Joseph was the leader of a band of Nez Perce Indians that lived for millennia in the valleys and canyons of the Wallowa Country in what is now Northeast Oregon. In 1855, Old Joseph, the father of the chief who became a national figure during and after the War of 1877, along with leaders of many bands of Nez Perce and other plateau tribes, went to Isaac Stevens’ Walla Walla Treaty Council, where Joseph and most Nez Perce band leaders signed the Nez Perce Treaty of 1855. He returned peacefully to the Wallowa homeland, which was included in its boundaries.
The Nez Perce fared well in that first treaty, being the only tribe not to be “confederated” with neighboring tribes, and retaining a substantial amount of land that stretched from the Wallowas in the south and west far into what is now Washington and Idaho north and east. But in 1861 gold was discovered in Idaho, and in 1862, 18,000 illegal white miners were working it. In 1863 a new treaty, which reduced Nez Perce lands by almost 90 percent, was engineered and the tribe—numbering about 3,000--5,000 then—split into treaty and non-treaty bands. Joseph did not sign what Indian heirs and some historians call the “liars’ treaty,” which excluded the Wallowas.
He did return to the Wallowas—where no gold had been found, and for some years life went on as before. But the Homestead Act of 1862 and a dry grass year in the nearby Grande Ronde Valley a few years later brought settlers in. Whites and Indians tried and for the most part did get along for several years, but a few local incidents, a rabble rousing newspaper man in Union County, the Modoc Wars, Indian affairs in the wake of the Civil War, President Grant’s failed attempt to rescind the 1863 Treaty and give half of the Wallowas to the Joseph Band, and Custer’s debacle all combined to force young Joseph (his father had passed in 1871) to move his people toward the reduced Idaho reservation in the spring of 1877.
In the move, while in Idaho, killings occurred, war broke out, and it ended 1400 miles later with Joseph and the non-treaties 40 miles short of Canada and Sitting Bull’s camp. Although promised a return to the Northwest by those they surrendered to, the Nez Perce spent years in exile in Kansas and Indian Territory. When they returned, in 1884, Idaho and Oregon did not want Chief Joseph or any Nez Perce of warrior age, and Joseph and those close to him ended up on the Colville Reservation in Washington. He tried continually to come back to the Wallowas, but was always rebuffed. On his last trip, Federal money in hand to purchase land, he was “made sport of” by the locals, according to the papers.
Joseph died “of a broken heart” on the Colville Reservation in 1904. We in Oregon and Idaho can take no pride in the way we treated him and the Nez Perce—or other tribal peoples for that matter—in that time, but we can admit our errors and make his descendants welcome again. There is now a “Nez Perce Homeland Project” of 320 acres near the Oregon town of Wallowa. There is an annual powwow; there are naming ceremonies and giveaways and burials.
Idaho—and the Northwest and the Nation—can embrace Chief Joseph now, but it is the privilege and job of Oregonians to do so first, and identifying him nationally with his ancient homeland with this small gesture of an Oregon State statue in the nation’s capitol is a first step. There will be many more.
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