What's Tony Thinking

Seven Reasons Why the Story of Joseph and the Nez Perce Has Proven Enduring


I recently finished Daniel Sharfstein’s magisterial work, Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard and the Nez Perce War. With this 600 plus page volume, Sharfstein, a professor of both history and law at Vanderbilt, joins a host of historians, novelists, biographers and poets who have inspired to write about the Nez Perce.

“Nez Perce,” meaning “pierced nose,” was a name given to this people by French explorers, but it wasn’t their name for themselves. They were, and are, the Nimi’ipuu, meaning  “the real people.” Moreover, the Nez Perce were less a single, monolithic tribe than a numbern of loosely affiliated bands. “The Joseph Band” lived in the Wallowa Valley in northeast Oregon part of the year, descending to the more protected Snake and Imnaha River canyons in Oregon and Idaho for winter. 

Fascination with the story of Joseph and the Nez Perce has proven lasting, even growing, with Sharfstein’s contribution to the literature one of the best of recent works. But why has this story proven just so compelling? Here are seven thoughts — reasons — for its enduring power. 

First, the character of the Nez Perce themselves. Many of the early white explorers, including Lewis and Clark, noted that the Nez Perce stood out among native peoples for their quality of life and culture. “Joseph and his people,” writes Sharfstein, “nurtured a set of ways to live properly as well as a strong sense of right and wrong.” This was evident in their interactions with whites. The Lewis and Clark Expedition staggered out of the Bitteroot Mountains of Idaho in the winter of 1805 just barely alive. They would have failed in their quest without the aid and the sanctuary provided by the Nez Perce. Subsequently, the Nez Perce evidenced remarkable restraint in the face of provocations from white settlers and constantly shifting government policy.

Second, Joseph whose name, Heinmot Tooyalakekt, meant “Thunder in the Mountains,” was an especially powerful embodiment of the Nez Perce qualities of a strong moral compass and spiritual depth. Tall and striking, Joseph wasn’t primarily a warrior or war chief, but a spokesman and advocate for his people. He left all who encountered him impressed by his dignity and resolve. From the beginning his quest was to find a way to live with the white settlers. In doing so, Joseph often turned the words and concepts of the whites and U.S. government, words like “liberty” and “equality,” against them. 

But, and third among reasons for the continuing power of the story, even Joseph proved unable to manage peaceful co-existence with the influx of white trappers and prospectors, ranchers and farmers. In the summer of 1877 a war began that took this band of the Nez Perce on an arduous 1,700 mile trek fleeing the U.S. Army under the command of General O. O. Howard. Howard’s job was to capture the band and force them onto a reservation near Lapwai, Idaho. Failing that, they were to exterminate these “non-treaty” Nez Perce (Those who had agreed to settle at Lapwai and adopt a white way of life were known as “the treaty Nez Perce.” To this day a schism persists between the two groups.)

In the end, Joseph surrendered, as winter closed in, just 40 miles south of their goal, the Canadian border north of Montana. But before that surrender the Joseph band of the Nez Perce, probably numbering about 700, including women, children and the elderly, along with extensive horse and cattle herds, eluded and confounded Howard’s soldiers time and again. Their courage and resourcefulness on that epic journey riveted the attention of people across the U.S. as did Joseph’s eloquence in surrender. 

“I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking-Glass is dead. Ta-hool-hool-shoot is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who leads

the young men is 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 — may be freezing to death. I want time to look

for my children and see how many of them I can find. May be 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.”

His words, particularly that final sentence, became known throughout the world. At the time they were widely reported in the nation’s newspapers, and paved the way for Joseph’s remarkable post-war celebrity, a fourth reason for the endurance of this story.

In surrender Joseph and his band were promised they would have a portion of the ancestral land near Lapwai, Idaho. But like virtually every other promise of the U.S. government and its representatives, this one was broken. Thus began an eight year exile that started in North Dakota, before taking them to hot and barren “Indian Country” in Oklahoma. In 1885 they were allowed to return to the Northwest not, however, to Lapwai but to the Colville reservation near Nespelem, Washington. 

Still, Joseph, who died in 1904, never ceased advocating for his people and for their right to their ancestral homeland in the Wallowas. His advocacy took him across the country on numerous speaking trips to Washington, D. C. and New York, among other cities. He met with President Theodore Roosevelt twice. Everywhere he went he sought allies and an opportunity to tell the story of his people. “Some of you think an Indian is a wild animal. That is a great mistake. I will tell you all about our people, and then you can judge whether an Indian is a man or not.” Joseph moved many to tears with his oratory, but few to action. His band remained exiled to Colville, where his descendants live today. 

(Part Two of this post, with several more thoughts on the enduring power of the Nez Perce story, as well as some concluding observations, will appear in a few days). 

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