The Nez Perce

by Mitakuye Oyasin

Part l: A Son's Promise

In 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition stumbled out of the Rocky Mountains, weakened by hunger and disease, and fell into the caring arms of the Nez Perce. The Nez Perce, named by French trappers because a few of them pierced their noses to wear dentalium shells, were a peaceful tribe of about 2,500 living in northeastern Oregon and parts of Idaho. They were horse breeders known for the development of the Appaloosa; they farmed, hunted and fished, and became quickly adept at cattle raising.

The Lewis and Clark expedition, recovered from dysentery and hunger, left Its horses with them for several months and took canoes to continue its trek to the Pacific. The friendship with the white man was begun on such a positive note that, for the next 72 years, no Nez Perce would ever shoot at a white man. LIttle did they suspect that the glowing reports of the expedition they had saved would spread like wildfire among the restless whites on the other side of Turtle Island, and that the floodgates to the Promised Land, their own land, would be opened by the success of the expedition.

On January 14,1879, a man called Chief Joseph, head of the Wallowa band of Nez Perce, spoke to a gathering of congressmen and other leaders in Washington, D.C., in which he presented a brief history of his people's dealings with the white man and his government. (The speech in its entirety is found in The Wisdom of the Great Chiefs, edited by Kent Nerburn.) Young Chief Joseph was only 38 years old and had been chief since the death of his father, Old Joseph, in 1871.

In his speech, Chief Joseph points with pride to a long history of friendship with the white man. When his father was a young man, a white man named Rev. Henry H. Spaulding, came to the Nez Perce and ''talked of spirit law.'' The people listened and learned from him because ''he spoke good things to them.'' Old Joseph became a Christian and received a Bible as a gift from Rev. Spaulding.

Then other white men started trickling in, building houses and making farms. ''At first,'' says Joseph, ''our people made no complaint. They thought there was room enough for all to live in peace, and they were learning many things from the white men that seemed to be good.

''But we soon found that the white men were growing rich very fast, and were greedy to possess everything the Indian had. My father was the first to see through the schemes of the white men, and he warned his tribe to be careful about trading with them. He had suspicion of men who seemed anxious to make money.''

Joseph was only a boy at the tine, but he never forgot the words of caution by his father. Then, in 1855, Governor Isaac Stevens of the Washington Territory, invited the Nez Perce to a meeting. ''He said there were a great many white people in our country, and many more would come; that he wanted the land marked out so that the Indians and the white men could be separated. If they were to live in peace it was necessary, he said, that the Indians should have a country set apart for them, and in that country they must stay.'' His father refused to have anything to do with the treaty for two very solid reasons: first, he and his people were free and wanted to stay that way; second, the land was not owned by any man and therefore could not be sold.

It was then that the Rev. Spaulding showed his true colors and urged Old Joseph to sign the treaty. Old Joseph was incensed that his friend in spirit matters should be urging him to sign away his country. Some of the other chiefs signed the treaty for their bands and so received blankets and annuities. Old Joseph cautioned his people against taking anything from the white man because it will be claimed ''that he has purchased your land with his gifts.'' The time would soon come when Old Joseph would even tear up the Bible that Rev. Spaulding had given him. You can sense his frustration at being invaded, pushed and shoved from every direction.

Eight years later, in 1863, another treaty council was called. At this council, one of the band chiefs, a man called Lawyer because he spoke so fluently, took the leadership of the council and proceeded to do the unthinkable. He sold most of the Nez Perce country. He did not have the authority to do this, but he did it anyway. Old Joseph, representing the Wallowa Nez Perce, did not even attend the council. He wasn't interested in surrendering his ancestral homeland. In fact, he planted poles around the borders of Wallowa and, noting that all of his band were born within its boundaries and all their forefathers were burled there, declared that his people will never give up these graves.

Even though the United States claimed to have bought all the Nez Perce land, including the Wallowa country, they did not push their claIm agaInst Old Joseph for the next few years. And until about 1871, settlers did not cross the boundaries laid out by the old chief. But it had to happen. And when it did, they were warned but refused to leave. To the settlers' trespass, they added lies that went all the way to Washington. D.C. They accused the Nez Perce of stealing their cattle when, in fact, it was the white men stealing the Nez Perce's cattle. They also said that the Nez Perce were threatening to go on the war path, an assertion totally unfounded.

At about this time, Old Joseph called his son to his deathbed, and, taking his hand, said, ''When I am gone, think of your country. You are the chief of these people.... Always remember that your father never sold this country. You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home. A few more years, 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 mother.''

Young Chief Joseph promised to protect his father's grave with his life. He concluded, ''My father smiled and passed away to the spirit land.'' And the quiet that followed was only the eye of a great storm.

Part II, Blessed Are the Greedy

Following the promise of young Chief Joseph to his father as he lay dying, the cancerous invasion of the white man into the lands of the Wallowa Nez Perce went into remission. Then someone discovered gold in the mountains around ''the land of winding water,'' and the cancer was back.

Not all white men were bad; some of them were even considered by the Nez Perce to be friends. But greed was the god of far too many of these alien creatures. They stole horses and cattle from the Nez Perce, branding them so they could clam them, and knowing full well that the Nez Perce were not strong enough to fight them. There was no one in the white man's law councils who would listen to any grievance from a Native.

You can sense the frustration of young Chief Joseph as he tells the government officials of his hopeless efforts to keep the peace. ''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.

''We could have avenged our wrongs many times, but we did not....When the white men were few and we were strong, we could have killed them all off, but the Nez Perce wished to live at peace.

''If we have not done so, we have not been to blame. I believe that the old treaty has never been correctly reported. If we ever owned the land we own it still, for we never sold it.''

He likened the ''sale'' of Wallowa land to a white man who comes to him to buy his horses. Joseph refuses to sell, so the white man goes to a neighbor and tells him that he wants to buy Joseph's horses, and the neighbor sells them, pocketing the money. The white man then comes back to Joseph and announces that he has bought his horses and Joseph must turn them over to him. ''If we sold our lands to the government,'' he declared, ''this is the way they were bought.''

In June of 1873, two years after the death of his father, young Chief Joseph made an appeal to President Grant to let his people stay on the land that had always belonged to them, and in a surprise move, President Grant issued an executive order granting the request. Wallowa Valley could no longer be settled by white men. Two years later, Grant changed his mind and issued a proclamation reopening the Wallowa Valley to white settlement.

The new edict from Grant did not demand immediate removal of the Wallowa Nez Perce to the Lapwai Reservation in Idaho, but the threat of removal to this overcrowded concentration camp hung over them like an ominous cloud for the next two years. In May of 1877, the wait was over. Manifest Destiny must have its way, especially considering that the Sioux had wiped out Custer's command in Montana in June of the preceding year. How dare they fight for the right to live like free people!

To do its dirty work, the government sent an old Civil War general with one arm, General Oliver Otis Howard, to clear the way for white settlement of the Wallowa Valley. With his career on the line as a military leader, and as a practical man well aware that his superiors would not tolerate softness with the Indians, he forsook justice in exchange for his own well-being. He admitted privately that Joseph and the Wallowa band of Nez Perce should be left alone, and then proceeded in his dealing with them as a heartless and unreasonable despot.

In a council meeting with Joseph and other leaders of the Nez Perce, Howard gave them thirty days to get off their land and on to the Lapwai Reservation. Joseph pleaded for more time. The Snake River was flooded, their stock was scattered, and in the fall the river would be passable. General Howard threatened that if they took one more day than the thirty allotted, his troops would be there to take them by force.

Joseph had fewer than a hundred warriors and he knew that his people would not stand a chance in a fight. With the promise he made to his father hanging over his head, and in spite of some of his leaders being ready to fight, he urged peaceful compliance with the demand to move. They gathered what they could and began the journey. Miraculously, the buffalo-hide rafts got the people across the swollen and treacherous Snake River, but they lost many of their animals to the current.

His other leaders incensed, they demanded that the march stop in Rocky Canyon so that a council could be held. The prophet Too-hool-hool-suit, Joseph's brother OIlokot, and White Bird all spoke for fighting. Joseph again counseled peace and was called a coward, but he prevailed.

During this ten day period, some young warriors, seeking to avenge the death of loved ones at the hands of white men, left camp and kindled the flames of war. They killed four white men against whom they had major grievances. In 72 years of dealings with the white man, the Nez Perce could claim that they had never killed one. No more would that claim be made.

It was not an easy decision for Joseph. He would gladly have given his own life to undo what his young warriors had done. But these were his people, and they were not entirely to blame. He decided to try to lead his people to the buffalo country in Montana, thinking that there they would be safe from General Howard's troops. He quickly led his people to White Bird Creek, 16 miles away, where they could gather their stock and prepare for the journey.

No one could have predicted what happened next.

Part III, Flight Fight

The Wallowa band of the Nez Perce consisted of 60 warriors and a couple hundred women, children and elderly. In preparation for their flight from General Howard's troops, they had fled to White Bird Creek, just shy of the Salmon River. There they intended to gather their stock and head through the mountains for Montana. Chief Joseph had no idea that General Howard's troops would pursue them into another jurisdiction or territory, and there was some talk about seeking shelter with the Crow Indians in Montana until they could decide what to do.

A cavalry detachment of 100 men attacked them at White Bird Creek. In a few minutes, the survivors fled to their fort in complete disorder One of the Nez Perce had killed the bugler, so none of the soldiers knew what to do. Chief Joseph relates, ''The fight lasted but a few minutes, when the soldiers retreated before us for twelve miles. They lost thirty-three killed, and had seven wounded.

''When an Indian fights,'' explained Chief Joseph, ''he only shoots to kill. But soldiers shoot at random. None of the soldiers were scalped. We do not believe in scalping, nor in killing wounded men. Soldiers do not kill many Indians unless they are wounded and left upon the battlefield. Then they kill Indians.''

It took General Howard a week to return to White Bird Creek, this time with 700 men. In the meantime, Chief Looking Glass and his band of Nez Perce had left the Lapwai Reservation and joined forces with Chief Joseph. This brought their fighting force up to 250 men, and the women, children, and elderly accounted for another 450.

The plan of the Nez Perce was simple. Cross the Salmon River and draw Howard's troops after them. Then get behind them, cut them off from their supplies, and start fighting. It worked. Over the next several days, the battles continued in a hit-hard-then-retreat formula, and Howard's troops were suffering many dead and wounded.

Then the Nez Perce withdrew, heading northeast towards the Lolo Trail and the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana. If necessary because of pursuit, they planned to go north to Canada and join Sitting Bull, who had fled there after the Little Big Horn. They quickly outdistanced the slower soldiers, even with their families and herds slowing them down. They knew the land from many hunts over the years.

As they filed down the narrow trail near the mouth of Lolo Creek they spotted some soldiers who had set up a barricade. Instead of fighting, these soldiers finally agreed to let the Nez Perce pass through in peace. The commanding officer probably saw little point in starting a fight that he couldn't win, especially since he knew General Howard's troops were on the way. He also knew that Col. John Gibbon and his troops were on a forced march from the east, forming a pincer movement against the Indians. (Gibbon was aching for a fight ever since he had arrived at the Little Big Horn the day after Custer was wiped out.)

The Nez Perce knew nothing of Gibbon's approach from the east. They turned south to Big Hole, a favorite hunting ground, and decided to stay there, hunting, resting, and trading with the white men in one of the settlements. They came to believe that the trouble was over. It had been over a month since the first battle at White Bird Creek. On the night of August 9, Gibbon's forces surrounded the Nez Perce camp and attacked at dawn. The orders of General Gibbon were to take no prisoners, men or women.

In a furious counter attack, the Nez Perce inflicted heavy losses on Gibbon's men, destroyed his cannons, and captured his powder and ammunition. They remained only long enough to bury the 80 casualties they had suffered, mostly women and children. Chief Joseph stated, ''The Nez Perce never make war on women and children. We could have killed a great many women and children while the war lasted, but we would feel ashamed to do so cowardly an act.'' So who was the savage?

The Nez Perce fled as rapidly as they could in a southerly direction towards the Yellowstone Basin. After six days, General Howard came close enough that the Nez Perce attacked, capturing most of his mules and horses, before continuing their flight. On August 22, they went through Targhee Pass into Yellowstone Park. General Sherman happened to be in Yellowstone at the time, trying to figure out how this ragtag bunch of Indians could make fools out of his army. And when he found out the Nez Perce were near his camp, he sent out an urgent call to all forts in the area to send troops. The nearest help came from the revitalized 7th Cavalry of Custer infamy. They attacked the Nez Perce but were held at bay while a northward escape to Canada was executed.

A few men had covered their retreat, and then it was quiet again. By the end of September, they crossed the Missouri River and set up camp at Bear Paw Mountains, 40 miles from the Canadian border. After four months of fighting and running, they were hungry, tired, and badly in need of a little time to recoup before going on. Their scouts had seen no sign of soldiers, and they felt secure.

They had no way of knowing that Col. ''Bearcoat'' Miles was on a forced march from Ft. Keogh, and that this day of rest for them was the one day that Miles needed to reach them and cut off their flight to Canada.

Part IV — “I will fight no more forever”

Their only sin had been to occupy land wanted by the white man. Now the Nez Perce, who had never before killed a white man, were running for their lives. Beginning in June, 1877, they had spent four months fighting one battle after another, taking on the best that the U.S. Army had to offer and never suffering defeat. They had travelled over 1300 miles— 250 warriors, 450 women, children and elderly, and some 2000 horses and cattle— and now they were only 40 miles from the freedom of Grandmother’s Land, Canada. They knew they would be welcomed by Sitting Bull and his tribe of Sioux.

With a good night’s rest, they planned on making the final push to freedom on the following day. But Colonel “Bearcoat” Miles and his troops attacked at dawn, cutting the Nez Perce camp in two. Joseph relates, “About seventy men, myself among them, were cut off. My little daughter, twelve years old, was with me. I gave her a rope and told her to catch a horse and join the others who were cut off from the camp. I have not seen her since, but I have learned that she is alive and well.” His wife and other children were surrounded by soldiers, and he resolved to get to them. He made it, but his horse was wounded and his clothes were tattered. His wife met him at the door of his lodge, gave him his rifle and sent him off to fight.

Colonel Miles lost more dead and wounded that first day, but that was small consolation to the Nez Perce who lost eighteen men and three women. Colonel Miles sent a messenger with a white flag the next day, asking Chief Joseph to come to him for a talk. He went and they talked. Miles promised Joseph that he and his people would be returned to Lapwai if they surrendered. But no agreement was reached that day, and Joseph was not allowed to return to his people. Joseph recalls that, while he and Miles reached no agreement that day, “The battle was renewed while I was with him. I was very anxious about my people. I knew that we were near Sitting Bull’s camp..., and I thought maybe the Nez Perce who had escaped would return with assistance.”

On the fourth day, because the Nez Perce captured an officer to insure the safe return of Joseph, an exchange was made and Joseph returned to camp. There was some division among the Nez Perce leaders about surrendering. Escape to Canada would have been simple for the warriors, but they would not think about leaving behind their wounded, their old people and their children. Looking Glass and White Bird wanted to continue fighting, but late on the fourth day, Looking Glass was killed in a skirmish. Joseph’s brother Ollokot, was dead. Too–hool–hool–suit was dead. And late on the fourth day, General Howard’s troops had finally caught up with the Nez Perce and provided Miles with reinforcement.

It was time for Chief Joseph to make a decision. “I could not bear to see my wounded men and women suffer any longer. We had lost enough already.

“General Miles had promised that we might return to our own country with what stock we had left. I thought we could start again. I believed General Miles, or I never would have surrendered.” Since he was under the erroneous impression that Sitting Bull and the Sioux were coming to his assistance, he thought his people might have a few more days of fight left in them. Victory was not out of the question if they could just hold on until help arrived.

But the cost was to great, especially since they could, according to Miles, go home if they surrendered.
On the fifth day, he went to the camp of Miles and General Howard and laid down his rifle. With that act of surrender, he made a speech: “Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed.... 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. 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.”

After the surrender, Miles was reminded that he did not have the authority to promise the Nez Perce where they would be sent. (This was true even if he had been a General, a rank which he coveted but did not yet hold.) His promise was worthless. The Nez Perce were shipped to Kansas which Joseph described as “not a healthy land. There are no mountains and rivers. The water is warm. It is not a good country for stock.” His people began to sicken and die.

By 1885, the plight of the Nez Perce finally got some attention. Half of them were allowed to go to Lapwai in Idaho. The other half, including Joseph, were considered too dangerous to allow them to be with their people. They were, instead, shipped to the Colville Reservation in Washington, exiled as prisoners of war. Until he was silenced by death, his plea to the white leaders remained the same: “We only ask an even chance to live as other men live.”

It was a plea never answered by the white men. On September 21, 1904, 99 years after the Nez Perce helped save the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Chief Joseph died. The official cause of death listed by the agency physician was “a broken heart.”

Uploaded to The Zephyr website July 1, 1999

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