Friday, October 5, 2012

"I Will Fight No More Forever"

Today marks the anniversary of Chief Joseph's surrender.

The Nez Perce (Nez Per-say) Native Americans of Wallowa Valley, Oregon, had established treaties with the United States Government that allowed them to remain on their ancestral land.  However, in 1877, General Oliver Otis Howard rescinded the government's treaty with the Native Americans and ordered them to leave.  He promised to attack if the natives did not resettle into Idaho.

A bad situation became worse after some members of the Nez Perce tribe retaliated with violence.  In order to save the lives of as many of his people as possible, Chief Joseph led the Nez Perce in a thousand-mile retreat toward the safety of the Canadian border.  He led 700 New Perce Indians (mostly civilians) while dodging and fighting Howard's force of 2000 Federal troops.

After three months of desperate conflict, in which 200 of his people died, Chief Joseph surrendered.  He was in the mountains of Montana, only fifty miles from the border with Canada, but he refused to go on.  Instead, he said this:
Tell General Howard I know his heart.  What he told me before, I have it in my heart.  I am tired of fighting.  Our chiefs are killed.  Looking Glass is dead, To-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.
I always read this speech to my class after we read Martin Luther King's essay on non-violent resistance from Stride Toward Freedom.  One year, after I had turned 30, fathered a son, and become more acutely aware of my own mortality, I actually was so moved by Joseph's speech that I choked on the last few words.

Chief Joseph surrendered, but he never saw his home again.  The U.S. Government settled his people first in Kansas, then Oklahoma.  Though the Nez Perce did eventually go back to the Pacific Northwest, they were not allowed to return to the Wallowa Valley.  Chief Joseph died in 1904.

Source Cited:
"Chief Joseph Surrenders" American Memory.  Lib. of Congress. 4 October 2012


  1. aaron, i love your blog! this is something i don't think i ever learned in school. so heartbreaking. thanks for sharing.

    1. I'm so glad you enjoy it--it means a lot to me. Thanks!