October 5, 1877 is the day on which the wal’wá·ma band of the Nez Perce and members of other non-treaty bands lost their freedom. They’d intended to go quietly from the Wallowa to the reduced Idaho reservation, leaving and losing their homeland but continuing to live in nearby country among relatives from other bands. They crossed the Snake River into Idaho in spring runoff, and there the grief-stricken actions of some young Nez Perce in killing Idaho settlers—settlers known for their mistreatment of Indians—set off a fighting retreat of more than 1200 miles. It ended on this day 144 yeasr ago at the Bears Paw mountains in Montana, just 40 miles short of safety in Canada.
The books call it a surrender, and they call Joseph’s words, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever,” transcribed by General Howard’s adjunct, C.E.S Wood, a “surrender speech.” Some people from Joseph’s band tell me today that it was not a surrender, that Joseph stopped to parlay, delayed long enough for Chief White Bird and many others—maybe 150—to get to Canada, and agreed with Colonel Nelson Miles to stop hostilities in exchange for being allowed to return to Idaho. He did not, they say, surrender.
I don’t know the words and the language, and know that the speech has traveled its own journey—there is an entire book about the making and translating of Joseph’s words that day. We do know from white and Indian sources that Ollokot and Looking Glass and other war leaders were dead, and that the remaining Nez Perce, including the women and children who were Joseph’s responsibility, were cold and hungry.
And we know that the “deal,” which would have returned them to Idaho, was soon broken, that their journey would go for more miles and days to the Hot Country of Kansas and Indian Country. And we know that in 1885, after fiercely lobbying the government and the Presbyterians, Joseph and the remaining Nez Perce were allowed to come West. But not to Oregon; and Joseph and those close to him could not go to Idaho, where there was still a warrant for his arrest. Joseph– hinmato·wyalahtqit—and his wal’wá·ma band went to the Colville Reservation in Washington. Descendants of those 1885 refugees live there today.
New books are published regularly about that war and its pockets and corners—the time in the Hot Country; the Canada escapees; the time in Yellowstone National Park; the words and careers of generals Howard and Miles; the battle plans and river crossings and major battlefields. The Nez Perce story of removal, war, and betrayal has become an American epic, and its tellers and interpreters are many.
The popular press increasingly notices the story, though the details sometimes get confused: “On this day in 1877,” writes a small paper in New York State this morning, “Nez Perce Chief Joseph surrenders to Colonel Nelson Miles in Montana Territory, after a 1,700-mile trek to reach Canada falls 40 miles short.” The New York paper bought the “surrender.” No surprise as that is what the books say, but they might have expanded the miles to 1700 on their own; I don’t recall seeing that number before.
Garrison Keillor, the once popular radio host who still puts out a daily column of poems and history, wrote today that “Joseph resisted, and for a time it seemed he’d been successful since the government issued a federal order to remove white settlers from the Nez Perce lands, in support of their original treaty. Four years later the government reversed its decision and backed up the reversal with the threat of a cavalry attack.”
Garrison Keillor and his “Writers Almanac” writers are confused about the “original treaty” and the 1863 treaty and President Grant’s 1873 Executive Order “Reservation for the Roaming Nez Perce of the Wallowa Valley.” But over morning coffee in California or for most of the thousands who read Writers Almanac each morning, those details are not important. They are captured by the big story, the American epic.
In my perch in the Josephy Center in Joseph, Oregon, I get to meet visitors from across the world who have read a book or had their interest piqued by a newspaper column or a Curtis photo of Chief Joseph. Or they have a vague memory of a parent or teacher telling the story. Some have read one of Josephy’s books. I tell them that the relationship to the name of the town, Joseph, is accidental, that the town is in fact named after the famous leader, as is the rodeo. And I tell them that there is no Nez Perce community here—but that the people are coming home in increasing numbers, hunting, fishing, digging roots and harvesting huckleberries, celebrating at a dance arbor and a new longhouse near the town of Wallowa.
I tell them that it is a long and often sad story, but that 144 years from that cold October 5, the Nez Perce are resilient and proud, and the story of hinmato·wyalahtqit and his people is not over, and that they are coming home.
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