Chief Joseph – Nez Perce
1899 Map of Indian Nations
American Indians of the Pacific Northwest
Nez Perces Chief Joseph & Red Thunder pose with Edmund S. Meany, Washington, ca. 1903
Curtis, Edward S., 1868-1952
United States–Washington (State)–Seattle
Available Info On photo:
Left to Right
Chief Joseph and Red Thunder wearing headresses, with Edmund S. Meany (called Three Knives by Chief Joseph)
Nez Perce History
The Nez Perce, the largest ethnic group in the Columbia Plateau, were closely related to the Cayuse, Tenino and Umatilla tribes to their west. Their languages are closely related, all part of the Sahaptian branch of the Penutian language phylum. The Nez Perce were also heavily influenced by their Plains neighbors to the east. They acquired horses in the mid 1700’s and quickly became known for outstanding horsemanship. They maintained a traditional friendship with the Americans, and allied themselves closely with the other Penutian speakers, trading and hunting with them on generally good terms. They were much less friendly with the tribes to the south and east, especially the Shoshonis, Bannocks and Blackfeet.
The relatively peaceful relations with the white people came to an end in the 1870’s when the United States withdrew the reservation status of the Wallowa valley in northeastern Oregon in 1875. Chief Joseph (Hin-ma-toe-yah-laht-khit) led his band in the Nez Perce War. In 1877, his band was forced to retreat from the Wallowas, traveling 1,800 miles with U.S. Army in pursuit. The army caught up with the band in Montana, and Chief Joseph surrendered. In a speech that has become famous, he concludes with “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.”
The man who became a national celebrity with the name “Chief Joseph” was born in the Wallowa Valley in what is now northeastern Oregon in 1840. He was given the name Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, or Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain, but was widely known as Joseph, or Joseph the Younger, because his father had taken the Christian name Joseph when he was baptized at the Lapwai mission by Henry Spalding in 1838.
Joseph the Elder was one of the first Nez Percé converts to Christianity and an active supporter of the tribe’s longstanding peace with whites. In 1855 he even helped Washington’s territorial governor set up a Nez Percé reservation that stretched from Oregon into Idaho. But in 1863, following a gold rush into Nez Percé territory, the federal government took back almost six million acres of this land, restricting the Nez Percé to a reservation in Idaho that was only one tenth its prior size. Feeling himself betrayed, Joseph the Elder denounced the United States, destroyed his American flag and his Bible, and refused to move his band from the Wallowa Valley or sign the treaty that would make the new reservation boundaries official.
In 1855 Chief Joseph’s father, Old Joseph, signed a treaty with the U.S. that allowed his people to retain much of their traditional lands. In 1863 another treaty was created that severely reduced the amount of land, but Old Joseph maintained that this second treaty was never agreed to by his people.
When his father died in 1871, Joseph was elected to succeed him. He inherited not only a name but a situation made increasingly volatile as white settlers continued to arrive in the Wallowa Valley.
Chief Joseph, was best known for his resistance to the U.S. Government’s attempts to force his tribe onto reservations. The Nez Perce were a peaceful nation spread from Idaho to Northern Washington. The tribe had maintained good relations with the whites after the Lewis and Clark expedition. Joseph spent much of his early childhood at a mission maintained by Christian missionaries. Joseph staunchly resisted all efforts to force his band onto the small Idaho reservation, and in 1873 a federal order to remove white settlers and let his people remain in the Wallowa Valley made it appear that he might be successful. But the federal government soon reversed itself, and in 1877 General Oliver Otis Howard threatened a cavalry attack to force Joseph’s band and other hold-outs onto the reservation. Believing military resistance futile, Joseph reluctantly led his people toward Idaho.
Unfortunately, they never got there. About twenty young Nez Percé warriors, enraged at the loss of their homeland, staged a raid on nearby settlements and killed several whites. Immediately, the army began to pursue Joseph’s band and the others who had not moved onto the reservation. Although he had opposed war, Joseph joined the war leaders.
What followed was one of the most brilliant military retreats in American history. Even the unsympathetic General William Tecumseh Sherman could not help but be impressed with the 1,400 mile march, stating that “the Indians throughout displayed a courage and skill that elicited universal praise… [they] fought with almost scientific skill, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines, and field fortifications.” In over three months, the band of about 700, fewer than 200 of whom were warriors, fought 2,000 U.S. soldiers and Indian auxiliaries in four major battles and numerous skirmishes.
By the time he formally surrendered on October 5, 1877, Joseph was widely referred to in the American press as “the Red Napoleon.” It is unlikely, however, that he played as critical a role in the Nez Percé’s military feat as his legend suggests. He was never considered a war chief by his people, and even within the Wallowa band, it was Joseph’s younger brother, Olikut, who led the warriors, while Joseph was responsible for guarding the camp. It appears, in fact, that Joseph opposed the decision to flee into Montana and seek aid from the Crows and that other chiefs — Looking Glass and some who had been killed before the surrender — were the true strategists of the campaign. Nevertheless, Joseph’s widely reprinted surrender speech has immortalized him as a military leader in American popular culture:
“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.”
Joseph’s fame did him little good. He had surrendered with the understanding that he would be allowed to return home, Joseph and his people were instead taken first to eastern Kansas and then to a reservation in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) where many of them died of epidemic diseases. Although he was allowed to visit Washington, D.C., in 1879 to plead his case to U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes, it was not until 1885 that Joseph and the other refugees were returned to the Pacific Northwest. Even then, half, including Joseph, were taken to a non-Nez Percé reservation in northern Washington, separated from the rest of their people in Idaho and their homeland in the Wallowa Valley.
In his last years, Joseph spoke eloquently against the injustice of United States policy toward his people and held out the hope that America’s promise of freedom and equality might one day be fulfilled for Native Americans as well. An indomitable voice of conscience for the West, he died in 1904, still in exile from his homeland, according to his doctor “of a broken heart.”
Chief Joseph tried every possible appeal to the federal authorities to return the Nez Perce to the land of their ancestors. In 1885, he was sent along with many of his band to a reservation in Washington where, according to the reservation doctor, he later died of a broken heart.
Quotes from Chief Joseph
” I have carried a heavy load on my back ever since I was a boy. I realized then that we could not hold our own with the white men. We were like deer. They were like grizzly bears. We had 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 rivers and mountains if they did not suit them.”
“I am tired of fighting…. from where the sun now stands, I will fight no more.”
“Our fathers gave us many laws, which they had learned from their fathers. These laws were good. They told us to treat all people as they treated us; that we should never be the first to break a bargain; that is was a disgrace to tell a lie; that we should speak only the truth; that it was a shame for one man to take another his wife or his property without paying for it.”
“We were contented to let things remain as the Great Spirit made them.”
“Suppose a white man should come to me and say, “Joseph, I like your horses. I want to buy them.”
“I say to him, “No, my horses suit me; I will not sell them.”
“Then he goes to my neighbor and says, “Pay me money, and I will sell you Joseph’s horses.”
“The white man returns to me and says, “Joseph, I have bought your horses and you must let me have them.”
“If we sold our lands to the government, this is the way they bought them.”
“I am not a child, I think for myself. No man can think for me.”
“If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian, he can live in peace. Treat all men alike. Give them a chance to live and grow.”
“All men were made brothers. The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it. You might as well expect the rivers to run backward as that any man who was born free should be contented when penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases.”
“If you tie a horse to a stake, do you expect him to grow fat? If you pen an Indian up on a small spot of earth, and compel him to stay there, he will not be contented, nor will he grow and prosper.”
“The earth and myself are of one mind.”
“We were taught to believe that the Great Spirit sees and hears everything, and that he never forgets, that hereafter he will give every man a spirit home according to his deserts; If he has been a good man, he will have a good home; if he has been a bad man, he will have a bad home.”
“This I believe, and all my people believe the same.”
“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 all my horses and cattle.”
“Good words cannot give me back my children. Good words will not give my people good health and stop them from dying. Good words will not get 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.”
“It does not require many words to speak the truth.”
“We do not want churches because they will teach us to quarrel about God, as the Catholics and Protestants do. We do not want that.”
“We may quarrel with men about things on earth, but we never quarrel about the Great Spirit.”
“I believe much trouble and blood would be saved if we opened our harts more. I will tell you in my way how the Indian sees things. The white man has more words to tell you how they look to him, but is does not require many words to seek the truth.”
“Too many misinterpretations have been made… too many misunderstandings…”
“The Great Spirit Chief who rules above all will smile upon this land… and this time the Indian race is waiting and praying.”
“I am tired of talk that comes to nothing.”
Tombstone inscription facing the camera reads: He led his people in the Nez Perce War of 1877. Died Sept. 21, 1904. Aged about 60 years.
Chief Joseph’s tombstone,
Colville Indian Reservation, Washington, 1905
Three men in full ceremonial dress and a man in military uniform stand on a small wooden platform before the new tombstone. Two of the men have full feathered headdresses, the 3rd wears a fur & horns headdress. Their clothing is decorated and beaded, and man nearest camera holds a pipe. A blanket lays beside them on the platform. Wooden fence is visible in the background.
Chief Joseph Speeches
The first white men of your people who came to our country were named Lewis and Clark. They brought many things which our people had never seen. They talked straight and our people gave them a great feast as proof that their hearts were friendly. They made presents to our chiefs and our people made presents to them. We had a great many horses of which we gave them what they needed, and they gave us guns and tobacco in return. All the Nez Perce made friends with Lewis and Clark and agreed to let them pass through their country and never to make war on white men. This promise the Nez Perce have never broken.
For a short time we lived quietly. But this could not last. White men had 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.
On account of the treaty made by the other bands of the Nez Perce the white man claimed my lands. We were troubled with white men crowding over the line. Some of them were good men, and we lived on peaceful terms with them, but they were not all good. Nearly every year the agent came over from Lapwai and ordered us to the reservation. We always replied that we were satisfied to live in Wallowa. We were careful to refuse the presents or annuities which he offered.
Through all the years since the white man came to Wallowa we have been threatened and taunted by them and the treaty Nez Perce. They have given us no rest. 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.
[At his surrender in the Bear Paw Mountains, 1877]
Tell General Howard that 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, Tu-hul-hil-sote is dead. the old men are all dead. It is the young men who now say yes or no. He who led the young men [Joseph’s brother Alikut] 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 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.
[On a visit to Washington, D.C., 1879]
At last I was granted permission to come to Washington and bring my friend Yellow Bull and our interpreter with me. 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 cannot understand why so many chiefs are allowed to talk so many different ways, and promise so many different things. I have seen the Great Father Chief [President Hayes]; the Next Great Chief [Secretary of the Interior]; the Commissioner Chief; the Law Chief; and many other law chiefs [Congressmen] and they all say they are my friends, and that I shall have justice, but while all their mouths talk right I do not understand why nothing is done for my people. 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. If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian he can live in peace. There need be no trouble. Treat all men alike. Give them the same laws. Give them all an even chance to live and grow. All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers. The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it. You might as well expect all rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases. If you tie a horse to a stake, do you expect he will grow fat? If you pen an Indian up on a small spot of earth and compel him to stay there, he will not be contented nor will he grow and prosper. I have asked some of the Great White Chiefs where they get their authority to say to the Indian that he shall stay in one place, while he sees white men going where they please. They cannot tell me.
I only ask of the Government to be treated as all other men are treated. If I cannot go to my own home, let me have a home in a country where my people will not die so fast. I would like to go to Bitter Root Valley. There my people would be happy; where they are now they are dying. Three have died since I left my camp to come to Washington.
When I think of our condition, my heart is heavy. I see men of my own race treated as outlaws and driven from country to country, or shot down like animals.
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.
Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekht has spoken for his people.
Bird’s eye view of Indians on horseback parading around the inside circle of tepees, ca. 1900-1910. In the center of the tepees is a large wooden structure on which people are standing. Outside the circle to the left and to the back are smaller wooden structures.
University of Washington Native American History Archives (Images and text)
[TEXT: Chester Anders Fee, Chief Joseph: The Biography of a Great Indian, Wilson-Erickson, 1936.]
This article compiled by Sandra Hartle using above resources. All copyrights to materials used are retained by those who provided the material, originating source indicated that images were public domain and made available by those who owned them for educational purposes, which is the intent of the pages provided on this site.
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