My grandfather, whose childhood years were spent
in Wallowa County, Oregon, recalled that when he
was a child, he used to see members of the Nez Percé
tribe in the area, their summer hunting grounds.
You may or may not know that the Nez Percé
had been granted reservation lands in 1855
by the Washington Territory's
territorial governor, Isaac Stevens.
The land reserved for the tribe encompassed
their traditional hunting lands,
including the Wallowa Valley.
But as settlement by whites continued and gold was found,
the incentive to honor that treaty diminished.
The Nez Percé were offered a much smaller reservation centered around Lapwai, Idaho with schools,
a hospital and financial rewards.
In exchange, they had to cede their hunting lands.
Some of the tribal chiefs agreed,
but Chief Joseph (1840 - 1904) refused.
Unable come to an agreement with the U.S. government,
the non-treaty bands were threatened with forcible removal
if they did not voluntarily relocate to the reservation.
Chief Joseph led his followers on a trek
toward freedom in Canada.
Betrayed by their supposed allies, the Crow,
who joined forces with the government troops,
the Nez Percé were forced to surrender
after a five-day battle in freezing weather.
The people had no food or blankets to protect them.
Chief Joseph is remembered for
stirring words of surrender,
I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed;
Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead.
The old men are all dead. It is the young men
who say yes or no. He who led on the young men
is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets;
the little children are freezing to death. 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.
which actually may have been invented by an Army Lt. Charles Erskine Scott Wood --
or at least elegantly paraphrased.
By the time he surrended, more than 200
of Chief Joseph's followers were dead.
The chief and 400 survivors,
though promised safe passage to the reservation,
were herded into railroad cars and held in camps
in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas for 8 months
before being moved to Indian Territory (Oklahoma)
for ten years. Many of the surviving members
died of disease there.
They were finally permitted to return
to the Pacific Northwest,
though not officially to their beloved
hunting grounds in the Wallowa Valley.
Since my grandfather (1900 - 1994)
used to see tribal members
in the Wallowa Valley after the Chief's death,
it's clear that the tribal lands
still had a strong pull
on the psyches of the Nez Percé.
Photos by Edward S. Curtis
from the Library of Congress Collection.