The great Nez Perce leader known to non-Indians as Chief Joseph died on the Colville reservation in northern Washington on September 21, 1904. Nez Perce Him-mah-too yah-lat-kekt (“Thunder Rolling Down from the Mountains”) has been described by Europeans as a superhuman military genius and an Indian Napoleon, but he was actually more of a diplomat than a warrior.

Chief Joseph was elected chief of the Wallowa band of Nez Perce Indians when he was 31 years old and for 6 difficult years he struggled peacefully against the Europeans who coveted the Wallowa fertile land in northeastern Oregon.

In 1877, General Howard of the Army gave the ultimatum that the Wallowa and other Nez Perce bans should abandon their land within 30 days and move to the Lapwai Reservation, or his troops would attack (a rude comment could be made here but I’ll refrain).

Some of the other Nez Perce chiefs argued they should fight back, Chief Joseph convinced them to comply with the order rather than face war and led his people on a perilous voyage across the flood-filled Snake and Salmon River canyons to a campsite near the Lapwai Reservation.

A band of 20 young braves, without Chief Joseph’s knowledge, decided to seek revenge on the most offensive white settlers in the region and started the Nez Perce War of 1877.

As reported in the newspapers it was consistently believed that Chief Joseph as the principal Nez Perce spokesman and diplomat had to be their military leader when it was is younger brother Olikut who was active in leading the Nez Perce into battle. He successfully outsmarted the U.S. Army on several occasions as the war spanned more than 1600 miles of Washington, Idaho, and Montana territory.

As fate would have it, Chief Joseph was the only major leader to survive the war, so it fell to him to surrender the surviving Nez Perce forces to Colonel Nelson A. Miles at the Montana battle of  Bear Paw in October 1877. Chief Joseph lived out the rest of his life in peace.

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 o’ momento.”

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.Wikepedia.


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1 Comment on Remembering Nez Perce Native American Chief Joseph

  1. A. Pickering says:

    This is a terrific post, so thanks. I’ve noticed that you’ve posted several posts on Native Americans–keep up the good work.

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