Nez Perce Legends
As told before the tragic Trail of Tears
That struggle was centered around the greatness of a single man, In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat, who was better known as Chief Joseph. Under his leadership, the Nez Perce made every effort to maintain peace. But once war was forced upon him, Chief Joseph and his warriors fought with unexcelled gallantry.
With a force that at no time numbered more than three hundred braves, the Nez Perce chief generaled a running battle with more than 1,900 trained United States troops over a trail that covered nearly two thousand miles. Outnumbered and in unfamiliar terrain, Chief Joseph had to take into consideration the safety of approximately 750 women and children and three thousand head of cattle when making his battle plans.
The Nez Perce met with federal troops eleven different times and engaged in battle on five occasions. Chief Joseph and his warriors compiled the remarkable record of three battles won against two defeats. It is interesting to note that, despite the bitterness of the war, Chief Joseph and his people conducted their military campaign without destruction of civilian property or the slaughter of innocent settlers.
Born the eldest son of the marriage of Old Chief Joseph and a Nez Perce woman, Joseph was destined to follow the example of his father. Old Joseph, whose Indian name was Teukakas, taught his young son the laws of the Nez Perce.
"No man can own any part of the earth, and a man cannot sell what he does not own," the old chief used to say. He taught young Joseph to treat all men as they treated him, never to be first to break a bargain, and that it was a disgrace to tell a lie.
When the rush for gold and the westward movement brought increasing numbers of squatters to lands used by the Nez Perce, Old Joseph began to show signs of passive animosity. He was disturbed that the whites would fence the land of his people, slaughter Indian stock without permission, and sometimes shoot at his Nez Perce tribesmen without reason.
The Treaty of 1855 established the Nez Perce Reservation, to include the present counties of Asotin in Washington, Wallowa in Oregon, Lewis, Nez Perce, and the western half of the Idaho County in Idaho. But with the report of gold, more prospectors moved into Nez Perce reservation land than there were Nez Perce Indians. Because of the mounting friction, the government proposed a revised treaty to protect the settlers.
Old Joseph, chief of the Wallamwatkin band that controlled the area near Lake Wallowa, Oregon, refused to sign. "The land is not mine to sell," he insisted. The hills around the lake supported rich grass for the ponies, and the waters teemed with fish. His people did not want to give up their homeland.
Failing to secure support of Joseph's Nez Perce, the government signed the Treaty of 1863 with Idaho Nez Perce bands. This treated also included the sale of Joseph's Wallowa lands. Hearing of the treaty, both Old and Young Joseph refused to accept its terms, insisting they had declined the agreement.
Young Joseph took over more of a leadership role in governing his band, as blindness slowly darkened his father's eyesight. Finally, the old chief summoned his son to his bedside. He knew death was near.
The young chieftain grasped his father's hand as the old chief softly spoke. "My son, my body is returning to my mother earth, and my spirit is going very soon to see the Great Spirit Chief. In a few more years the 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." (Joseph's own story, 1879.)
Young Joseph pressed his father's hand and promised he would protect the grave with his life. The old chief smiled and passed away. He was buried in the valley of Winding Waters in Wallowa, Oregon.
As time passed, Old Joseph's deathbed prophesy became a reality. Many land squatters were settling in northeastern Oregon, claiming large chunks of Wallowa Nez Perce territory.
Frequent incidents between the Indians and settlers posed a serious threat to Joseph's course of peace. The newly arriving squatters and gold-seeking prospectors stole large numbers of the Nez Perce's finest horses. Cattlemen settling in the valley branded the Indians' cattle and claimed them as they own. Disputes over ownership of land and stock became daily occurrences, and tensions on both sides peaked.
Increased pressure by government agents and threats of military intervention caused Joseph to travel to Fort Lapwai, Idaho. There, he was shown the reservation and given thirty days to round up the stock and move from Wallowa to Lapwai.
He argued this could not be done and the government's demands were without reason.
General Howard, who represented the U.S. Government, replied, "If you let the time run over one day, my soldiers will be there to drive you onto the reservation, and all your cattle outisde of the reservation at that time will fall into the hands of the white man."
The young chief was a great orator and often was able to hold the government negotiators at bay in debate.
When large numbers of troops were reported moving into his area, Joseph was faced with the decision of resisting the move or moving in peace. The younger men of the tribe demanded reprisals and war. But Joseph, although his father's words still rang in his ears, declared his people would move in peace.
Joseph's dream of peace was shattered, when as he led his people to the reservation, several of his young braves conducted a raid, killing four settlers. This act touched off the war of 1877.
From the Wallowa Valley to the Bearpaw Mountains, his running fight with the U.S. Army was a personal Trail of Tears for Chief Joseph. His brother was killed in the Bearpaw Mountain battle, and earlier two of his wives were shot by soldiers at the Big Hole encounter.
As a condition of surrender, the U.S. Army promised Joseph that his people would be returned to the reservation at Fort Lapwai, Idaho. But after the surrender he and his band were exiled to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where malaria and other diseases claimed the lives of many. When the Nez Perce survivors numbers had dropped to 268 men, women and children, the government authorized their return to the Northwest.
The remnants were divided into two groups. Chief Joseph and 150 of his people were sent to Nespelem, Washington, the remaining 118 joined loved ones who lived at Lapwai, Idaho.
Death called the famous warrior September 21, 1904, and he was buried at Nespelem He died with no grandchildren. Although he fathered nine children, only one, Sarah Moses, survived to a marriageable age. She married, but the union was without children.
Today, the only descendants of Chief Joseph are great-nieces or -nephews. Joseph had two sisters (Sarah Conners and Celia), and most of his survivors can be traced through them.
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's wife or his property without paying for it.
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 hearts 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.
for the graphics!
"Wind Walker" CD
Used with permission
© Elan Michaels
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