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Meeting Chief Joseph

Chief Joseph and family, leader of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce Tribe.
Chief Joseph (center) and his family, circa 1880. Photo by F. M. Sargent
(courtesy the Washington State History Museum).

You wouldn’t expect a teenager who attended the Bronx High School of Science in the 1970s to be on personal terms with a famous Native American chief. But I was that teenager, and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce was that chief.

Today is Native American Heritage Day. This is what brings my thoughts back to Chief Joseph and his tribe’s valiant, but ultimately futile, conflict with the U.S. Army, in what proved to be the last of the American Indian Wars. I can’t recall exactly how I first became interested in the story. It may have been that I decided quite early, during my junior year, that I wanted to attend college in Montana. Or perhaps it was the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, that inspired me to look into the frontier history of the Northern Plains and Rockies.

I learned about the Nez Perce War from a book I found in my school library. Daydreaming in my classrooms overlooking a New York City reservoir, I tried to picture what it was like for a few hundred warriors to flee with their wives, children and livestock across more than 1,000 miles of farmland and wilderness while holding off pursuing soldiers for more than three months.

Nez Perce was a European-American name for a complex, interrelated group of tribal bands that lived between the Rocky Mountains and the Cascades, in what is now the Pacific Northwest. Traders and settlers early on conflated the Niimíipuu and the nearby Chinook; the former group today makes up the federally recognized Nez Perce of Idaho. Blessed with abundant resources, the Nez Perce hospitably offered sustenance and horses to Lewis and Clark’s near-starving party when it staggered down Idaho’s Clearwater River canyon in 1805. Americans celebrate Thanksgiving in the autumn due to early European colonists’ agrarian traditions. The Nez Perce had their own feast of thanksgiving in the spring, at the beginning of the first runs of Pacific salmon and other fish.

At the Walla Walla Council of 1855, the Nez Perce and neighboring tribes ceded much of their land to the United States. In exchange, the government granted them a sprawling reservation. The government also promised that the Nez Perce would retain traditional hunting, fishing and foraging rights on the territory they surrendered.

A familiar Western story then played out. Gold was discovered on tribal land; white miners and settlers flooded in; and the United States broke its promises and ordered the Nez Perce onto a reservation one-tenth the size of the one agreed at Walla Walla. One faction of the tribe agreed, but another – led by Chief Joseph and the heads of other bands – resisted. After some initial skirmishes, the Nez Perce sought to escape to the Plains, where they had ventured on occasion to hunt buffalo. There, they hoped their old friends among the Crow tribe would give them shelter.

But it was 1877. In 1876, the Crow had collaborated with the U.S. Army in its move against their longtime enemies, the Sioux and the Northern Cheyenne. That alliance ended in George Armstrong Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn. The Crow were in no position to oppose the Army the following year and refused to help. So the Nez Perce had to make a run for Canada, where they hoped to join Lakota chief Sitting Bull in his self-imposed exile following Custer’s defeat.

A few weeks after I arrived in Montana, I pedaled a campus bicycle 15 miles to a narrow valley just upstream of where Lolo Creek empties into the Bitterroot River, south of Missoula. This was the site of the notorious Fort Fizzle.

In the opening weeks of the Nez Perce war, the tribe crossed the mountains from present-day Idaho toward the Bitterroot Valley. The Army ordered Capt. Charles Rawn to intercept them. Rawn and his garrison of 35 soldiers, joined by dozens of volunteers from Missoula, quickly erected a barricade to block the tribe’s advance. Chief Joseph sent word that his band intended no violence and merely wanted safe passage. Rawn refused to allow them to pass. So the entire tribe clambered up the steep ridge and bypassed the barricade, earning it the sardonic nickname Fort Fizzle.

Today, you can see a replica of the original barricade on the site. When I went out there in 1974, I found only a historical marker. Still, I looked up at the steep, forested hillside, marveled at the tribe’s accomplishment, and tried to picture the soldiers’ and settlers’ faces when they discovered the Nez Perce gone.

The tribe proceeded peacefully through the Bitterroot Valley, trading with local merchants and settlers, and crossed the Continental Divide to the upper reaches of the Big Hole River. They mistakenly thought they were safe, but pursuing soldiers under Col. John Gibbon attacked them in their tipis at dawn. The tribe took heavy casualties – mainly women and children, but fighters too. Eventually, their superior marksmanship forced the soldiers to withdraw. For the next two months, they somehow managed to outrun American troops through the mountains, across the cold high plateau of Yellowstone National Park, and then northward across the prairie toward Canada.

Back at my dorm, I became close friends with a young man whose family ranched near Big Sandy, in north-central Montana. I also got to know a waitress in town who grew up in Pierce, Idaho, the exact place where the discovery of gold helped trigger the Nez Perce conflict. From her comments, I inferred that the sentiments of white locals in the 1970s toward their native neighbors had not appreciably changed from those of their forebears in the 1870s.

As Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce approached the Bear Paw Mountains, an isolated range that juts out of the plains about 40 miles south of the Canadian border, they thought they had escaped Gen. Oliver Howard and his pursuing troops. They were unaware that the Army – still furious over Custer’s defeat – had dispatched Col. Nelson Miles from his cantonment at the mouth of the Yellowstone River, some 250 miles away, to intercept them. In the last days of September, while the tribe camped in the Bear Paws, the harsher and earlier Northern Plains winter weather swept in. The Nez Perce found themselves caught in a snowstorm just as the forces of Miles and Howard converged on them.

For most, there was no way out. One band did manage to escape and eventually slip into Canada. The rest resisted for five days before Chief Joseph made his famous surrender speech.

“I am tired of fighting,” he said, according to the translation by interpreter Arthur Chapman, as transcribed by Lt. C.E.S. Wood. “Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzoote is dead. The old men are all dead … It is cold, and we have no blankets. 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. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall 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.”

In my sophomore year at college, my friend invited me to spend Thanksgiving at his family’s ranch. The snow was deep and the temperatures were brutal that November. It turned out to be great fun (or so my friend and his dad thought) to put the kid from the Bronx in the open gate leading out of a pasture, after instructing him to stop any cattle that might try to wander through the gate – without telling him exactly how to do that. As I pondered how to persuade a 1,600-pound animal not to go wherever it chose, I turned my gaze northward and saw the Bear Paws in the crystalline cold. I knew that the Nez Perce might have traversed the same pasture in which I stood in the final days of their desperate flight, followed shortly by Gen. Howard and his troops.

The story of Chief Joseph and his band has stayed with me ever since. I have seen his audio-animatronic doppelganger deliver a fragment of his speech at EPCOT many times. Chief Joseph’s Disney gig is probably how most modern Americans who recognize him at all first learned about him.

A few years ago I hired a band with Idaho roots, Micky and the Motorcars, to perform at our firm’s 25th anniversary party in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Like me, they feel a connection to the people who once lived on the land that helped shape us. The band’s 2014 album, “Hearts from Above,” includes a song that reflects on the Nez Perce’s story.

There are many ways to honor Native American Heritage Day. I suppose all the best ones involve native culture and tradition – not country music. But you could find worse ways to spend a few minutes today than listening to Micky Braun sing about the Nez Perce War. Just go to your favorite streaming service and look up “From Where the Sun Now Stands.”

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