Chief Joseph: “I will fight no more forever”

“Hear me, my chiefs; my heart is sick and sad;

Our chiefs are killed,

The old men are all dead,

It is cold and we have no blankets;

The little children are freezing to death.

Hear me, my chiefs; my heart is sick and sad;

From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever!”

– Chief Joseph

Sepia-toned portrait photograph of Chief Joseph, a Native American leader, wearing a traditional feathered headdress and multiple strands of bead necklaces. He has a solemn expression and is looking directly at the camera.
Chief Joseph, 1903

It’s summertime of 1877, and about 1,200 miles is the distance Chief Joseph and his tribe must trek to reach the Canadian border. Once there, life can resume as life had once been in the days before the U.S. government began forcibly relocating Chief Joseph’s Wallowa band of the Nez Perce Native American people to reservations. This latest relocation demand is an order to leave ancestral lands for a reservation in Idaho.

After initially agreeing to comply, Chief Joseph discovers that some men in his tribe have killed a few settlers. With worries about a retaliation attack, Chief Joseph begins leading his tribe of about 700, including 200 or so warriors, toward Canada, where they will in a different jurisdiction and safe.

The 1,200-mile journey is fraught with battles and challenges as they attempt to evade the U.S. Army. And on October 5th, 1877, Chief Joseph and the tribe surrender about forty miles from the Canadian border.

In a famous speech delivered after his capture, Chief Joseph expresses his desire for peace and his sadness at losing his people’s way of life. “My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever,” he says.

General O.O. Howard, who leads the U.S. troops, praises Chief Joseph, “I do not think that I had to exercise more thorough generalship during the Civil War than I did in the march to the battlefield and the ensuing battle with Joseph and his Indians on the banks of the Clearwater.”

After their capture, the U.S. government sends Chief Joseph and his followers to a Kansas reservation, where many die from disease. Chief Joseph survives and, for many years after, continues advocating for Native American rights, speaking out against the government’s treatment of his people.

On September 21, 1904, Chief Joseph died at the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington State. Amongst many thoughts and wisdom from his life, Chief Joseph left us with the following:

“Too many misinterpretations have been made; too many misunderstandings have come up between the white men and the Indians. If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian he can live in peace. There need be no trouble. Treat all men alike. Give them the same laws. Give them all an even chance to live and grow. All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers. The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it. You might as well expect all rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases. If you tie a horse to a stake, do you expect he will grow fat? If you pen an Indian up on a small spot of earth and compel him to stay there, he will not be contented nor will he grow and prosper. I have asked some of the Great White Chiefs where they get their authority to say to the Indian that he shall stay in one place, while he sees white men going where they please. They cannot tell me.”

Notes

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Story Sources

Chief Joseph to the Commissioners of the Treaty of 1876 (Warren, Robert Penn, and R.P.W. “Chief Joseph of The Nez Perce.” The Georgia Review, vol. 36, no. 2, 1982, pp. 269–313. JSTORhttp://www.jstor.org/stable/41399718. Accessed 20 Mar. 2023.) / Portrait – National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Jean-Antony du Lac, NPG.80.325. / Today in History – October 5th: Library of Congress / Haines, Francis. “Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Warriors.” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, vol. 45, no. 1, 1954, pp. 1–7. JSTORhttp://www.jstor.org/stable/40487055. Accessed 23 Mar. 2023.