"The first white men of
your people who came to our country were named Lewis and Clark. They
brought many things which our people had never seen. They talked
straight and our people gave them a great feast as proof that their
hearts were friendly. They made presents to our chiefs and our
people made presents to them. We had a great many horses of which we
gave them what they needed, and they gave us guns and tobacco in
return. All the Nez Perce made friends with Lewis and Clark and
agreed to let them pass through their country and never to make war
on white men. This promise the Nez Perce have never broken.
For a short time we lived
quietly. But this could not last. White men had found gold in the
mountains around the land of the Winding Water. They stole a great
many horses from us and we could not get them back because we were
Indians. The white men told lies for each other. They drove off a
great many of our cattle. Some white men branded our young cattle so
they could claim them. We had no friends who would plead our cause
before the law councils. It seemed to me that some of the white men
in Wallowa were doing these things on purpose to get up a war. They
knew we were not strong enough to fight them. 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 men would not let us alone. We could have avenged our
wrongs many times, but we did not. Whenever the Government has asked
for help against other Indians we have never refused. When the white
men were few and we were strong we could have killed them off, but
the Nez Perce wishes to live at peace.
On account of the treaty
made by the other bands of the Nez Perce the white man claimed my
lands. We were troubled with white men crowding over the line. Some
of them were good men, and we lived on peaceful terms with them, but
they were not all good. Nearly every year the agent came over from
Lapwai and ordered us to the reservation. We always replied that we
were satisfied to live in Wallowa. We were careful to refuse the
presents or annuities which he offered.
Through all the years
since the white man came to Wallowa we have been threatened and
taunted by them and the treaty Nez Perce. They have given us no
rest. We have had a few good friends among the white men, and they
have always advised my people to bear these taunts without fighting.
Our young men are quick tempered and I have had great trouble in
keeping them from doing rash things. I have carried a heavy load on
my back ever since I was a boy. I learned then that we were but few
while the white men were many, and that we could not hold our own
with them. We were like deer. They were like grizzly bears. We had a
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 mountains and rivers if they did not suit them.
Tell General Howard that
I know his heart. What he told me before I have in my heart. I am
tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead,
Tu-hul-hil-sote is dead. the old men are all dead. It is the young
men who now say yes or no. He who led the young men [Joseph's
brother Alikut] is dead. 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 and 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.
Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs, my heart
is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more
against the white man.
At last I was granted
permission to come to Washington and bring my friend Yellow Bull and
our interpreter with me. I am glad I came. I have shaken hands with
a good many friends, but there are some things I want to know which
no one seems able to explain. I cannot understand how the Government
sends a man out to fight us, as it did General Miles, and then
breaks his word. Such a government has something wrong about it. I
cannot understand why so many chiefs are allowed to talk so many
different ways, and promise so many different things. I have seen
the Great Father Chief [President Hayes]; the Next Great Chief
[Secretary of the Interior]; the Commissioner Chief; the Law Chief;
and many other law chiefs [Congressmen] and they all say they are my
friends, and that I shall have justice, but while all their mouths
talk right I do not understand why nothing is done for my people. I
have heard talk and talk but nothing is done. 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 my horses
and cattle. Good words do not give me back my children. Good words
will not make good the promise of your war chief, General Miles.
Good words will not give 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. Too many misinterpretations have been
made; too many misunderstandings have come up between the white men
and the Indians. If the white man wants to live in peace with the
Indian he can live in peace. There need be no trouble. Treat all men
alike. Give them the same laws. Give them all an even chance to live
and grow. All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are
all brothers. The earth is the mother of all people, and all people
should have equal rights upon it. You might as well expect all
rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man
should be contented penned up and denied liberty to go where he
pleases. If you tie a horse to a stake, do you expect he will 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. I have asked some of the Great White Chiefs where they get
their authority to say to the Indian that he shall stay in one
place, while he sees white men going where they please. They cannot
I only ask of the
Government to be treated as all other men are treated. If I cannot
go to my own home, let me have a home in a country where my people
will not die so fast. I would like to go to Bitter Root Valley.
There my people would be happy; where they are now they are dying.
Three have died since I left my camp to come to Washington.
When I think of our
condition, my heart is heavy. I see men of my own race treated as
outlaws and driven from country to country, or shot down like
I know that
my race must change. We cannot hold our own with the white men as we
are. We only ask an even chance to live as other men live. We ask to
be recognized as men. We ask that the same law shall work alike on
all men. If an Indian breaks the law, punish him by the law. If a
white man breaks the law, punish him also.
Let me be a
free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade
where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the
religion of my fathers, free to talk, think and act for myself --
and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty.
white man treats the Indian as they treat each other then we shall
have no more wars. We shall be all alike -- brothers of one father
and mother, with one sky above us and one country around us and one
government for all. Then the Great Spirit Chief who rules above will
smile upon this land and send rain to wash out the bloody spots made
by brothers' hands upon the face of the earth. For this time the
Indian race is waiting and praying. I hope no more groans of wounded
men and women will ever go to the ear of the Great Spirit Chief
above, and that all people may be one people.
Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekht has spoken for his people."
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Chief Joseph (March 3, 1840
– September 21, 1904) was the chief of
the Wal-lam-wat-kain (Wallowa) band of Nez
attempt to forcibly
remove his band and
the other "non-treaty" Nez Perce to a reservation in Idaho.
For his principled resistance to the removal, he became renowned as
a humanitarian and
Chief Joseph was born Hinmuuttu-yalatlat (alternatively Hinmaton-Yalaktit or Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, Nez Perce:
"Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain") in the Wallowa
He was known as Young Joseph during his youth because his father was
baptized with the same Christian name.
While initially hospitable to the region's newcomers, Joseph the Elder grew
wary when settlers wanted more Indian lands. Tensions grew as the
settlers appropriated traditional Indian lands for farming and
Isaac Stevens, governor of
Territory, organized a council to
designate separate areas for natives and settlers in 1855. Joseph
the Elder and the other Nez Perce chiefs signed a treaty with the
United States establishing a Nez Perce reservation encompassing 7.7
million acres (31,000 km²) in present-day Idaho, Washington, and
Oregon. The 1855 reservation maintained much of the traditional Nez
Perce lands, including Joseph's Wallowa Valley.
An influx of new settlers caused by a gold rush led
the government to call a second council in 1863. Government
commissioners asked the Nez Perce to accept a new, much smaller
reservation of 780,000 acres (3,200 km2) centered around
the village of Lapwaiin
Idaho, and excluding the Wallowa Valley. In exchange, they were
promised financial rewards and schools and a hospital for the
reservation. Head Chief Lawyer and
one of his allied chiefs signed the treaty on behalf of the Nez
Perce Nation, but Joseph the Elder and several other chiefs were
opposed to selling their lands, and did not sign.
Their refusal to sign caused a rift between the "non-treaty" and
"treaty" bands of Nez Perce. The "treaty" Nez Perce moved within the
new Idaho reservation's boundaries, while the "non-treaty" Nez Perce
remained on their lands. Joseph the Elder demarcated Wallowa land
with a series of poles, proclaiming, "Inside this boundary all our
people were born. It circles the graves of our fathers, and we will
never give up these graves to any man."
An 1889 photograph of Chief Joseph speaking to
ethnologist Alice Cunningham Fletcher and her interpreter James
Joseph the Younger succeeded his father as chief in 1871. Before
his death, the latter counseled his son:
“My son, my
body is returning to my mother earth, and my spirit is going
very soon to see the Great Spirit Chief. When I am gone,
think of your country. You are the chief of these people.
They look to you to guide them. Always remember that your
father never sold his country. You must stop your ears
whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home. A
few years more 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 your mother.”
Chief Joseph commented "I clasped my father's hand and promised to
do as he asked. A man who would not defend his father's grave is
worse than a wild beast."
The non-treaty Nez Perce suffered many injustices at the hands of
settlers and prospectors,
but out of fear of reprisal from the militarily superior Americans,
Joseph never allowed any violence against them, instead making many
concessions to them in hopes of securing peace.
In 1873, Chief Joseph negotiated with the federal government to
ensure his people could stay on their land in the Wallowa Valley.
But in 1877, the government reversed its policy, and Army General Oliver Howard threatened
to attack if the Wallowa band did not relocate to the Idaho
Reservation with the other Nez Perce. Chief Joseph reluctantly
Before the outbreak of hostilities, General Howard held a council
to try to convince Joseph and his people to relocate. Joseph
finished his address to the General, which focused on human
equality, by expressing his "[disbelief that] the Great Spirit Chief
gave one kind of men the right to tell another kind of men what they
Howard reacted angrily, interpreting the statement as a challenge
to his authority. When Chief Too-hul-hul-sote protested, he was jailed
for five days.
The day following the council, Joseph, White Bird,
and Chief Looking
accompanied General Howard to look at different areas. Howard
offered them a plot of land that was inhabited by Whites and
Indians, promising to clear them out. Joseph and his chieftains
refused, adhering to their tribal tradition of not taking what did
not belong to them.
Unable to find any suitable uninhabited land on the reservation,
Howard informed Joseph that his people had thirty days to collect
their livestock and
move to the reservation. Joseph pleaded for more time, but Howard
told him that he would consider their presence in the Wallowa Valley
beyond the thirty-day mark an act of war.
Returning home, Joseph called a council among his people. At the
council, he spoke on behalf of peace, preferring to abandon his
father's grave over war. Too-hul-hul-sote, insulted by his
incarceration, advocated war.
The Wallowa band began making preparations for the long journey,
meeting first with other bands at Rocky Canyon. At this council too,
many leaders urged war, while Joseph argued in favor of peace.
While the council was underway, a young man whose father had been
killed rode up and announced that he and several other young men had
already killed four white men, an act sure to initiate war.
Still hoping to avoid further bloodshed, Joseph and other Nez Perce
chiefs began leading his people north toward Canada.
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Joseph and family, circa 1880
With 2,000 U.S. soldiers in pursuit, Joseph and other Nez Perce
chiefs led 800 Nez Perce toward their friends the Crows, but when
the Crows betrayed them and joined the United States army for money,
the Nez Perce went towards freedom at the Canadian border. For over
three months, the Nez Perce outmaneuvered and battled their pursuers
traveling 1,600 miles (2,600 km) across Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming,
General Howard, leading the opposing cavalry, was impressed with the
skill with which the Nez Perce fought, using advance and rear
guards, skirmish lines, and field fortifications. Finally, after a
devastating five-day battle during freezing weather conditions with
no food or blankets, Chief Joseph formally surrendered to
Appleton Miles on October
the Bear Paw
Territory, less than 40 miles (60 km)
south of Canada in
a place close to the present-day Chinook in Blaine
County. The battle is remembered in
popular history by the words attributed to Chief Joseph at the
"Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I
have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed;
Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all
dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young
men is dead. 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. Maybe I shall find
them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is
sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more
The popular legend deflated, however, when the original pencil
draft of the report was revealed to show the handwriting of the
later poet and lawyer Lieutenant Charles
Erskine Scott Wood, who claimed to have
taken down the great chief's words on the spot. In the margin it
read, "Here insert Joseph's reply to the demand for surrender"
Although Joseph was not technically
a war chief and probably did not command the retreat, many of the
chiefs who did had already died. His speech brought attention - and
therefore credit - his way. He earned the praise of General William
Tecumseh Sherman and
became known in the press as "The Red Napoleon".
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Joseph's fame did him little good. By the time Joseph surrendered
more than 200 of his followers had died. His plight, however, did
not end. Although he had negotiated a safe return home for his
people, General William Sherman forced Chief Joseph and about four
hundred followers to be taken on unheated rail cars to Fort
Leavenworth in eastern Kansas to be held in a prisoner-of-war
campsite for eight months. Toward the end of the following summer
the surviving Nez Perce were taken by rail to a reservation in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma)
for ten years. Many of them died of epidemic diseases
while there. Finally they were returned to a reservation around
In 1879 Chief Joseph went to Washington,
meet with President Rutherford
B. Hayes and
plead the case of his people. Finally, in 1885, Chief Joseph and his
followers were allowed to return to the Pacific Northwest, although
many, including Chief Joseph, were taken to the Colville
Indian Reservation far
from both the rest of their people in Idaho and their homeland in
the Wallowa Valley.
Joseph continued to lead his band of Wallowa for another 25 years,
at times coming into conflict with the leaders of 11 other tribes
living on the reservation. Chief
the Sinkiuse-Columbia in
particular resented having to cede a portion of his people's lands
to Joseph's people, who had "made war on the Great Father."
In general, however, the relocated Nez Perce made few enemies in
their new home and even kept friendly relations with their white
neighbors. In fact, Chief
Joseph Dam, the nation's second largest
hydroelectric power plant, was named after him.
In his last years Joseph spoke eloquently against the injustice of
United States policy toward his people and held out the hope that
America's promise of freedom and equality might one day be fulfilled
for Native Americans as well. An indomitable voice of conscience for
the West, he died in 1904, still in exile from his homeland,
according to his doctor "of a broken heart."
Helen Hunt Jackson recorded
one early Oregon settler's tale of his encounter with Chief Joseph
in her 1902 Glimpses
of California and the Missions:
"Why I got lost once, an' I came right on [Chief Joseph's] camp
before I knowed it . . . 't was night, 'n' I was kind o' creepin'
along cautious, an' the first thing I knew there was an Injun had me
on each side, an' they jest marched me up to Jo's tent, to know what
they should do with me ... Well; 'n' they gave me all I could eat,
'n' a guide to show me my way, next day, 'n' I could n't make Jo nor
any of 'em take one cent. I had a kind o' comforter o' red yarn, I
wore rund my neck; an' at last I got Jo to take that, jest as a kind
The Chief Joseph band of Nez Perce Indians who still live on the
Colville Reservation bear his name in tribute to their prestigious
leader. Chief Joseph died in September 1904 and was buried in Nespelem, Washington,
the site where many of his tribe's members still live.
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It does not require many
words to speak the truth"
Nez Perce Tribe
A wall-mounted quote by Chief Joseph inThe American
in the World Showcase pavilion of Walt Disney World's Epcot.
Chief Joseph has been portrayed in poems, books, television
episodes, and feature films. Notable among the latter is I Will Fight No More
1975 historical drama starring Ned
Romero. The saga of Chief Joseph and his
people is also depicted in the 1982 poem "Chief Joseph of the Nez
Perce" by Robert
Penn Warren. In the children's fiction
Rolling in the Mountains, by Newbery medalist Scott
Elizabeth Hall, the story of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce is told
by Joseph's daughter, Sound of Running Feet.
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Numerous structures, including schools, dams and roads, have been
named for Chief Joseph, as well as several geographic features. Some
of the most notable of these are Chief
Joseph Scenic Byway in
Wyoming, and Chief
Joseph Dam on
the Columbia River in Washington. Chief Joseph Dam is the second
largest hydropower producer in the U.S. and is the only dam in the
Northwest named after an American Indian.
The city of Joseph,
also named for the chief, as well as Joseph
Joseph Creek, on the Oregon-Washington border, and Chief
Joseph Pass in
Montana. Chief Joseph is depicted on currently issued $200 Series I Savings
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