Texts by and about Natives: Commentary

6. Chief Young Joseph, "An Indian's View of Indian Affairs"

In 1855, the Nez Percé Indians signed a treaty with Isaac Stevens, the governor of Washington Territory. Eight years later, white encroachments on Nez Percé lands prompted the negotiation of a new treaty and the creation of a much smaller reservation on the Clearwater River near Lewiston, Idaho. About a third of the tribe—including Chief Joseph and his band (the Wal-lam-wat-kin)—refused to honor this second treaty. The “nontreaty” Indians continued to live beyond the reservation boundaries. The people of Chief Joseph’s band made their homes west of the Snake River, in Oregon’s Wallowa Valley.

Chief Joseph’s son, Young Joseph, assumed leadership of the Wal-lam-wat-kin band in 1871. Over the next few years, he insisted that his people were not bound by the terms of the 1863 treaty because his father had not signed it. Federal officials allowed Chief Young Joseph’s people to remain in the Wallowa Valley until 1877, when they finally gave in to the demands of white settlers who wanted the land that Young Joseph’s band claimed as its own. General Oliver O. Howard delivered the government’s ultimatum to Young Joseph in May 1877, giving his people (and other nontreaty Nez Percé) thirty days to round up their livestock, make a dangerous crossing of the swollen Snake River, and move to the Clearwater reservation. The nontreaty bands had just begun moving when three young warriors killed four white settlers. The conflict that followed became known as the Nez Percé War of 1877.

This “war” actually was a series of skirmishes that erupted as six hundred Nez Percé men, women, and children fled across the Bitterroot Mountains to Montana and north toward the Canadian border. Soldiers under the command of General Howard gave chase, but Chief Young Joseph outmaneuvered the army for eleven hundred miles. By September 30, the Nez Percé had closed within forty miles of the Canadian border, but Colonel Nelson Miles’s forces finally trapped them and forced a surrender. On October 4, Young Joseph delivered a brief speech (recorded by General Howard’s aide) in which he said, "I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever." A total of 418 Nez Percé were taken captive and—contrary to the terms of surrender—exiled to Oklahoma.

Chief Young Joseph continued to fight for his people. In 1879 he traveled twice to Washington, D.C., to plead for permission to return his people to the Pacific Northwest. One of the speeches he delivered was recorded, edited and likely embellished, and printed in the North American Review. The excerpts that we have included reveal Young Joseph’s interpretation of the history leading up to the 1877 conflict and his case for allowing his people to return to their native land. Although the Nez Percé eventually were allowed to move to the reservation in Idaho, Young Joseph never again saw the land where his father was buried. He died on the Colville reservation in Washington in 1904.

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