A STUDY ON CHIEF JOSEPH’S SURRENDER SPEECH TO THE U.S. ARMY
CHIEF JOSEPH: THE NEZ PERCE IN 1877
Chief Joseph, with the real name of Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekht – which means thunder rising to the mountain heights1, was one of the renowned Indians and Indian leaders during his time. It was in those times of great challenges and tragedy that such Indian leader stood in the midst of all in order to fight for the freedom and life of the Native Americans.
The remarkable event that ever happened to Chief Joseph and his people, the Nez Perce, was the battle of the Nez Perce. This battle was rooted from a progressive decrease of the rights of the Native Americans. By the onset of 18th century the Oregon Treaty was established, making the United States have jurisdiction over the Pacific Northwest lands. This treaty severely limited the Native Americans from their tribal lands. And in 1863, the US Government forced the Nez Perce to sign another treaty that will even reduce their rights to only 10 percent of their land2. This continuous diminishing of their rights eventually led Chief Joseph and his men to fight against the US Army. However, by October 1877, Miles3 managed to bombard and trap them – which led Chief Joseph and 418 Nez Perce to surrender.
In Chief Joseph’s speech of surrender to the US Army, he also mentioned the tragedy that happened to the Nez Perce. First, he mentions that Looking Glass is already dead in their last battle in the Bear’s Paw. Looking Glass is one of famous Nez Perce chief and warrior that joined the non-treaty army. In fact, it is described that US Army General Howard’s attempt to arrest Looking Glass led to a horrific consequence for their army4. He led serious battles that kept the US Army have things hard. For instance, the assault against Rains, which brought a large number of deaths of the US soldiers, was under the leadership of Looking Glass. Looking Glass and his men from his village joining Chief Joseph was a great factor to the battle. Indeed, such loss of a military leader – including the Toohulhulsote, one of chiefs of the Nez Perce – brought grief and a loss of hope in Chief Joseph’s heart.
He also mentioned the death of the old men – who are most probably the leaders of the Nez Perce. He said, “It is the young men who say no and yes”5 It is apparent that it is the young men who will be the ones to lead the people. Yet this even brought sadness to Chief Joseph since these young men, for sure, will not have the power and will to fight for their rights as their old men have. He even talks about the death of the leader of these young men who, for sure, is his younger brother Ollokot. Like the death of the military chiefs, a loss of these leaders would lead the Nez Perce into a greater tragic life.
A more significant part of Chief Joseph’s speech, however, is the condition of the Nez Perce during those times. His mention of not having any blankets to comfort their bodies in the cold environment attests to their tragic flight from the Euro-Americans. It is noted that Chief Joseph led his people into a 1,100-mile travel6 with many serious battles and engagements along their way7. The people had no perfect place to rest. They even have serious losses during battles: their belongings were burned, food were lost, etc. The people would just make a camp and eventually be driven out by the fierce battles they had to fight and flee from.
Furthermore, the most grievous thing is the death of many of the Naz Perce. Even the children and the women suffered drastically in their flight. At daylight or even during the night, death was upon the people. In August 9, 1877, for example, the US Army attacked the Naz Perce camp early in morning. Men searched their weapons in the dark; women with the children fleeing into far places. The tents in their camps ignited quickly and went burning; those who were not able to escape, including the children, were burned to death8. Although this brought Chief Joseph and his men to fight back ferociously, securing victory, it was at great cost of their lives. In the Yellowstone Park, for another example, about 150 of the Nerz Perce died throughout their journey since the Big Hole National Battle field, and the estimated number of able-bodied warriors remaining in the group was merely 100. Furthermore, the last battle that they had in the Bear’s Paw ended their hopes in further fleeing until they reach Canada. Failing to scout whether there are US Army soldiers following them, the Nez Perce decided to make camp and rest. By September 30, the US Army – under General Howard’s command – put the Nez Perce under siege. As Chief Joseph meant in his speech, the initial attack brought families to split – although those who remained could not be sure whether they have escaped successfully or not. And by October 1, the US Army fired at the Nez Perce not with rifles but with Hotchkiss guns9 with hard shells. The pits where the women and children were destroyed by these hard shells, making them buried alive10. Eventually, that battle led Chief Joseph and the rest of the Nez Perce to surrender.
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