by William Stimson

Sept. 21 is the centennial of the death of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. His grave, on a hill at the edge of the dusty little Native American village of Nespelem, 16 miles north of Grand Coulee Dam, deserves to be an important American historic monument, but won't because the monument would be inconvenient. So would be the story behind it.

Most people, if they know of Joseph at all, think of him as one of the war chiefs, in the set with Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Geronimo. Americans prefer to see the natives as fierce because it implicitly explains away their removal.

It is true that in the summer of 1877, Joseph was one of the Nez Perce chiefs who led a famous campaign against the American army -- a campaign so skillfully fought that it is still studied at West Point.

But Joseph was not really a war chief. He was at heart one of the most peaceable leaders the United States ever spawned. His tribe, the Nez Perce, was a long-term ally to the whites. When the Lewis and Clark party came stumbling out of the Bitterroot Mountains in the fall of 1805, starving and sick, a band of Nez Perce Indians nursed them back to health and guided them on the next leg of their journey. On their return trip, Lewis and Clark got themselves in trouble in the Bitterroots again. Three Nez Perce guides went to their rescue and took them through the mountains.

Fifty years later, when Isaac Stevens, the first governor of Washington Territory, negotiated treaties with all tribes, the Nez Perce were one of the few to accept the deal offered them. Other tribes went to war, and when they did, the Nez Perce served on the side of the U.S. Army as scouts.

But in 1860, gold was discovered on the land Gov. Stevens had promised to the Nez Perce. A presidential commission was dispatched to remove the Nez Perce from the Wallowa Mountain area (in present northeast Oregon).

Joseph and the other chiefs met them, listened to their arguments, and said no: The mountains and valleys belonged to them by the agreement of 1855, and they would keep them.

Treaty negotiations were, of course, a formality, a polite way of letting the natives surrender whatever the government wanted. But the Nez Perce chiefs refused to bow and unraveled every bogus argument offered by the commissioners, until the commissioners hardly knew what to do.

In their official report, the government commissioners described Joseph like this: "Six feet tall, straight, well formed, and muscular; his forehead is broad, his perceptive faculties large, his head well formed, his voice musical and sympathetic, and his expression usually calm and sedate, when animated, marked and magnetic... An alertness and dexterity in intellectual fencing was exhibited by him that was quite remarkable."

To say the least. Joseph answered every argument of the commissioners until finally Gen. Howard abandoned the pretence of negotiations. "My orders are plain," he said, "and will be executed." He told the Nez Perce chiefs they had to be on the designated reservation in a month, or else.

That ultimatum brought out Joseph's greatness as a leader. Many in the tribe were for war. Joseph agreed war was justified, but it could not be won, and giving in to anger would only result in devastation of the tribe. Though some called him a coward, he convinced the tribe to leave their ancient lands and make the journey to Lapwai.

Joseph was leading his tribe into exile when a small group of young tribe members broke away and went on a killing spree of revenge against white settlers. With overwhelming retribution a certainty, Joseph became one of the leaders in the military campaign for which he is almost exclusively remembered.

Roughly 250 warriors, accompanied by twice that number of women, children and elderly, evaded and fought the U.S. Army for four months, traveling 1,500 miles across Idaho and Montana, in an attempt to escape to Canada.

Finally caught 40 miles short of the border, Joseph dictated his famous surrender: "From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever." The most moving lines of the speech preceded the famous peroration: "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." Some leaders become "great" because their personal ambitions happened to mesh with great events. With Joseph, it is always clear that the interests of his people motivated him.

Gen. Nelson Miles promised Joseph if he surrendered, he and his tribe would eventually be allowed to return to the Nez Perce lands. Instead, the tribe was shuttled from one disease-ridden camp to another and then split up. It was the third time Joseph's people had received profound pledges from the federal government (1855, 1873 and 1877) that had been broken.

Finally sent to Colville, where he could be watched, Joseph spent the last 20 years of his life protesting what had happened to his people. He traveled to Washington, D.C., twice, where even generals who fought him argued on his behalf -- though with no effect. He was a celebrity because of the war and was invited to speak to white groups. He told an audience in Seattle, "The white father promised me long ago that I could go back to my home, but the white men are big liars."

On the Colville reservation, he led a Gandhi-like campaign of passive resistance. He renounced Christianity because those who had sold it to Indians did not demonstrate charity. He resisted sending the tribe's boys to the boarding school at Fort Spokane and did so only when the agents starved the tribe into submission.

Joseph and his tribe refused to move into the government-supplied houses and instead assembled tipis, which they dragged from valley to riverbank in the ancient way. They hunted, fished, raced their horses and held their traditional dance ceremonies. In short, Joseph's tribe answered the injustices of the white by choosing to live very much as they had in 1804, that last autumn before Lewis and Clark fell sick at their doorstep.

Joseph's last years were a constant duel of wills with the reservation's Indian Agent, A.M. Anderson. Anderson's feeling about Indians was made clear in his 1899 annual report: "Chief Joseph himself is not in any way a progressive Indian. [He and his followers] plod along in the same rut from year to year... They are strictly 'blanket' Indians, and their dress on frequent occasions is hideous in appearance and possesses many of the characteristics of the Indian in his native state. They have no religion, believe in no creed, and their morality is at a low ebb."

If a national monument were raised to Joseph, that last sentence should be inscribed on it, for it perfectly summarized what Joseph came to believe about whites and their government.

Publication date: 09/16/04

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