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Chief Joseph: A great Nez Perce Leader

Chief Joseph: An influential Nez Perce leader

Hello all!

Chief Joseph

Chief Joseph

If you have been on this site, you know that I like to share the history of the Native nations, of the people. I believe that knowing the history, the past, informs the future and gives us a better understanding of the present. The trauma of the native people cannot be denied, more than one genocide took place. However, that trauma is not well known. Or maybe I would just like for it to be better known. I am not sure. Nevertheless, our ancestors fought for us to be here today. They fought for their basic rights to practice their traditions, for the respect of their culture and to keep the land they were born on. Some great chiefs such as Sitting Bull and Big Foot fought those battles, literally or figuratively. Today, let’s discuss another one of the great chiefs, Chief Joseph.

Chief Joseph: Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt

What does that mean you ask? Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt is chief Joseph’s birth name, meaning Thunder Rolling down a Mountain. What a beautiful name!! However, for the sake of keeping this short, I will continue to refer to him as Chief Joseph….Chief Joseph, a member of the Nez Perce tribe, was born in 1840 in Wallowa valley, which was in the Oregon territory. He was mostly known by the name of Joseph, the same name as his father, Old Joseph or Joseph the Elder. Old Joseph acquired his name after being baptized in 1838. Yes you read right, he was baptized. Indeed, Old Joseph had a uncommon relationship with Christianity for the times, as he converted to the religion. Although a controversial decision, it helped his relationship with his white neighbors. Chief Joseph (Junior) was then raised partly in a Christian mission. The peace between the Nez Perce people and the white people was however short lived. Why? Blame gold….Once gold was found on Nez Perce territory, the US government went back on its word, taking back acres and acres of land promised to the Nez Perce. Joseph the Elder renounced his bible in an act of defiance and out of frustration and refused to sign off on those new boundaries.

Chief Joseph

Chief Joseph by Edward S Curtis

Chief Joseph the leaderquote Chief Joseph

After the death of Old Joseph, his son took over and assumed his leadership. He was also against the loss of land and the proposed resettlement by the US government of the Nez Perce tribe. He worked closely with chiefs Looking Glass and White Bird. Together, they felt the tension mounting. Fearing a possible war, the chiefs actually backed down and agreed to the new boundaries.

However, chief White Bird had his own plans. Indeed, just before the resettlement was to happen, his band launched an attack, killing several white men. At that moment, understanding the repercussions of such an act, Chief Joseph chose not to go into war but rather to lead his people to safety. Contrary to chiefs who preceded him and who succeeded him, Chief Joseph chose to not fight, retreating instead. This was an unprecedented move. Some might see this as cowardliness. However, in order to be truly informed one has to known what Chief Joseph did next. Over the next months, Chief Joseph and his 700 followers actually embarked on a 1400 mile journey to Canada. Yes you read that right, 1400 on horses and walking! During that journey, they often had to defend themselves against US forces (that outnumbered them greatly), reaching numerous victories.

let things remain-Chief Joseph

A tiring journey

However, the journey was taking a toll on Chief Joseph and his men. With numerous deaths including the one of chief Looking Glass and Chief Joseph’s brother as well as women and children, in 1877 the group stopped 40 miles from the Canadian border, hungry and exhausted. They surrendered, Chief Joseph asking for time to look for the children, whether they were dead or alive. He famously said: “My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever”.

For the other half of his life, Chief Joseph continued to share the plight of his people first in Kansas then to present day Oklahoma. He pleaded to the authorities to be returned to the Nez Perce land, to no avail.  He was finally able/allowed to return to the Pacific Northwest in 1885. However, the land he had known as a child was no more. War and disease had taken numerous of his people and he himself died in 1904 in Washington. Some say he died of a broken heart, of sadness from seeing his homeland in such a state. Chief Joseph showed great strength and wisdom in his life, making the decision to try to lead his people to safety. Some might not agree with his decision, knowing now the end result. However, I see Chief Joseph for the kind heart that he was, the pacific leader who still fought for his people and their rights, the chief who died of a broken heart over his lost land and tribe.

quote Chief Joseph

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