“Our fathers gave us many laws, which they had learned from their fathers. These laws were good. They told us to treat all people as they treated us; that we should never be the first to break a bargain; that is was a disgrace to tell a lie; that we should speak only the truth; that it was a shame for one man to take another's wife or his property without paying for it.” – Chief Joseph
When he died in 1904, most Americans who knew his people’s story considered Chief Joseph, whose Nez Percé name is Himahtooyahlatkekt (“Thunder Rolling Down from the Mountains”), a military genius and an “Indian Napoleon.” This assessment of the Native American leader was based on a 1,500-mile odyssey during which he and his people left their reservation in the hopes of escaping to Canada, where the Nez Percé intended to join Sitting Bull and his Hunkpapa Sioux band. The real Chief Joseph was a gifted speaker and more diplomat than war leader. It’s not surprising that Chief Joseph was misunderstood and misrepresented by Americans because his people’s name was as well; Nez Percé literally means “pierced nose” in French, but it is unclear whether the tribe ever used nose piercing as a form of ornament.
At the time of Joseph’s birth, the Nez Percé were rapidly becoming the most influential and wealthy tribe in the region, and their prospects seemed bright. Lewis and Clark had considered his ancestors sufficiently friendly and reliable that they left their horses with them as they loaded onto canoes and journeyed to the Pacific Coast. By the time of Joseph’s birth in 1840, the Nez Percé had maintained friendly relations with American settlers for several decades. But their attitudes would soon change as the United States government began to coerce them to cede their traditional homeland to newly arrived white settlers, and the Nez Percé began suffering a fate very similar to that of other Native American tribes to the east. Joseph had inherited tribal leadership from his father in 1871, and for six tumultuous years he attempted to peacefully resist settlers who desired the tribe’s fertile potential farmland in the Wallowa Valley of present-day northeastern Oregon. Thus it was Chief Joseph who fought the Nez Perce War against the U.S. Army in 1877, earning grudging respect from the people who sought to defeat them.
Chief Joseph’s Own Story looks at the life and legacy of the famous Native American leader, recounting the history of his tribe and the Nez Perce War in his own words. Chief Joseph’s Own Story also includes a Table of Contents.