California Literary Review

Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce: The Untold Story of an American Tragedy by Kent Nerburn

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April 10th, 2007 at 9:40 am

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Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce: The Untold Story of an American Tragedy
by Kent Nerburn
HarperSanFrancisco, 448 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★½

Thunder Rising in the Mountains

No one knows for certain who first uttered the notorious statement that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” General Philip Sheridan, commander of the U.S. Army on the Western Frontier, often gets the dubious honor for a remark he reputedly made to a Comanche chief in 1869.

When the Comanche identified himself a “good Indian,” Sheridan, a ruthless tactician of total war, replied, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.”

Eight years later, the reputation of Sheridan’s troopers was to be seriously tarnished in a campaign against “good Indians”, very much alive, in a running battle brilliantly depicted by historian Kent Nerburn in his recent book, Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce.

Living in the rugged mountains and steep-walled valleys of Idaho and Oregon, the Nez Perce were a non-belligerent tribe who had aided the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804. Despite many provocations, they had remained at peace with the United States until 1877. In that year, when a few of their warriors finally struck back against rapacious settlers seizing their land, several bands of the Nez Perce had made a tragic bid for freedom by trying to escape to Canada, being stopped only a few short miles from their goal by superior numbers and fire power.

There was no disguising the fact that the Nez Perce had been ill-used by the American government. Their superb fighting ability had come as quite a shock, however, for unlike the Sioux and the Comanche, the Nez Perce did not have a reputation for skill in battle. An explanation for their tactical success was soon discovered. They had been led by a war chief of extraordinary ability, a “Red Napoleon,” known to the whites as Chief Joseph.

The noble exploits of Chief Joseph soon entered into legend and then into American history text books. The legend served as a counterpoint to the saga of buckskin clad pioneers and of the heroic self-sacrifice of Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn. It became part of the myth of the American frontier, a way to acknowledge the nobility of Native Americans without contradicting the rest of the story.

Like most myths, the story of Chief Joseph was partly true. Joseph, or Thunder Rising in the Mountains as he was known to his own people, was indeed a noble man. But he was not a “Red Napoleon.” Nerburn, who has written extensively on Native American culture, has discovered that Joseph was not the war chief of the Nez Perce during the fighting. Indeed, the escaping Indians had lacked a formal command structure, decisions being made by consensus among the principal warriors. The myth of the “Red Napoleon” served to obscure the embarrassing fact that the U.S. Army had been repeatedly defeated by a handful of warriors fighting to protect their wives and children.

Nerburn’s account of the exodus of the Nez Perce is a vivid and unsparing account of warfare where the normal distinctions of frontier combat – savagery vs. civilization – were reversed. Although the Nez Perce committed several brutal attacks on white civilians in the initial fighting, they generally fought with a disciplined restraint normally expected of professional troops. In one case, the Nez Perce bought food from a white settlement during their attempted flight to freedom rather than raid the town. Likewise, their compassionate treatment of wounded cavalry troopers won the admiration of their adversaries.

The conduct of the U.S. Army, on the other hand, was a text book exercise on the wrong way to fight a war. Aggressively attacking the Nez Perce, the Army’s offensive was blunted by initial over-confidence and repeated bungling thereafter. The use of warriors from tribes hostile to the Nez Perce and unruly frontier volunteers insured that atrocities would be inflicted against Nez Perce woman and children, thus compounding the difficulties faced by the ill-prepared regular troops. The principal commanders, Oliver Howard and Nelson Miles, competed with each other for the “glory” of defeating the Nez Perce, fighting with one eye on the Indians and the other on newspaper headlines.

It was from these newspaper dispatches – Howard brought a friendly correspondent along with his staff – that the image of “Chief Joseph” gained currency.

Nerburn, however, is emphatic that treating Joseph as the leader of the Nez Perce is a total misconception. “The Nez Perce were anything but Joseph’s people,” he writes of the situation throughout the war. Joseph led but one of the bands and he was opposed to the idea of trying to escape to Canada. At the tribal council at the outbreak of the war, he proposed remaining on the Nez Perce homeland to fight, while sending the women and children to safety in the most secluded areas of that mountainous region. Outvoted, Joseph served as the organizer of the Nez Perce camp during the march to Canada, while leadership in the fighting was undertaken by other chiefs.

Joseph’s status as the great leader of the Nez Perce really dates from the moment the fighting ceased. Nerburn states controversially – and convincingly – that the surrender following his famous “I will fight no more forever” speech never actually took place. Joseph agreed to cease fighting in the belief that the Army had guaranteed the return of his people to a reservation in their own land. Despite some honorable attempts by Miles to honor his pledge, Joseph and the surviving Nez Perce never achieved that goal. Instead, they began a second exodus to reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma, where their numbers dwindled to the point of extinction before a pitiful remnant were sent to a more healthy camp in Washington State.

Until his death in 1904, Joseph struggled to regain his people’s land. His most potent weapon was his exaggerated reputation as a war chief. Nerburn writes that Joseph did nothing during those years of exile “to debunk the myth that had built up around him … it was by letting that myth be built that he had kept the Nez Perce people alive in the national historical consciousness.”

But what of Joseph’s standing in the Native American “historical consciousness?” In the introduction to his book, Nerburn offers some fascinating and extremely perceptive insights into the reason why many Native Americans, including Nez Perce, hold conflicted opinions about “Chief” Joseph.

Nerburn spent four years researching and writing “Chief Joseph.” He followed the route of the epic march of the Nez Perce, enabling him to grasp details of the terrain and weather conditions that are of vital significance to the story he recounts so well.

The greatest difficulty Nerburn encountered was the initial unwillingness of modern-day Nez Perce to share their knowledge and reflections on their ancestors’ saga. Having devoted many years to working with Native Americans, Nerburn was not surprised that he was treated with reserve and suspicion as a white person “dabbling in Indian issues for fun and profit.”

Nerburn was able to penetrate this invisible barrier after a time and establish friendly relations with Nez Perce he encountered on his travels – until he began to question them about Joseph. To his consternation, he met with varying degrees of ambivalence and hostility that he found difficult to comprehend. Then, as he relates in his book’s introduction, he experienced a moment of epiphany. Over a diner breakfast, a Nez Perce man explained the contemporary attitude toward the most famous member of the tribe. The events of 1877 are “the only thing that any white person knows or cares about us,” the man declared, and that knowledge is viewed entirely from the vantage point of Joseph’s experience or rather the white man’s version of it. Some Nez Perce actually blame Joseph for not trying to fight his way to Canada during the final battle, as a few members of the tribe actually did.

It may astonish many white readers that Joseph should be treated so negatively by his own people. Nerburn, with his prior experience of working with Native Americans, understood that group identity transcends the status of the individual in Native American culture.

In this exceptionally fine book, Nerburn relates how Joseph crossed this cultural fault line, using his celebrity status in the white world to preserve the remnant of his people through decades of exile and death on the reservations of Kansas and Oklahoma. Although the familiar – and superbly recounted – story of the 1877 exodus of the Nez Perce forms the core of Nerburn’s book, it is the final chapters recounting Joseph’s unremitting and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to regain his people’s land in Idaho and Oregon that establish the tragic nobility of his character.

In becoming “Chief Joseph” to the whites, Joseph sacrificed his Nez Perce identity. Thunder Rising in the Mountains became the “Red Napoleon,” a clever use of the white man’s media machine, yet an ultimately fruitless one. That Joseph should have become suspect in the eyes of his own people for his efforts to save them and regain their land is a final, terrible irony.

When Joseph died in 1904, the attending reservation physician wrote that he “died of a broken heart.” It is a disturbing, yet inescapable, thought that even before his death, Joseph had become “a good Indian” in the eyes of white men and Nez Perce alike.

  • Kent Nerburn

    This is the most insightful review that has yet been done of my book. Thank you so much for your careful reading and for having the quality of vision and understanding to see the broader themes that were at the core of my efforts.

    Yours is the review that I am sending to people when they want to know what it was that I spent four years of my life doing.

    Again, my deepest thanks.

    Kent Nerburn

  • jan heaton

    I’m positive young chief joseph is my ancestor on my fathers’ side, french hugenot woman, one wife of josephs.
    Daddys’ face (image) appears on crazy horse mountain,insted
    of “Ji JI ”
    I’m writting a book called “Band on the run” w/ Daddys face on the cover, that I drew from a “fly-over” picture.

    contact me, if you have info + facts. Jan

  • karen

    what happened to chief joseph’s children, can they be traced?

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