Speech by Chief Joseph on a Visit to Washington, DC Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce people came to Washington in 1879 to ask questions. His people had wanted to continue to live as they always had on their ancestral homeland. When white settlers desired the Nez Perces' land, however, the Nez Perce were forcibly removed. In 1877, fleeing a cavalry attack aimed at driving the Nez Perces from their home in Oregon's Wallowa Valley, Joseph led a group of 700 of his people (only 200 of whom were warriors) on a 1,400-mile tactical retreat, trying to reach safety in Canada. When he finally did surrender, he was promised that his people would be able to return to their homes in the Wallowa Valley, but they were instead forced to go to Kansas and then relocated to a reservation in Oklahoma. It was during this exile that Chief Joseph made his trip to Washington.

Summary Overview

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce people came to Washington in 1879 to ask questions. His people had wanted to continue to live as they always had on their ancestral homeland. When white settlers desired the Nez Perces' land, however, the Nez Perce were forcibly removed. In 1877, fleeing a cavalry attack aimed at driving the Nez Perces from their home in Oregon's Wallowa Valley, Joseph led a group of 700 of his people (only 200 of whom were warriors) on a 1,400-mile tactical retreat, trying to reach safety in Canada. When he finally did surrender, he was promised that his people would be able to return to their homes in the Wallowa Valley, but they were instead forced to go to Kansas and then relocated to a reservation in Oklahoma. It was during this exile that Chief Joseph made his trip to Washington.

Defining Moment

Since the 1830s, Indian removal had been the official policy of the federal government in the East. In the Southeast, where white Americans were eager to plant cotton and other crops grown for profit on plantations worked by slaves, the federal government forced tribes like the Cherokee to move to Indian Territory, in present-day Oklahoma. By the 1850s and 1860s, the gaze of white settlers seeking more land turned to the West. In the Wallowa Valley of eastern Oregon and western Idaho, the Nez Perce people saw settlers coming down the Oregon Trail in large numbers. Chief Joseph's father, Old Joseph, worked with the territorial government to establish a reservation for his people, giving up some land in return for the hope of being able to remain in their territory. However, in 1863, the federal government reduced the size of the Nez Perce Reservation by some ninety percent—approximately six million acres—and Old Joseph was incensed.

When Chief Joseph took over leadership after his father's death in 1871, he continued his father's resistance to the small reservation in Idaho. An 1873 agreement reached with the federal government that allowed the Nez Perces to remain and prevented white settlement was revoked only two years later. By early 1877, however, Chief Joseph had seen the futility of resistance and began to lead his people to the reservation. After a number of young warriors in his group resisted by staging a raid that resulted in a number of white deaths, however, he was forced to continue resisting by trying to lead his people to safety in Canada while being pursued by the US Army. Fighting a number of defensive actions along the way, Joseph won almost universal praise not only for his skill as a military leader, but also for the “civilized” way in which he and his people fought, restraining themselves from scalping slain soldiers, releasing captive women, and not killing innocent families that lived near the battle sites. However influential Joseph was in the Nez Perce way of making war, later research has revealed that it was actually other leaders, such as one named Looking Glass, who deserve much of the credit for military strategy.

Although the popular press and stalwarts, such as General William Tecumseh Sherman praised Chief Joseph, such praise resulted in little benefit for his people. After being promised by General Nelson Miles, who led the pursuing forces, that he and his people would be allowed to return to the Idaho reservation if he surrendered, they were taken to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where poor conditions resulted in many deaths. The Nez Perces were eventually allowed to settle on a part of the Cherokee Reservation in Indian Territory, over a thousand miles from their homeland. It was then that Joseph began to do whatever he could to convince the federal government to allow his people to return to a reduced reservation close to their homelands.

Author Biography

Chief Joseph was named Hin-mah-too-lat-kekt (Thunder Rolling down the Mountain) upon his birth circa 1840, but also took the Christian name Joseph that his father had taken upon his conversion to Christianity. Chief Joseph became leader of his band of Nez Perces upon his father's death in 1871. His father had worked to maintain good relationships with the non-Indian settlers, so that his people would be able to stay in the Wallowa Valley. Their peaceful coexistence ended, however, after gold was discovered in the region in 1860 and the federal government reneged on its 1873 pledge of a permanent homeland for the Nez Perces in the valley a few years later. Subsequently, Chief Joseph led his people on a 1,400-mile trip, staying ahead of the Army when they could and fighting tactical battles when they could not. After his exhausted people submitted to the Army, Joseph delivered his iconic surrender speech, stating famously, “I will fight no more forever.”

Historical Document

At last I was granted permission to come to Washington and bring my friend Yellow Bull and our interpreter with me. I am glad I came. I have shaken hands with a good many friends, but there are some things I want to know which no one seems able to explain. I cannot understand how the Government sends a man out to fight us, as it did General Miles, and then breaks his word. Such a government has something wrong about it. I cannot understand why so many chiefs are allowed to talk so many different ways, and promise so many different things. I have seen the Great Father Chief [President Hayes]; the Next Great Chief [Secretary of the Interior]; the Commissioner Chief; the Law Chief; and many other law chiefs [Congressmen] and they all say they are my friends, and that I shall have justice, but while all their mouths talk right I do not understand why nothing is done for my people. I have heard talk and talk but nothing is done. Good words do not last long unless they amount to something. Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country now overrun by white men. They do not protect my father's grave. They do not pay for my horses and cattle. Good words do not give me back my children. Good words will not make good the promise of your war chief, General Miles. Good words will not give my people a home where they can live in peace and take care of themselves. I am tired of talk that comes to nothing. It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and all the broken promises. There has been too much talking by men who had no right to talk. Too many misinterpretations have been made; too many misunderstandings have come up between the white men and the Indians. 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 the same laws. Give them all an even chance to live and grow. All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers. The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it. You might as well expect all rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases. If you tie a horse to a stake, do you expect he will grow fat? If you pen an Indian up on a small spot of earth and compel him to stay there, he will not be contented nor will he grow and prosper. I have asked some of the Great White Chiefs where they get their authority to say to the Indian that he shall stay in one place, while he sees white men going where they please. They cannot tell me.

I only ask of the Government to be treated as all other men are treated. If I cannot go to my own home, let me have a home in a country where my people will not die so fast. I would like to go to Bitter Root Valley. There my people would be happy; where they are now they are dying. Three have died since I left my camp to come to Washington.

When I think of our condition, my heart is heavy. I see men of my own race treated as outlaws and driven from country to country, or shot down like animals.

I know that my race must change. We cannot hold our own with the white men as we are. We only ask an even chance to live as other men live. We ask to be recognized as men. We ask that the same law shall work alike on all men. If an Indian breaks the law, punish him by the law. If a white man breaks the law, punish him also.

Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think and act for myself—and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty.

Whenever the white man treats the Indian as they treat each other then we shall have no more wars. We shall be all alike—brothers of one father and mother, with one sky above us and one country around us and one government for all. Then the Great Spirit Chief who rules above will smile upon this land and send rain to wash out the bloody spots made by brothers' hands upon the face of the earth. For this time the Indian race is waiting and praying. I hope no more groans of wounded men and women will ever go to the ear of the Great Spirit Chief above, and that all people may be one people.

Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekht has spoken for his people.

Glossary

Bitter Root Valley: (or Bitterroot): an area in southwestern Montana

General Miles: Nelson Miles, US military commander in the Great Plains and Northern Plains regions

Hin-mah-too-lat-kekt: Nez Perce name of Chief Joseph

Document Analysis

Chief Joseph, who assumed the leadership of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perces in 1871, assumed a much wider leadership in 1877, when he led approximately seven hundred of his people on a quest to reach Canada in order to preserve their traditional way of life. However, when he and his people—worn out, tired, and hungry from the 1,400 mile trek—surrendered to General Nelson Miles in Montana, only forty miles short of the Canadian border, he became a symbol of what was perceived as the end of the traditional American Indian way of life. Some parts of that way of life could be maintained on reservations, but Joseph, like his father before him, was determined that the reservation should be on the homelands of his people in the Wallowa Valley.

After the surrender, however, Chief Joseph and his people were not returned home, but were taken first to Fort Leavenworth and then to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, which resulted in virulent disease outbreaks among his people. By June 1879, out of the 700 that started on the trek, only 370 remained alive. In January of that year, Chief Joseph had been allowed to go to Washington, DC, in order to meet with President Rutherford B. Hayes, but he was dissatisfied with the outcome. In his speech, Chief Joseph focuses on the dissonance between the words and the actions of the army and federal government. From Miles's promise of a return to Oregon to the promises of assistance in helping the Nez Perces start to farm, Chief Joseph concludes, “It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and all the broken promises.”

The solution to the problem, according to Joseph, is as simple as it is American—that all people should be treated the same way under the law and that their freedom and self-determination should be respected. He has already accepted the inevitability of changing over to non-Indian ways of life, but the only way that he sees this being successful is by treating Indian people just as white people are before the law and allowing them the freedom of movement that is taken for granted by other Americans: “You might as well expect all rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases.” Much of what Joseph says may seem like common sense in post–civil rights movement America, and may even echo earlier arguments, such as those made by Cherokee leader John Ross some forty years prior, but neither proved persuasive enough to slow, stop, or mediate white settlement and cultural domination of the United States or the government's corresponding maltreatment of American Indians.

Essential Themes

Chief Joseph's 1877 flight and his speeches both at the surrender and two years later in Washington, DC, enhanced his personal stature as a leader in the eyes of non-Indians, but unfortunately did very little for his people. Living in northeastern Oklahoma, in an unfamiliar land with no ties to Nez Perce spiritual life, near swamps that held diseases to which the Nez Perces had little immunity, and in a climate that was ill-suited to agriculture, the Nez Perces did not fare well. Chief Joseph's 1879 appearance in Washington, DC, did little to change that situation.

In 1885, however, Chief Joseph and his band were allowed to return to the Pacific Northwest, although nowhere near his beloved Wallowa Valley. They were settled on the Colville Indian Reservation in eastern Washington, approximately 300 miles away. After returning, Chief Joseph tried to live a traditional life and continued working to allow his people to return home. In 1899, he was allowed to visit the Wallowa Valley, only to find his father's grave ransacked and his bones taken as curios. He died in his home on the Colville Reservation on September 21, 1904.

Both in life and death, Chief Joseph became a symbol of a more noble vision of American Indian resistance. His surrender speech and his speech in Washington, DC, added to the transformation of many peoples' visions of American Indians as savages to a more benign or even positive view. His words and actions demonstrated his own morality at a time when some white Americans were just beginning to view federal Indian policy as immoral. Though late nineteenth-century white reform groups, such as Friends of the Indian, would push for what they saw as a more humane Indian policy and the end of warfare with Indian nations, their agenda—based on boarding school education, individual land ownership, and complete assimilation into mainstream American society—opposed the values and way of life that Chief Joseph took his principled stand to protect.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Hampton, Bruce. Children of Grace: The Nez Perce War of 1877. 1994. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002. Print.
  • Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. Nez Perce Country. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2007. Print.
  • ________. The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest. 1979. Boston: Houghton, 1997. Print.
  • West, Elliot. The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
Categories: History Content