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Chief Joseph

Chief Joseph
In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat
Thunder coming up over the land from the water
March 3rd 1840 - September 21st 1904

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Chief Joseph's Surrender Speech - October 5th, 1877

"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 forever."

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce

Excerpted from the book Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains - 1918
by Charles A. Eastman (Ohiyesa)
Charles A. Eastman earned a medical degree from Boston University School of Medicine in 1890

The Nez Perce tribe of Indians, like other tribes too large to be united under one chief, was composed of several bands, each distinct in sovereignty. It was a loose confederacy. Joseph and his people occupied the Imnaha or Grande Ronde valley in Oregon, which was considered perhaps the finest land in that part of the country.

When the last treaty was entered into by some of the bands of the Nez Perce, Joseph's band was at Lapwai, Idaho, and had nothing to do with the agreement. The elder chief in dying had counseled his son, then not more than twenty-two or twenty-three years of age, never to part with their home, assuring him that he had signed no papers. These peaceful non-treaty Indians did not even know what land had been ceded until the agent read them the government order to leave. Of course they refused. You and I would have done the same.

When the agent failed to move them, he and the would-be settlers called upon the army to force them to be good, namely, without a murmur to leave their pleasant inheritance in the hands of a crowd of greedy grafters. General O. O. Howard, the Christian soldier, was sent to do the work.

He had a long council with Joseph and his leading men, telling them they must obey the order or be driven out by force. We may be sure that he presented this hard alternative reluctantly. Joseph was a mere youth without experience in war or public affairs. He had been well brought up in obedience to parental wisdom and with his brother Ollicut had attended Missionary Spaulding's school where they had listened to the story of Christ and his religion of brotherhood. He now replied in his simple way that neither he nor his father had ever made any treaty disposing of their country, that no other band of the Nez Perces was authorized to speak for them, and it would seem a mighty injustice and unkindness to dispossess a friendly band.

General Howard told them in effect that they had no rights, no voice in the matter: they had only to obey. Although some of the lesser chiefs counseled revolt then and there, Joseph maintained his self-control, seeking to calm his people, and still groping for a peaceful settlement of their difficulties. He finally asked for thirty days' time in which to find and dispose of their stock, and this was granted.

Joseph steadfastly held his immediate followers to their promise, but the land-grabbers were impatient, and did everything in their power to bring about an immediate crisis so as to hasten the eviction of the Indians. Depredations were committed, and finally the Indians, or some of them, retaliated, which was just what their enemies had been looking for. There might be a score of white men murdered among themselves on the frontier and no outsider would ever hear about it, but if one were injured by an Indian -- "Down with the bloodthirsty savages!" was the cry.

Joseph told me himself that during all of those thirty days a tremendous pressure was brought upon him by his own people to resist the government order. "The worst of it was," said he, "that everything they said was true; besides" -- he paused for a moment -- "it seemed very soon for me to forget my father's dying words, Do not give up our home!'" Knowing as I do just what this would mean to an Indian, I felt for him deeply.

Among the opposition leaders were Too-hul-hul-sote, White Bird, and Looking Glass, all of them strong men and respected by the Indians; while on the other side were men built up by emissaries of the government for their own purposes and advertised as "great friendly chiefs." As a rule such men are unworthy, and this is so well known to the Indians that it makes them distrustful of the government's sincerity at the start. Moreover, while Indians unqualifiedly say what they mean, the whites have a hundred ways of saying what they do not mean.

The center of the storm was this simple young man, who so far as I can learn had never been upon the warpath, and he stood firm for peace and obedience. As for his father's sacred dying charge, he told himself that he would not sign any papers, he would not go of his free will but from compulsion, and this was his excuse.

However, the whites were unduly impatient to clear the coveted valley, and by their insolence they aggravated to the danger point an already strained situation. The murder of an Indian was the climax and this happened in the absence of the young chief. He returned to find the leaders determined to die fighting. The nature of the country was in their favor and at least they could give the army a chase, but how long they could hold out they did not know. Even Joseph's younger brother Ollicut was won over. There was nothing for him to do but fight; and then and there began the peaceful Joseph's career as a general of unsurpassed strategy in conducting one of the most masterly retreats in history.

This is not my judgment, but the unbiased opinion of men whose knowledge and experience fit them to render it. Bear in mind that these people were not scalp hunters like the Sioux, Cheyennes, and Utes, but peaceful hunters and fishermen. The first council of war was a strange business to Joseph. He had only this to say to his people: "I have tried to save you from suffering and sorrow. Resistance means all of that. We are few. They are many. You can see all we have at a glance. They have food and ammunition in abundance. We must suffer great hardship and loss." After this speech, he quietly began his plans for the defense.

The main plan of campaign was to engineer a successful retreat into Montana and there form a junction with the hostile Sioux and Cheyennes under Sitting Bull. There was a relay scouting system, one set of scouts leaving the main body at evening and the second a little before daybreak, passing the first set on some commanding hill top. There were also decoy scouts set to trap Indian scouts of the army. I notice that General Howard charges his Crow scouts with being unfaithful.

Their greatest difficulty was in meeting an unencumbered army, while carrying their women, children, and old men, with supplies and such household effects as were absolutely necessary. Joseph formed an auxiliary corps that was to effect a retreat at each engagement, upon a definite plan and in definite order, while the unencumbered women were made into an ambulance corps to take care of the wounded.

It was decided that the main rear guard should meet General Howard's command in White Bird Canyon, and every detail was planned in advance, yet left flexible according to Indian custom, giving each leader freedom to act according to circumstances. Perhaps no better ambush was ever planned than the one Chief Joseph set for the shrewd and experienced General Howard. He expected to be hotly pursued, but he calculated that the pursuing force would consist of not more than two hundred and fifty soldiers. He prepared false trails to mislead them into thinking that he was about to cross or had crossed the Salmon River, which he had no thought of doing at that time. Some of the tents were pitched in plain sight, while the women and children were hidden on the inaccessible ridges, and the men concealed in the canyon ready to fire upon the soldiers with deadly effect with scarcely any danger to themselves. They could even roll rocks upon them.

In a very few minutes the troops had learned a lesson. The soldiers showed some fight, but a large body of frontiersmen who accompanied them were soon in disorder. The warriors chased them nearly ten miles, securing rifles and much ammunition, and killing and wounding many.

The Nez Perces next crossed the river, made a detour and recrossed it at another point, then took their way eastward. All this was by way of delaying pursuit. Joseph told me that he estimated it would take six or seven days to get a sufficient force in the field to take up their trail, and the correctness of his reasoning is apparent from the facts as detailed in General Howard's book. He tells us that he waited six days for the arrival of men from various forts in his department, then followed Joseph with six hundred soldiers, beside a large number of citizen volunteers and his Indian scouts. As it was evident they had a long chase over trackless wilderness in prospect, he discarded his supply wagons and took pack mules instead. But by this time the Indians had a good start.

Meanwhile General Howard had sent a dispatch to Colonel Gibbons, with orders to head Joseph off, which he undertook to do at the Montana end of the Lolo Trail. The wily commander had no knowledge of this move, but he was not to be surprised. He was too brainy for his pursuers, whom he constantly outwitted, and only gave battle when he was ready. There at the Big Hole Pass he met Colonel Gibbons' fresh troops and pressed them close. He sent a party under his brother Ollicut to harass Gibbons' rear and rout the pack mules, thus throwing him on the defensive and causing him to send for help, while Joseph continued his masterly retreat toward the Yellowstone Park, then a wilderness. However, this was but little advantage to him, since he must necessarily leave a broad trail, and the army was augmenting its columns day by day with celebrated scouts, both white and Indian. The two commands came together, and although General Howard says their horses were by this time worn out, and by inference the men as well, they persisted on the trail of a party encumbered by women and children, the old, sick, and wounded.

It was decided to send a detachment of cavalry under Bacon, to Tash Pass, the gateway of the National Park, which Joseph would have to pass, with orders to detain him there until the rest could come up with them. Here is what General Howard says of the affair. "Bacon got into position soon enough but he did not have the heart to fight the Indians on account of their number." Meanwhile another incident had occurred. Right under the eyes of the chosen scouts and vigilant sentinels, Joseph's warriors fired upon the army camp at night and ran off their mules. He went straight on toward the park, where Lieutenant Bacon let him get by and pass through the narrow gateway without firing a shot.

Here again it was demonstrated that General Howard could not depend upon the volunteers, many of whom had joined him in the chase, and were going to show the soldiers how to fight Indians. In this night attack at Camas Meadow, they were demoralized, and while crossing the river next day many lost their guns in the water, whereupon all packed up and went home, leaving the army to be guided by the Indian scouts.

However, this succession of defeats did not discourage General Howard, who kept on with as many of his men as were able to carry a gun, meanwhile sending dispatches to all the frontier posts with orders to intercept Joseph if possible. Sturgis tried to stop him as the Indians entered the Park, but they did not meet until he was about to come out, when there was another fight, with Joseph again victorious. General Howard came upon the battle field soon afterward and saw that the Indians were off again, and from here he sent fresh messages to General Miles, asking for reinforcements.

Joseph had now turned northeastward toward the Upper Missouri. He told me that when he got into that part of the country he knew he was very near the Canadian line and could not be far from Sitting Bull, with whom he desired to form an alliance. He also believed that he had cleared all the forts. Therefore he went more slowly and tried to give his people some rest. Some of their best men had been killed or wounded in battle, and the wounded were a great burden to him; nevertheless they were carried and tended patiently all during this wonderful flight. Not one was ever left behind.

It is the general belief that Indians are cruel and revengeful, and surely these people had reason to hate the race who had driven them from their homes if any people ever had. Yet it is a fact that when Joseph met visitors and travelers in the Park, some of whom were women, he allowed them to pass unharmed, and in at least one instance let them have horses. He told me that he gave strict orders to his men not to kill any women or children. He wished to meet his adversaries according to their own standards of warfare, but he afterward learned that in spite of professions of humanity, white soldiers have not seldom been known to kill women and children indiscriminately.

Another remarkable thing about this noted retreat is that Joseph's people stood behind him to a man, and even the women and little boys did each his part. The latter were used as scouts in the immediate vicinity of the camp.

The Bittersweet valley, which they had now entered, was full of game, and the Indians hunted for food, while resting their worn-out ponies. One morning they had a council to which Joseph rode over bareback, as they had camped in two divisions a little apart. His fifteen-year-old daughter went with him. They discussed sending runners to Sitting Bull to ascertain his exact whereabouts and whether it would be agreeable to him to join forces with the Nez Perces. In the midst of the council, a force of United States cavalry charged down the hill between the two camps. This once Joseph was surprised. He had seen no trace of the soldiers and had somewhat relaxed his vigilance.

He told his little daughter to stay where she was, and himself cut right through the cavalry and rode up to his own teepee, where his wife met him at the door with his rifle, crying: "Here is your gun, husband!" The warriors quickly gathered and pressed the soldiers so hard that they had to withdraw. Meanwhile one set of the people fled while Joseph's own band entrenched themselves in a very favorable position from which they could not easily be dislodged.

General Miles had received and acted on General Howard's message, and he now sent one of his officers with some Indian scouts into Joseph's camp to negotiate with the chief. Meantime Howard and Sturgis came up with the encampment, and Howard had with him two friendly Nez Perce scouts who were directed to talk to Joseph in his own language. He decided that there was nothing to do but surrender.

He had believed that his escape was all but secure: then at the last moment he was surprised and caught at a disadvantage. His army was shattered; he had lost most of the leaders in these various fights; his people, including children, women, and the wounded, had traveled thirteen hundred miles in about fifty days, and he himself a young man who had never before taken any important responsibility! Even now he was not actually conquered. He was well entrenched; his people were willing to die fighting; but the army of the United States offered peace and he agreed, as he said, out of pity for his suffering people. Some of his warriors still refused to surrender and slipped out of the camp at night and through the lines. Joseph had, as he told me, between three and four hundred fighting men in the beginning, which means over one thousand persons, and of these several hundred surrendered with him.

His own story of the conditions he made was prepared by himself with my help in 1897, when he came to Washington to present his grievances. I sat up with him nearly all of one night; and I may add here that we took the document to General Miles who was then stationed in Washington, before presenting it to the Department. The General said that every word of it was true.

In the first place, his people were to be kept at Fort Keogh, Montana, over the winter and then returned to their reservation. Instead they were taken to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and placed between a lagoon and the Missouri River, where the sanitary conditions made havoc with them. Those who did not die were then taken to the Indian Territory, where the health situation was even worse. Joseph appealed to the government again and again, and at last by the help of Bishops Whipple and Hare he was moved to the Colville reservation in Washington. Here the land was very poor, unlike their own fertile valley. General Miles said to the chief that he had recommended and urged that their agreement be kept, but the politicians and the people who occupied the Indians' land declared they were afraid if he returned he would break out again and murder innocent white settlers! What irony!

The great Chief Joseph died broken-spirited and broken-hearted. He did not hate the whites, for there was nothing small about him, and when he laid down his weapons he would not fight on with his mind. But he was profoundly disappointed in the claims of a Christian civilization. I call him great because he was simple and honest. Without education or special training he demonstrated his ability to lead and to fight when justice demanded. He out-generaled the best and most experienced commanders in the army of the United States, although their troops were well provisioned, well armed, and above all unencumbered. He was great finally, because he never boasted of his remarkable feat. I am proud of him, because he was a true American.

Joseph on horseback
Chief Joseph on horseback

Chief Joseph Quotes

"All men were made by the Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers."

"The earth is our mother. She should not be disturbed by hoe or plough. We want only to subsist on what she freely gives us. Our fathers gave us many laws, which they had learned from their fathers. These laws were good. 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."

"Perhaps you think the Creator sent you here to dispose of us as you see fit. If I thought you were sent by the Creator, I might be induced to think you had a right to dispose of me. Do not misunderstand me, but understand fully with reference to my affection for the land. I never said the land was mine to do with as I choose. The one who has a right to dispose of it is the one who has created it. I claim a right to live on my land and accord you the privilege to return to yours."

"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."

"An Indian respects a brave man, but he despises a coward."

"For a short time we lived quietly. But this could not last. White men had found gold in the mountains around the land of winding water."

"I believe much trouble would be saved if we opened our hearts more."

"I cannot tell how much my heart suffered for my people while at Leavenworth."

"I did not want my people killed. I did not want bloodshed."

"I hope that 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."

"I labored hard to avoid trouble and bloodshed."

"I only ask of the government to be treated as all other men are treated."

"I said in my heart that, rather than have war, I would give up my country."

"I want the white people to understand my people."

"I will speak with a straight tongue."

"I would give up everything rather than have the blood of white men upon the hands of my people."

"I would have given my own life if I could have undone the killing of white men by my people."

"It does not require many words to speak the truth."

"It required a strong heart to stand up against such talk, but I urged my people to be quiet and not to begin a war."

"My father was the first to see through the schemes of the white man."

"Some of you think an Indian is like a wild animal. This is a great mistake."

"The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it."

"The first white men of your people who came to our country were named Lewis and Clark. They brought many things that our people had never seen. They talked straight. These men were very kind."

"The Indian race are waiting and praying."

"The white men told lies for each other. They drove off a great many of our cattle. Some branded our young cattle so they could claim them."

"Treat all men alike. Give them the same law. Give them an even chance to live and grow."

"War can be avoided, and it ought to be avoided. I want no war."

"We ask to be recognized as men."

"We did not know there were other people besides the Indian until about one hundred winters ago, when some men with white faces came to our country."

"We gathered all the stock we could find, and made an attempt to move. We left many of our horses and cattle in Wallowa. We lost several hundred in crossing the river."

"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 had a great many horses, of which we gave Lewis and Clark what they needed, and they gave us guns and tobacco in return."

"We had good white friends who advised us against taking the war path. My friend and brother, Mr. Chapman, told us just how the war would end."

"We soon found that the white men were growing rich very fast, and were greedy to possess everything the Indian had."

"When my young men began the killing, my heart was hurt."

"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."

"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."

"If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian...we can live in peace. There need be no trouble. Treat all men alike.... give them all the same law. Give them all an even chance to live and grow. You might as well expect the rivers to run backward as that any man who is born a free man should be contented when penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases. We only ask an even chance to live as other men live. We ask to be recognized as men. Let me be a free man...free to travel... free to stop...free to work...free to choose my own teachers...free to follow the religion of my Fathers...free to think and talk and act for myself."

"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."

Joseph the Elder speaking to Joseph the Younger before he died...

"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 animal."

"I pressed my father's hand and told him I would protect his grave with my life. My father smiled and passed away to the spirit land."

Chief Joseph's official cause of death according to his doctor was a broken heart

Joseph and family circa 1880
Chief Joseph and his family - circa 1880

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce on Wikipedia

More Chief Joseph quotes on Wikiquote

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