist only in some distant wild west that has been tamed, and finding no place for ourselves in this new world, we simply vanished.

This is my first attempt at writing something about Native history. I have started with Chief Joseph because he is a prominent figure and was a leader in the same region as my tribe. He was also leading his people at the same time that my ancestor Chowitsoot was a signatory on the Treaty of Point Elliot. He is interesting to me because when I was a child I wondered what would have happened to our people if Chowitsoot resisted. In looking at the story of Chief Joseph, I have my answer. I admire his courageous leadership during such troubled times, when there were no good answers for Native people.

“It does not require many words to speak the truth.” –Chief Joseph

10 true things about Chief Joseph

1. On his death bed his father told him, “Always remember that your father never sold his country. You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home. A few years more and white men will be all around you. They have their eyes on this land. My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your father’s body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother.”

2. A gold rush brought a reversal of US policy In 1877. The Nez Perce people were to be forcibly removed to the Nez Perce reservation in Lapwai, Idaho, so evil greedy whites could mine gold. People don’t every really say it like that though. They use lots of words to water it down and try to make it something else, but really it’s just evil and theft.

3. He is quoted as saying, “I clasped my father’s hand and promised to do as he asked. A man who would not defend his father’s grave is worse than a wild beast.”

4. At the urging of the Nez Perce council he led an 1170 mile fighting retreat which lasted 3 months and ended in surrender 40 miles from the refuge offered by Soiux Chief, Sitting Bull at the Canadian border. During the battle, 150 of his people died.

5. It ended in the winter.

6. Little children froze to death.

7. His words of surrender are perhaps his most famous, though people claim they were written by the poet, Charles Erskine Scott Wood. The words are, “I will fight no more forever.”

8. After his surrender he and his people suffered many more injustices at the hands of the US Government. These injustices have still not been resolved and have been inflicted on Natives of all tribes throughout the history of our dealings with white people.

9. His Indian name, Hinmuuttu-yalatlat’, means “Thunder Rolling Down the Mountains.” We know him only as Chief Joseph. His Indian name is better.

10. His doctor said he died of a broken heart.

The Surrender Speech

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.