This year marks the 27th anniversary of the first National Native American Heritage Month declared by President George H.W. Bush. It’s one of the few times American Indians are anything but stereotypes or invisible. Unfortunately, while Indians and some of our allies make an effort to correct the historical record, too many myths continue to thrive.
Take the case of Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, who is known to most Americans as Chief Joseph, a leader of the Wallowa band of Nez Perce (Nimíipuu) of Oregon.
He is best remembered for leading a nearly 1,200-mile flight of hundreds of his people toward Canada 140 years ago to join the Hunkpapa Lakota Sitting Bull at a time when the U.S. Army was penning up the Plains tribes on ever smaller reservations in the wake of the defeat of the Seventh Cavalry at Little Big Horn the year before.
Chief Joseph and family about 1880.
As you can read in Elliott West’s The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story, it was a close thing. Joseph and his band almost made it to Canada, chased the entire distance by the one-armed Gen. Oliver Howard, Gen. Nelson Miles, and their troops. By the time the Nez Perce surrendered, many of the tribe’s leading warriors, including Joseph’s brother, were dead, many women and children and elders had died from the rigors of the attempt to escape, and everyone still alive was starving. The pursuit, or the versions of it that the Army-embedded reporters sent back to their editors, generated some sympathy, especially in the East where scores of tribes had been exterminated through disease, war, and murder long before the Nez Perce made their doomed bid for freedom.
When the battered Nez Perce gave up, Joseph is said to have given a short statement, which has since become one of the most famous American Indian speeches ever. It was published in a variety of newspapers and magazines immediately after the surrender and brought brief celebrity to Joseph and his band, which did not prevent the tribe from being removed for a time to Oklahoma, a trip that killed many survivors of the aborted trek to Canada and an exile that killed many more.
The speech concludes with the words: “From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”
It’s one of those iconic phrases that has made its way onto posters and into probably 90 percent of the articles written about the Nez Perce since 1877. It says something about our national zeitgeist that it’s a surrender speech that is the most famous thing an American Indian has ever been quoted as saying.
But whatever he actually said, Joseph never delivered that poetic remark because he didn’t speak English. Twenty-five-year-old Lt. Charles Erskine Scott Wood, who later became an accomplished poet and essayist, originally said he had taken down those words as translated by Arthur Chapman and conveyed to him by Old George, a Nez Perce from another band.
In other words, Joseph’s speech, which would have been delivered in the Sahaptian dialect of his people, came down to us through two interpreters before Wood became the only person to write down what were purportedly the surrender words.
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