Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce : The Untold Story of an American Tragedy
Hidden in the shadow cast by the great western expeditions of Lewis and Clark lies another journey every bit as poignant, every bit as dramatic, and every bit as essential to an understanding of who we are as a nation the 1,800 mile journey made by Chief Joseph and eight hundred Nez Perce men, women, and children from their homelands in what is now eastern Oregon through the most difficult, mountainous country in western America to the high, wintry plains of Montana. There, only forty miles from the Canadian border and freedom, Chief Joseph, convinced that the wounded and elders could go no farther, walked across the snowy battlefield, handed his rifle to the U.S. military commander who had been pursuing them, and spoke his now famous words, From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.
The story has been told many times, but never before in its entirety or with such narrative richness. Drawing on four years of research, interviews, and 20,000 miles of travel, Nerburn takes us beyond the surrender to the captives unlikely welcome in Bismarck, North Dakota, their tragic eight year exile in Indian Territory, and their ultimate return to the Northwest. Nerburn reveals the true, complex character of Joseph, showing how the man was transformed into a myth by a public hungry for an image of the noble Indian and how Joseph exploited the myth in order to achieve his single goal of returning his people to their homeland.
Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce is far more than the story of a man and a people. It is a grand saga of a pivotal time in our nation s history. Its pages are alive with the presence of Lewis and Clark, General William Tecumseh Sherman, General George Armstrong Custer, and Sitting Bull. Its events brush against the California Gold Rush, the Civil War, the great western pioneer migration, and the building of the telegraph and the transcontinental railroad. Once you have read this groundbreaking work, you will never look at Chief Joseph, the American Indian, or our nation s westward journey in the same way again.
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September 30, 2006
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Excerpt from Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce by Kent Nerburn
"We Thought They Might Be Descended from Dogs"
The nez perce first encountered the European world, and the Europeans first encountered theirs, in a wide, pine-rimmed meadow in the foothills of the Bitterroot Mountains on a sunlit day in the autumn of 1805. There, in a flower-covered field called the Weippe Prairie, in the state we now call Idaho, three young Nez Perce boys were lazily playing with sticks and bows while their mothers and grandmothers dug camas roots on the far side of the clearing. It was the autumn gathering time, and the roots they dug would be dried and pulverized and made into meal for bread. A good harvest meant a good winter, and this year the harvest was good.
Smoke rose from fires near the buffalo-skin teepees, which were set in the same places they had been set for as long as anyone could remember. Each family had its own spot, each band its own area. The gathering had the gentle grace of a yearly ritual, when the different bands of the tribe came together from their distant homelands to share in the harvest, to meet family and friends, and to offer the firstfruits of the camas gathering in thanks to the earth for the bounty she had given.
Only women and children and elders were in the camp. The younger men had gone off across the rugged hills toward the south to confront the Shoshone, who had killed three Nez Perce peace emissaries the season before. It would be some time before they would return, and by that time the harvest would be finished and the bands would be ready to return to their respective wintering grounds in the lower valleys, where the snow seldom reached and the waters seldom froze. The sun was warm, the digging was good, and the day had an air of quietude and peace.
Through this golden autumn peace the three boys heard the snorts of horses and saw a glint of movement in the woods on a nearby hillside. Soon a figure emerged, then another and another, all on horseback, all unlike any the boys had ever seen. They had arms like men, legs like men. But their faces were covered with fur, like dogs. One of the figures had hair the color of sunset. Another was black and had hair like a buffalo. He looked like a warrior painted for night battle, except that the blackness was not paint but skin itself.
The boys tried to run, but the creature with the sunset hair caught up with them. He made gestures of peace with his hands and gave them lengths of red ribbon. He motioned for them to return to camp and bring back the leaders of the people.
The boys arrived at the lodges breathless and terrified. They pointed to the field and told of the pale beasts with the hairy faces and held up the ribbons they had been given. In the Nez Perce fashion, the youngest boy was asked to deliver the worst news about these beasts they had encountered. He huddled with the other boys for a moment, then turned and spoke solemnly. "They all had eyes like dead fish," he said.