Born: c. 1840
Birthplace: Wallowa Valley, OR
Location of death: Nespelem, WA
Cause of death: Natural Causes
Remains: Other, Chief Joseph Cemetery, Nespelem, WA
Race or Ethnicity: American Aborigine
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Government, Military
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: "I will fight no more forever"
Chief Joseph's given name, Anglicized as Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, means Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain. His father was Chief of the Wallowa band of Nimi'ipuu natives -- the tribe's name means literally "we the people", but whites called them the Nez Percé (pierced noses) because the French Canadian trappers who first encountered and traded with the tribe were impressed that a few Nimi'ipuu elders had pierced noses. For years the Nez Percé got along well with the settlers, and Joseph the Elder was even being baptized into Christianity and re-named Joseph, leading young Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt to be known as Little Joseph.
Under Joseph the Elder's leadership, the tribe remained neutral during the Cayuse War (1847-1850), and fought alongside the US military during the Yakima War (1855-58). In 1855 the Nez Percé were resettled on a reservation spanning parts of present-day Oregon and Idaho, with Joseph the Elder's cooperation, but the arrangement was forgotten when gold was discovered on reservation land several years later and whites began mining reservation lands. Ordered to keep his people within a territory 90% smaller than had been originally agreed, Joseph the Elder was infuriated, and ceased cooperation with the settlers. The tensions continued until Joseph the Elder's death in 1871, after which Little Joseph was elected Chief.
Aware of the whites' superior firepower and manpower, Chief Joseph thought military resistance was futile, and initially acquiesced to an 1877 American military order that he and his people resettle again to a further isolated corner of reservation land. The decision, however, was effectively removed from his hands after one of his men was murdered by whites. A band of about twenty young Nez Percé warriors, without his authorization, raided nearby settlements and killed several whites in response, and after this, Joseph knew that the American military would retaliate furiously. Acknowledging that war was both unwinnable and unavoidable, Joseph planned an extended retreat spanning some 1,400 miles toward the hope of refuge in Canada.
Knowing that the whites would need several days to gather the men needed for warfare, and with his brother Olikut commanding the tribe's military maneuvers, Joseph and his people -- including hundreds of women and children -- vanished into the woods and began their long trek north and east. Pursued by US General Oliver O. Howard and several hundred soldiers, Joseph's men covered their tracks and instead made false trails suggesting that the tribe had crossed into a river. In encounters with white settlers along their path the Nez Percé traded instead of raided, and when pursuing soldiers followed days later the settlers were generally surprised to learn that the Indians they had met were considered "on the warpath".
As Army forces and volunteers were marshaled against them, Joseph repeatedly worked his forces into superior ground position, and the Nez Percé won several battles along the way, including a famed engagement at Big Hole, Montana. His military strategy earned grudging respect from Army officials, and in media reports Joseph was dubbed "the Red Napoleon". But the end, of course, was never really in doubt. After a battle at Montana's Bear Paw Mountain, Joseph surrendered on 5 October 1877, with a bullet scratch across his forehead, and gave the eloquent speech for which he is most often remembered, as published in the New York Times:
"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."
Joseph's surrender came after US Army officers promised that his people would be allowed to resettle on their reservation lands, but on the orders of General William T. Sherman this promise was canceled. Instead the Nez Percé were resettled first in eastern Kansas, and then relocated again to present-day Oklahoma. Beginning in 1883, some surviving members of the tribe were allowed to return to Oregon, but Joseph was held in Oklahoma until 1885, when he and other Nez Percé were sent to live among another tribe on the Colville Reservation in Washington state.
In his last years Chief Joseph said that he did not hate the whites, but complained that they had so many chiefs and none seemed to know or care what the other chiefs had said. He was permitted to briefly visit his homeland in the Wallowa Valley of Oregon in 1899, where he found that his father's grave had been robbed, and learned from locals that Joseph the Elder's skull was displayed in a dentist's office as a curio. In 1903, after years pleading for a meeting with the American President, he was allowed to meet with Theodore Roosevelt in Washington, DC, where he asked that his people be treated more fairly. He died in what he considered exile on the Colville Reservation in 1904, where he was buried.
Father: Tuekakas ("Joseph the Elder", Nez Percé Chief, b. circa 1765, d. 1871)
Mother: Khapkhaponimi ("Asenoth")
Wife: (m., several children)
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