by Tanya Hanson
Shortly after my first date with their son, his folks realized I was The One and hauled me to the Pacific Northwest to meet the grandparents. While that motor home trip made its own kind of history (think Clark Griswold,) the haunting history of the Nez Perce was the real highlight. During my subsequent career teaching American Literature, I got to know them, and Chief Joseph, very well.
In September 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition came down the Shining Mountains –the Rockies—starving, ill from dysentery, and too weak to defend themselves. There at the Clearwater River, they could easily have been captured or killed by the local tribe, their horses stolen, their mission sent into oblivion. However, the Nez Perce welcomed them and fed them, tended their horses for months while the party explored the Pacific shore. For the next seven decades of friendship, the Nez Perce proudly declared they had never shed white blood.
The Nez Perce home turf was the Wallowa Valley, the Valley of Winding Waters. In 1863President Ulysses Grant issued an executive order protecting the Wallowa from white settlement but changed his mind two years later, giving the tribe “reasonable time” to move to a reservation. The peaceable Wallowa became a contentious place of gold seekers, thieves rustling Nez Perce horses and cattle, and settlers wanting land.
General Oliver Otis Howard, who had lost one arm in the Civil War, was ordered to clear out the Nez Perce. Even so, he confessed to trusted friends it was a great mistake to remove the people from the valley. Negotiations failed, and the Nez Perce young chief Heinmot Tooyalaket had plans of his own. Along with his brother Ollokot, and tribal subchiefs Looking Glass and White Bird, he elected to flee the homeland in May 1877 and follow the footsteps of Sitting Bull to seek refuge in the Grandmother Country. This was the nickname for Canada, in reference to Queen Victoria.
The whites called the young chief, Joseph.
The fleeing Nez Perce consisted of 800 people including 125 warriors, and 2,000 horses, most of them their famed Appaloosas. Joseph and his band outsmarted two thousand U.S. Cavalry for 1,700 miles, and the Nez Perce journey has been called the most brilliant retreat in American military history.
Joseph’s triumphs included drawing Howard’s solders into a trap in June at White Bird Canyon, slipping into familiar mountains that stumped the solders, and performing a succession of shrewd military campaigns that saw many American citizens cheering on the tribe. Throughout northern Oregon, east across Idaho, then south across Yellowstone, Joseph eluded the Bluecoats including General Nelson(Bear Coat) Miles, and successfully held off Colonel Samuel Sturgis and his company at Clarks Fork River, Montana. However, the Nez Perce were severely weakened by the capture of many of their horses. They made it to safety but their ability to travel quickly had been severely curtailed.
In October, the weary Joseph and his band stopped to rest near today's Laurel, Montana, only 30 miles from their destination. By now, One-Armed-Soldier-Chief Howard had arrived to reinforce General Miles. After four days of skirmishes, a sharpshooter’s bullet killed Joseph’s friend Looking Glass (Joseph had already lost his brother Ollokot), and on the fifth day in the snowy cold, Joseph surrendered his gun to Nelson Miles.
Then he delivered the most quoted of all the great chiefs’ speeches, of which I include a few lines.
Tell General Howard I know his heart…I am tired of fighting… it is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. ..I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I will 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.
Honored as a dignitary but forever exiled, he later visited Washington D.C. and met with the great white “chiefs.” He said, “They all say they are my friends, and that I shall have justice. .but while their mouths all talk right, I do not understand why nothing is done for my people..General Miles promised that we might return to our own country. I believed him…or I would never have surrendered.”
General “One-Armed-Soldier- Chief” Oliver Otis Howard, who knew Joseph well and admired him greatly, claimed that Joseph and Robert E. Lee were America’s two greatest generals…although both had fought for the “wrong side.” Lieutenant Charles Erskine Scott Wood, who translated Joseph’s heart-rending speech, resigned his commission not long after and became a powerful attorney, fighting for the rights of the dispossessed.
Joseph died September 21, 1905, at the Colville Reservation in Washington State, according to the physician, of a broken heart.
His name, Heinmot Tooyalaket, translates as Thunder Rolling in the Mountains.
Listen for him.