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An Indian’s View of Indian Affairs

Historical Context

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.

Chief Joseph: An Indian’s View of Indian Affairs

In 1879, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perces people of what is now Oregon, testified in Washington, D.C., telling the story of his people’s resistance to signing away their ancestral lands with treaties. In this famous speech, printed in the North American Review, April 1879,  as “An Indian’s View of Indian Affairs,” Joseph goes on to tell how his people were to be forced onto a reservation. He tells of their flight across Montana toward Canada, of their eventual defeat and captivity, and of their forced removal to Kansas, far away from their homeland in the mountains. He died in 1904 without regaining his land in Oregon.

My friends, I have been asked to show you my heart. I am glad to have a chance to do so. I want the white people to understand my people. Some of you think an Indian is like a wild animal. This 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. I believe much trouble and blood would be saved if we opened our hearts more. I will tell you in my way how the Indian sees things. The white man has more words to tell you how they look to him, but it does not require many words to speak the truth. What I have to say will come from my heart, and I will speak with a straight tongue. Ahcumkinimamehut (the Great Spirit) is looking at me, and will hear me.

My name is Inmuttooyahlatlat (Thunder traveling over the Mountains). I am chief of the Wallamwatkin band of Chutepalu, or Nez Perces (nosepierced Indians). I was born in eastern Oregon, thirty-eight winters ago. My father was chief before me. When a young man, he was called Joseph by Mr. Spaulding, a missionary. He died a few years ago. There was no stain on his hands of the blood of a white man. He left a good name on the earth. He advised me well for my people.

Our fathers gave us many laws, which they had learned from their fathers. These laws were good. They told us to treat all men as they treated us; that we should never be the first to break a bargain; that it was a disgrace to tell a lie; that we should speak the truth; that it was a shame for one man to take from another his wife, or his property without paying for it. We were taught to believe that the Great Spirit sees and hears everything, and that he never forgets; that hereafter he will give every man a spirithome according to his deserts: if he has been a good man, he will have a good home; if he has been a bad man, he will have a bad home. This I believe, and all my people believe the same.

We did not know there were other people besides the Indian until about one hundred winters ago, when some men with white faces came to our country. They brought many things with them to trade for furs and skins. They brought tobacco, which was new to us. They brought guns with flint stones on them, which frightened our women and children. Our people could not talk with these whitefaced men, but they used signs which all people understand. These men were Frenchmen, and they called our people “Nez Perces,” because they wore rings in their noses for ornaments. Although very few of our people wear them now, we are still called by the same name…

The first white men of your people who came to our country were named Lewis and Clarke. They also brought many things that our people had never seen. They talked straight, and our people gave them a great feast, as a proof that their hearts were friendly. These men were very kind. They made presents to our chiefs and our people made presents to them. We had a great many horses, of which we gave them what they needed, and they gave us guns and tobacco in return. All the Nez Perces made friends with Lewis and Clarke, and agreed to let them pass through their country, and never to make war on white men. This promise the Nez Perces have never broken. No white man can accuse them of bad faith, and speak with a straight tongue. It has always been the pride of the Nez Perces that they were the friends of the white men.

When my father was a young man there came to our country a white man (Rev. Mr. Spaulding) who talked spirit law. He won the affections of our people because he spoke good things to them. At first he did not say anything about white men wanting to settle on our lands. Nothing was said about that until about twenty winters ago, when a number of white people came into our country and built houses and made farms. At first our people made no complaint. They thought there was room enough for all to live in peace, and they were learning many things from the white men that seemed to be good. But we soon found that the white men were growing rich very fast, and were greedy to possess everything the Indian had. My father was the first to see through the schemes of the white men, and he warned his tribe to be careful about trading with them. He had suspicion of men who seemed so anxious to make money. I was a boy then, but I remember well my father’s caution. He had sharper eyes than the rest of our people.

Next there came a white officer (Governor Stevens), who invited all the Nez Perces to a treaty council. After the council was opened he made known his heart. He said there were a great many white people in the country, and many more would come; that he wanted the land marked out so that the Indians and white men could be separated. If they were to live in peace it was necessary, he said, that the Indians should have a country set apart for them, and in that country they must stay. My father, who represented his band, refused to have anything to do with the council, because he wished to be a free man. He claimed that no man owned any part of the earth, and a man could not sell what he did not own.

Mr. Spaulding took hold of my father’s arm and said, “Come and sign the treaty.” My father pushed him away, and said: “Why do you ask me to sign away my country?  It is your business to talk to us about spirit matters, and not to talk to us about parting with our land.” Governor Stevens urged my father to sign his treaty, but he refused. “I will not sign your paper,” he said; “you go where you please, so do I; you are not a child, I am no child; I can think for myself. No man can think for me. I have no other home than this. I will not give it up to any man. My people would have no home. Take away your paper. I will not touch it with my hand.”

…My father was invited to many councils, and they tried hard to make him sign the treaty, but he was firm as the rock, and would not sign away his home. His refusal caused a difference among the Nez Perces.

…In order to have all people understand how much land we owned, my father planted poles around it and said:

“Inside is the home of my people–the white man may take the land outside. Inside this boundary all our people were born. It circles around the graves of our fathers, and we will never give up these graves to any man.”

…Soon after this my father sent for me. I saw he was dying. I took his hand in mine. He said: “My son, my body is returning to my mother earth, and my spirit is going very soon to see the Great Spirit Chief. When I am gone, think of your country. You are the chief of these people. They look to you to guide them. Always remember that your father never sold his country. You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home. A few years more, and white men will be all around you. They have their eyes on this land. My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your father and your mother.” I pressed my father’s hand and told him I would protect his grave with my life. My father smiled and passed away to the spirit-land.

I buried him in that beautiful valley of winding waters. I love that land more than all the rest of the world. A man who would not love his father’s grave is worse than a wild animal.

…I believe that the old treaty has never been correctly reported. If we ever owned the land we own it still, for we never sold it. In the treaty councils the commissioners have claimed that our country had been sold to the Government. Suppose a white man should come to me and say, “Joseph, I like your horses, and I want to buy them.”  I say to him, “No, my horses suit me, I will not sell them.”  Then he goes to my neighbor, and says to him:  “Joseph has some good horses. I want to buy them, but he refuses to sell.”  My neighbor answers, “Pay me the money, and I will sell you Joseph’s horses.”  The white man returns to me, and says, “Joseph, I have bought your horses, and you must let me have them.” If we sold our lands to the Government, this is the way they were bought.

[From Chief Joseph, “An Indian’s View of Indian Affairs,” North American Review, April 1879, 412-20.]

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