The Great Northern

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Chief Joseph and the Nez Percé

The odyssey of Chief Joseph and his 600 followers is perhaps the most familiar tale of the final days of freedom of the North American Indians. Having led his band over 1,000 miles throughout the summer from their lands in Idaho, from which they were forcibly removed by the U.S. government (which had “renegotiated” an initial treaty, in effect reducing the Nez Percé’s holdings by 90 percent), Joseph and the ragtag, exhausted Nez Percé, thinking the cavalry farther south and Canada closer north than either really was, chose to camp and rest near Chinook, Montana, in 1877.

The U.S. Army, in hot pursuit, sent ahead a 400-man contingent, which reconnoitered the tribe and camped 12 miles to the southeast on September 28. The Nez Percé awoke to attack on September 30. The Army, expecting to prevail on the basis of surprise, instead met fierce resistance, and a five-day siege ensued. After losing their herd of horses, 30 warriors, and three chiefs, and suffering high casualties among the women and children, the Nez Percé gave up. Chief Joseph’s words upon surrendering were an eloquent and tragic encapsulation of the Native American experience:

Our chiefs are killed; the little children are freezing to death. My people have no blankets, no food . . . .I want to have time to look for my children and see how many I can find . . . .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.

After receiving promises from the U.S. commanders that the Nez Percé would be allowed to return to Idaho, Chief Joseph instead suffered the government’s forked-tongue duplicity. Most of the Nez Percé were dispersed to several reservations, eventually winding up in Oklahoma. In 1885, through the Herculean efforts of Chief Joseph and with help from his old nemesis Colonel Miles, some 120 Nez Percé were allowed to return to Idaho. Chief Joseph, however, was never allowed to see his homeland again, finishing out his days in exile on the Colville Reservation in Washington, where he is buried.

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce

By Edward H. Latham [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons