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Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

Sunflower Seeds

Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce People

I just finished reading a beautiful though immensely sad book, Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce by Kent Nerburn. The book covers a pivotal time in U.S. history. In the 1800’s, hordes of pioneers were pushing westward and settling on land already inhabited for centuries by Native Americans. One of those tribes was the Nez Perce, led by Chief Joseph.

Born in 1840, Chief Joseph was named Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, meaning “Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain.” Like his father, he was baptized Joseph. In the early 1870’s, he succeeded his father as leader of one of the bands of the Nez Perce, a tribe in the Northwest region of the U.S. A number of violent encounters with white settlers in 1877, culminated with the Nez Perce—including women and children—fleeing for their lives. Led by Joseph and others, they had hoped to reach Canada beyond the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army. Sitting Bull and some Lakotas were already there. About 700 members of the tribe were pursued for 1,170 miles (across present day Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana) by the U.S. Army under General Oliver Howard. After months of resistance, the Nez Perce were cornered in Northern Montana territory, 40 miles from the Canadian border. Realizing that further fighting would obliterate the tribe, Joseph agreed to peace talks. In his mind, some say, he did not surrender. He simply stopped fighting when General Howard promised him that his people could safely return to the reservation in western Idaho.

But the U.S. government in Washington nullified Howard’s promise and ordered the army to transport what was left of the Nez Perce to “Indian Territory” (Oklahoma) where other tribes had already been “resettled.” Thus, Joseph and his people began a second excruciating trek. At Fort Leavenworth, Kansas they were treated as prisoners of war with little shelter and meager rations. During their 8-month encampment there, many died of disease, starvation, and exposure. By the time they reached Oklahoma, their number was down to 300, half of them having died en route. But in Oklahoma they were not welcome, for the land there was already claimed by other tribes. After seven years of pleading, Joseph and his people were finally transported to the Colville Indian Reservation in the state of Washington, still far from their native land. In 1904 Joseph died there (in the words of the attending doctor) “of a broken heart.”

What struck me while reading this book:

+ Chief Joseph was absolutely devoted to his people. He had promised his dying father two things: that he would take care of his people and he would never forsake the land of his ancestors. Historic circumstances decimated his people and prevented him from keeping his second promise too.

The green is the original Nez Perce territory. The brown within the green was the reduced reservation of 1863. The Colville Reservation is in brown in the upper left.

+ During the so called “Indian Wars,” Congress debated about what to do with the “Indian Problem.” Three options were discussed: 1) Exterminate the Indians. The U.S. could not afford to care for these “perpetual prisoners.” 2) Chase them into Mexico and Canada and let those countries deal with them. 3) Restrict them to reservations and force them to discard their native ways, that is, their traditions, religion, manner of dress, and even language. Educate them in white men’s schools. Turn them into farmers and thus assimilate them into the American way of life.

+ The U.S. Military did not want to care for the defeated Indians because it was draining their budget. So they eagerly handed over the tribes to the Department of Interior. Unfortunately, some of the “Indian Agents” were cruel and ruthless men, stealing provisions meant for the Indians and treating them inhumanely.

+ Communication with Native Americans was difficult. Few people understood their languages. History has shown that some translators were incompetent or even untrustworthy. The famous words attributed to Chief Joseph, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever,” may not have been what he actually said.

+ Chief Joseph made the long journey to Washington, D.C. several times to plead for fair treatment of his people. Over the years he met with three Presidents: Grant, Hayes, and Teddy Roosevelt. In the press, he became something of a celebrity. Unfortunately, people were more interested in his native dress than in his words.

Let me leave you with Chief Joseph’s plea to the U.S. government: “Treat all men alike. Give them the same law. Give them all an even chance to live and grow… For this time the Indian people are waiting and praying.”

Judging by recent headlines, Native Americans and some other Americans are still waiting for this plea to be fulfilled.

Let us conclude with a beautiful Native American Prayer Song:

What stands out for you in this brief reflection on Chief Joseph?

We cannot do anything about the sins and injustices of the past. But we can do something about the sins and injustices of the present. How are you involved in doing this—through prayer? volunteering? educating yourself on current issues? communicating with government officials? financial support? other things?

I welcome you to respond below:

20 Responses

  1. Sr. Melannie,

    In these times of discontent where the poor and lowly are just set aside much like the Nez Perce, I have tried to become more politically aware. Signing petitions, sharing posts, and last weekend attending are just a few ways that I hope to stand up for those who cannot speak.

    Thank you for sharing Chief Joseph’s story. We all need to remember that pain of his people.


  2. Sr. Melanie,
    Hopefully we can learn from history and apply its lessons to our world today, and not repeat the sins of the past. Easier said than done. In my own little part of the world, I do volunteer tutoring with homeless and dispossessed school children. I can’t control the policies of those in power, but I can extend a helping hand to those who are in need. Thank you, Sister.
    Ed J.

  3. Jim Wallis wrote a book: American’s Original Sin. The “original sin” of which we have still not recognized nor repented for is: “The U.S. was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.” Thank you for your reflection. It is painful to read but so necessary.

  4. We cannot typically use the term “white” so loosely as to cause negative connotations on a particular race per se. The country is divided enough. Please do not do it a further disservice with harsh criticisms. Let’s continue to strive for solutions of peace, service, and prayers.
    “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”
    The fruit of silence is prayer
    The fruit of prayer is faith
    The fruit of faith is love
    The fruit of love is service
    He fruit of service is peace
    St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta

    1. Roseann, I agree. It is interesting that the tribes already settled in Oklahoma did not welcome Chief Joseph’s tribe with open arms. Are they not then, at least partially responsible for the demise of the Nez Perce? I am not excusing the actions of the settlers and the government, but apparently it is not acceptable to say that before we showed up, aboriginal tribes were busy trying to annihilate each other.
      You cannot feel guilty for something you didn’t do.

  5. When our Commander-in-Chief does not choose to learn about the history of our nation – both its good and bad governmental decisions, we have to speak for those who are harmed by his administrative directives. If we remain silent, we send the message of tactical approval and compliance.

  6. Sister Melannie,

    Thank you so much for this post. In my younger years I was always aware of this situation because of the reservation out in eastern Long Island. Presently, all I can do is contribute to St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, SD. My daughter and her husband attend the summer festivities at the eastern LI reservation. I will now add additional prayers that “all may become equal.”


  7. simiilar groups led by their desire to follow “HIS” teachings and when they succeed power plays who will rule the rest– dignity consideration teachings do unto others as you would like to be treated
    forgotten mine and yours

  8. A friend of mine, Merita, teaches English as a second language to adults who have come to our country for a safer and better life for themselves and their families. When I read about Chief Joseph and his efforts to protect his people I felt his frustration, his realization that the decisions being made by others were totally out of his control, and his sadness that his people were being punished just for being themselves. These are the same things I feel are happening to Merita’s students. They are aware that their tutors and others are praying for them and trying to do whatever they can to help.

  9. Dear Sister Melannie,
    Thank you for sharing the story of Chief Joseph, an incredibly noble chief of an incredibly noble people. We are all connected through Jesus, and so I feel a pang of guilt and shame. The Native American prayer read like a beautiful (but sad) psalm.

  10. We can’t undo the past but we can act in the present. Contributing to the American Indian College Fund is one way I feel I am addressing past injustice. Thank you for writing about such an important subject. I agree with others–let’s be aware of how others are being treated.

  11. Also recommend the book, Crazy Horse. Another amazing leader and person with deep Faith. Also, a sad commentary on this period of our history.

  12. I have always felt a kinship with our Native American tribes. I have a deep respect for their culture and their ways. They have always respected the land they lived on and never wasted anything from animals they hunted for food. It is a travesty the way our country has treated them. Remember they were kind to the pilgrims and taught our forefathers how to live on this land. This would never happen in todays world where all are free to worship and live as they choose.
    If I were ever lucky enough to win a lot of money in the lottery, a chunk of it would be given to help these wonderful people in whatever manner is most needed.

  13. Dear Sister Melannie,
    A few weeks ago, I finished reading Black Elk Speaks. He was the chief and visionary of some of the Lakota people, who as you pointed out, had made the trek to Canada at this very disappointing and desperate time in our history.
    In the 1930s, when a Nebraska poet, named John G. Neihardt approached Black Elk to tell his life story and the story of the “withering tree of his people,” Neihardt was stunned that Black Elk agreed.
    Their collaboration led to a book named one of the ten best spiritual books of the twentieth century.
    I was amazed at the depth of the Native American prayer life. The prayer song you selected is one of many in the book. Through Black Elk’s narrative, he humbly demonstrates that all humanity prays the same prayer of glory to the same bountiful Maker of all. Today, we add our prayer to his that we may each learn from our fears.
    Thank you, Sister. God bless you. Joanne

  14. Dear Readers:
    Yesterday’s headlines: The Cleveland Indians are retiring Chief Wahoo, the caricature of a Native American that has been the team’s symbol for about 70 years. Many of us in the Cleveland area rejoicing. It is one small step in the right direction. Sr. Melannie

  15. Several years ago I read the story of Chief Joseph. Unfortunately, we have not learned from the sins of our ancestors. Case in point, our broken immigration system, particularly DACA.
    Another thing I am very concerned about is my state’s (Florida) refusal to allow felons to vote. I have been involved in collecting signatures to put an amendment on the ballot to rectify this situation. Finally, this fall the people will have a say.
    My husband and I also chair a support group for families with incarcerated loved ones. There is so much to do and if we are not involved in the solution, we are part of the problem.

  16. Someday future generations will look back on what we’ve done to non-human species and perhaps feel the same sadness many today feel in regard to what has been done to native peoples. Are we not doing the same thing to the many creatures who share our land, the land that we claim to “own,” without including or even considering them in our decisions? Do we not drive the wild animals to “reservations” so that we can raise livestock for food and other products that require 18 times the resources of plants? We so often take their land for more buildings without a thought as to how they are to survive or travel to water sources. Not to mention the litter that we create and leave that is harmful to so many creatures…. How would we feel if we were trees who could not walk away from the trash tossed into their living spaces? I hope and dream of a better world. I hope we won’t kill that little root of the sacred tree that still lives.

  17. Advocacy is so very important….our Institute of the Sisters of Mercy website has a justice link….anyone can receive an Action Alert via email if you sign up…it helps…

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Hi and welcome to my blog! I’m Sister Melannie, a Sister of Notre Dame residing in Chardon, Ohio, USA. I’ve been very lucky! I was raised in a loving family on a small farm in northeast Ohio. I also entered the SNDs right after high school. Over the years, my ministries have included high school and college teaching, novice director, congregational leadership, spiritual direction, retreat facilitating, and writing. I hope you enjoy “Sunflower Seeds” and will consider subscribing below. I’d love to have you in our “sunflower community.” Thank you!

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