Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the first Native American Heritage Month declared by President George H.W. Bush. Here’s President Barack Obama’s proclamation for the 2015 NAHM.As part of this month’s commemoration, Neeta Lind (navajo) and I will be spotlighting some renowned and not-so-well-known American Indians, hoping to correct some myths and other misinformation along the way.

Today, the focus is on Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, who is known to most Americans as Chief Joseph, a leader of the Wallowa band of Nez Perce (Nimíipuu) of Oregon. He is best remembered for leading a nearly 1,200-mile flight of his people toward Canada to join the Hunkpapa Lakota Sitting Bull in 1877 at a time when the Army was penning up the Plains tribes on ever smaller reservations in the wake of the defeat of the Seventh Cavalry at Little Big Horn the year before.

As you can read in Elliott West’s The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story, it was a close thing. Joseph and his band almost made it to Canada, chased the entire distance by the one-armed Gen. Oliver Howard, Gen. Nelson Miles and their troopers. By the time the Nez Perce surrendered, many of the tribe’s leading warriors, including Joseph’s brother, were dead and everyone was starving.

At the time Joseph is said to have given a short statement, which has since become one of the most famous American Indian speeches of all time. It was published in a variety of newspapers and magazines immediately after the surrender and bringing brief celebrity to Joseph and his band which did not prevent the tribe from being removed for a time to Oklahoma, a trip that killed many and an exile that killed many more. The speech concludes with the words: “From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”

Lt. Charles Erskine Scott Wood said he had taken down those words as translated by Arthur Chapman and conveyed to him by Old George, a Nez Perce from another band. In other words, Joseph’s speech had come through at least two other people before Wood wrote down what were purportedly Joseph’s surrender words.

Chief Joseph's 1866, .44 cal. Winchester rifle surrendered in 1877.

Chief Joseph’s 1866, .44 cal. Winchester rifle surrendered in 1877.

But 60 years later, Wood claimed to have taken down Joseph’s words on the spot as he handed over his Winchester to General Miles. But that would have been impossible since Joseph did not speak English. After Wood’s death, the pencil draft of his original report came to light. In the margin, it read, “Here insert Joseph’s reply to the demand for surrender.” One scholar wrote that Wood, a published poet, seemed to have tried to make the speech into a sonnet. How much of it was invention we’ll probably never know. Possibly every word.There are, however, many verifiable remarks Chief Joseph made. Here is one he should always be remembered for:

“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 man would not let us alone. […]”If we ever owned the land we own it still, for we never sold it. In the treaty councils the commissioners have claimed that our country had been sold to the government. Suppose a white man should come to me and say, Joseph, I like your horses, and I want to buy them. Then he goes to my neighbor and says to him: ‘Joseph’s horses. I want to buy them,’ but he refuses to sell. My neighbor answers, ‘Pay me the 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 were bought.”

A banner of a Lakota covering their face with their hands. Our on-going series Invisible Indians from Native American Netroots