This Date in Native History: On September 21, 1904 Chief Joseph passed away on the Colville Reservation in Washington, never having gained permission to return to his homeland in the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon.
Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt was born March 3, 1840. There are several English translations; Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain is one. He became known as Joseph the Younger. His father had been given the name Joseph when he was baptized at the Lapwai mission in 1838. Joseph the Younger later became Chief Joseph, a name recognized across the country during and after the Nez Perce War of 1877.
His home, like his family before him, was in the Wallowa Mountains of eastern Oregon. As chief of this band he struggled to maintain their homeland against the surge of miners and homesteaders who flocked west. That struggle came to a head in 1877 when he was forced to leave his homeland for the reservation along the Clearwater River in Idaho—or attempt to move elsewhere to avoid fighting the U.S. Army. Unfortunately the Army wouldn’t accept that. In the summer of 1877 war broke out despite the attempts of Chief Joseph and many others to avoid it.
The first battle was at White Bird, near the Salmon River in Idaho, when U.S. Army troops charged from the hills only to be thoroughly defeated by Nez Perce warriors. Then came battles on the Clearwater River, the Big Hole in Montana, Camas Meadows, and ultimately at the Bear Paw in northern Montana only a couple of days walk from the Canadian border and hoped-for safety from U.S. troops.
Chief Joseph was never considered a war chief, but rather a spokesman. Others took the war leader role including his brother Olikut. National newspapers became fixated on Chief Joseph and he became a hero to many who were sympathetic to the Nez Perce. He was often referred to by the press as “the Red Napoleon.” It was Chief Joseph who gave the surrender speech at Bear Paw. “I am tired of fighting… It is cold, and we have no blankets… The little children are freezing to death… My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”
He was promised that his band could return to the Wallowa Mountains, but that promise was broken. They were first sent to Kansas and later to swampy bottomlands in Oklahoma, Ee-i-kish Paw, the hot place. Deaths here rivaled those during the war.
The government eventually relocated the survivors to northern Washington on the Colville reservation.
His fame allowed him to meet with U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1879 to request that the promise made by the Army to return them to Oregon would be permitted, but was again rejected.
Chief Joseph was an eloquent speaker and in his later years he continued to speak out against the injustices of U.S. policies against Indian people, asking that Native Americans be given the same equality and freedom as other Americans.
On September 21, 1904 he was laid to rest at Nespelem, Washington on the Colville Reservation. According to his doctor he died of a broken heart.
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