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.
+ 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: