Oregon Focus: People to Know: Chief Joseph, the Elder and the Younger

About Chief Joseph, the Elder and the Younger

Chief Joseph posing in traditional attire
Chief Joseph the Younger circa 1902. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)
Two of the most famous Native American leaders in America are Chief Joseph the Elder and Chief Joseph the Younger of the Nez Perce tribe.
Chief Joseph the Elder made a treaty with the United States in 1855 that granted the Wallowa country to the Nez Perce forever.
In 1863 the press of white men and their desire to have the lush rolling pastures of the Wallowa country led the United States government to draw up a treaty calling for the Indians to leave the area and live on a much smaller reservation centered around the village of Lapwai in Idaho. The Nez Perce never recognized this treaty, and they stayed on their lands. Chief Joseph the Elder died in 1871.
The pressure of the white settlers grew and finally Chief Joseph the Younger agreed to leave. But the night before they were to go in 1877, some white men stole a large number of their horses -- their most precious possessions -- and they went to war. This was a war of defense, as they knew they were greatly outnumbered. They retreated and hoped to reach the Canadian border and live there in peace. For four months they struggled north, they fought 12 different battles with U.S. soldiers, and escaped four different armies. They traveled almost 1,000 miles. Finally, starvation, cold, and fatigue forced them to surrender only a few miles from the Canadian border. Chief Joseph said, "I am tired of fighting. My people ask me for food, and I have none to give. It is cold, and we have no blankets, no wood. My people are starving to death. Where is my little daughter? I do not know. Perhaps even now she is freezing to death. Hear me, my Chiefs, I have fought; but from where the sun now stands, Joseph will fight no more."
The Nez Perce were removed to Kansas and then to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma), but some years later about 200 of them were allowed to move back to the dry coulees of Colville Reservation in eastern Washington. This was a far cry from the beautiful green rolling hills of the Wallowas, "The Valley of the Winding Waters."
These two chiefs are noted for their great dignity and honor in their efforts to deal with the white settlers and the U.S. government. Chief Joseph the Younger told government officials in Washington D.C.: "If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian he can live in peace. There need be no trouble. Treat all men alike. Give them all the same law. All men were made by the Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers."
Many places have been named for Chief Joseph, including Chief Joseph Dam on the Columbia River, Chief Joseph Pass in Montana, and at least three schools in the Northwest.
Chief Joseph in headdress posing with gun
Chief Joseph the Younger holds a rifle circa 1903. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)
Also see a Notable Oregonian description for Chief Joseph, the Younger.

Suggestions for Teachers

Ask students to:
List and discuss preconceived ideas about Native Americans from television and film.
Discuss what a treaty is. Draw up a treaty between two groups of students in the room.
Act out a tribal council discussing treaties, leading to an understanding of why the Nez Perce never recognized the treaty banning them from the Wallowa country.
Dramatize part of the flight to Canada, including the surrender.
Draw pictures showing how the Nez Perce felt when they had to leave their homeland and when they moved to the reservation.
Invite a Native American to show the class traditional clothing, songs, and dances.
See Native American artifacts at a local museum.
Study a map and locate and list the Native American names and meanings for places nearby. Oregon Geographic Names by Lewis A. McArthur is a good source.
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