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

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

4.4 20
by Kent Nerburn

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Hidden in the shadow cast by the great western expeditions of Lewis and Clark lies another journey every bit as poignant, every bit as dramatic, and every bit as essential to an understanding of who we are as a nation -- the 1,800-mile journey made by Chief Joseph and eight hundred Nez Perce men, women, and children from their homelands in what is now eastern


Hidden in the shadow cast by the great western expeditions of Lewis and Clark lies another journey every bit as poignant, every bit as dramatic, and every bit as essential to an understanding of who we are as a nation -- the 1,800-mile journey made by Chief Joseph and eight hundred Nez Perce men, women, and children from their homelands in what is now eastern Oregon through the most difficult, mountainous country in western America to the high, wintry plains of Montana. There, only forty miles from the Canadian border and freedom, Chief Joseph, convinced that the wounded and elders could go no farther, walked across the snowy battlefield, handed his rifle to the U.S. military commander who had been pursuing them, and spoke his now-famous words, "From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."

The story has been told many times, but never before in its entirety or with such narrative richness. Drawing on four years of research, interviews, and 20,000 miles of travel, Nerburn takes us beyond the surrender to the captives' unlikely welcome in Bismarck, North Dakota, their tragic eight-year exile in Indian Territory, and their ultimate return to the Northwest. Nerburn reveals the true, complex character of Joseph, showing how the man was transformed into a myth by a public hungry for an image of the noble Indian and how Joseph exploited the myth in order to achieve his single goal of returning his people to their homeland.

Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce is far more than the story of a man and a people. It is a grand saga of a pivotal time in our nation's history. Its pages are alive with the presence of Lewis and Clark, General William Tecumseh Sherman, General George Armstrong Custer, and Sitting Bull. Its events brush against the California Gold Rush, the Civil War, the great western pioneer migration, and the building of the telegraph and the transcontinental railroad. Once you have read this groundbreaking work, you will never look at Chief Joseph, the American Indian, or our nation's westward journey in the same way again.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Nerburn (Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder) brings balanced passion to this popular history of the man best known for his sad speech signaling his tribe's surrender at the end of an 1,800-mile retreat from their homeland in Oregon: "I will fight no more forever." Nerburn's novelistic chronicle moves from the kind welcome Lewis and Clark receive from the Nez Perc in 1805 to General O.O. Howard's May 1877 order for the tribespeople to move onto a reservation in Idaho within 30 days. The author follows chiefs Joseph, Ollokot, Looking Glass and White Bird through their armed resistance to Howard's order, their torturous six-month flight toward Canada and their final surrender to U.S. forces just 50 miles away from the Canadian border. Subsequently relocated to several reservations, the tribe was decimated in numbers, culture and spirit, and Joseph's efforts in the 1880s to regain legal ownership of his rightful land, Wallowa Valley, Ore., came to naught. While Joseph's symbolic importance as "America's premier Indian" bloomed, the actual Nez Perc dwindled toward extinction. Nerburn sets out to bust the myth of the "Red Napoleon" in this engaging volume, but his characterization of Joseph's "compassionate leadership" can lean toward stereotyping of a different sort: the noble and tragic Native American in defeat. (Nov.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Owing primarily to his eloquent "I will fight no more forever" speech, Chief Joseph (c. 1840-1904) has been widely celebrated as the quintessential, and stereotypical, noble Indian. Dubbed the "Red Napoleon," Joseph has been credited as the strategic mastermind who nearly succeeded in leading 800 Nez Perc to the safety of Canada in 1877, though pursued by five different U.S. military units. The Nez Perce were being forced onto a small Idaho reservation, distant from their native lands in Oregon. Nerburn (Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder) challenges the myths that have grown around Joseph by illuminating the roles of other Nez Perc chiefs, such as White Bird and Looking Glass, in the aborted journey to freedom. In this account, Joseph is initially a minor chief whose role grew as more influential leaders were killed. At the time of Joseph's surrender, he was one of only two chiefs still alive. Unlike Joseph, the other living chief chose not to surrender and thus missed the opportunity to be adored by white America. Nerburn vividly demonstrates that Joseph subsequently embraced white America's effort to elevate him to iconic status in the forlorn hope that his people would be allowed to return to their ancestral lands. Recommended for public libraries.-John Burch, Campbellsville Univ. Lib., KY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A revisionist account of Nez Perce history and one of its most controversial figures. Under Chief Joseph's leadership, the schoolbook version of the story goes, hundreds of Nez Perce Indians outmaneuvered U.S. soldiers for three months, making their way to Canada. But on October 5, 1877, after a bloody five-day battle, Chief Joseph admitted defeat. The speech he made upon his surrender earned him a spot as one of America's great orators. Indeed, white America made a hero out of Joseph, affecting what Nerburn (The Wisdom of Native Americans, not reviewed, etc.) calls a "cultural canonization." The chief was lauded for his wit and his courage-once he was no longer a threat to the designs of the U.S. government. The Nez Perce themselves, the author notes, rejected the lionizing of Chief Joseph, and have been, in fact, rather ambivalent about him. Many resent that white America made an icon of Joseph but largely erased the Nez Perce people from the national story. Some natives even revile Joseph, blaming him for surrendering. In short, the familiar narrative is, at best, oversimplified. Nerburn, therefore, aims to provide not just a biography of Joseph, but also the story of the Nez Perce: their complicated and wily but largely trusting relationship with white Americans throughout the 19th century, their horrific and brave flight from Idaho. The author's most innovative interpretations come in the final 75 pages, in which he charts the "marketing" of Joseph and the commodification of all things related to the chief. The man who bought Joseph's horse knew that he could sell that horse's offspring for beaucoup dollars; the chief signed autographs for the white tourists who came to ogle theIndians in their post-surrender squalor; he courted reporters and, according to Nerburn, enjoyed his fame. Neither the first attempt to demythologize Joseph, nor the last word on his people, but an intriguing study of a man and a legend.
Louise Erdrich
“Nerburn has written about a man of humility and grandeur... This is storytelling with a greatness of heart.”
“Nerburn deftly records a dark chapter of forced diaspora and forgotten promises—one as engrossing as a novel.”
The Oregonian (Portland)
“Crisp, energetic account... reads like fictionalized history in the tradition of Mari Sandoz’s Crazy Horse.”
National Catholic Reporter
“A masterful job of recreating this tragic story.”
Denver Post
“The story has been told many times but not often with as much color as Nerburn provides.”
Grand Rapids Press
“A must read for every instructor of American history ….”
Spirituality and Health magazine
“With measured words and narrative power, Nerburn presents a dramatic portrait of Chief Joseph as a man of peace…”
The California Literary Review
“[An] exceptionally fine book…”
The Olympian
“Nerburn seems to have found the real story of Chief Joseph rather than rehashing the iconic status…”
Columbus Dispatch
“Nerburn…writes from the Indians’ perspective with insight and reverence.”

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Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce

The Untold Story of an American Tragedy
By Kent Nerburn

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Kent Nerburn
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060513012

Chapter One

"We Thought They Might Be Descended from Dogs"

The nez perce first encountered the European world, and the Europeans first encountered theirs, in a wide, pine-rimmed meadow in the foothills of the Bitterroot Mountains on a sunlit day in the autumn of 1805. There, in a flower-covered field called the Weippe Prairie, in the state we now call Idaho, three young Nez Perce boys were lazily playing with sticks and bows while their mothers and grandmothers dug camas roots on the far side of the clearing. It was the autumn gathering time, and the roots they dug would be dried and pulverized and made into meal for bread. A good harvest meant a good winter, and this year the harvest was good.

Smoke rose from fires near the buffalo-skin teepees, which were set in the same places they had been set for as long as anyone could remember. Each family had its own spot, each band its own area. The gathering had the gentle grace of a yearly ritual, when the different bands of the tribe came together from their distant homelands to share in the harvest, to meet family and friends, and to offer the firstfruits of the camas gathering in thanks to the earth for the bounty she had given.

Only women and children and elders were in the camp. The younger men had gone off across the rugged hills toward the south to confront the Shoshone, who had killed three Nez Perce peace emissaries the season before. It would be some time before they would return, and by that time the harvest would be finished and the bands would be ready to return to their respective wintering grounds in the lower valleys, where the snow seldom reached and the waters seldom froze. The sun was warm, the digging was good, and the day had an air of quietude and peace.

Through this golden autumn peace the three boys heard the snorts of horses and saw a glint of movement in the woods on a nearby hillside. Soon a figure emerged, then another and another, all on horseback, all unlike any the boys had ever seen. They had arms like men, legs like men. But their faces were covered with fur, like dogs. One of the figures had hair the color of sunset. Another was black and had hair like a buffalo. He looked like a warrior painted for night battle, except that the blackness was not paint but skin itself.

The boys tried to run, but the creature with the sunset hair caught up with them. He made gestures of peace with his hands and gave them lengths of red ribbon. He motioned for them to return to camp and bring back the leaders of the people.

The boys arrived at the lodges breathless and terrified. They pointed to the field and told of the pale beasts with the hairy faces and held up the ribbons they had been given. In the Nez Perce fashion, the youngest boy was asked to deliver the worst news about these beasts they had encountered. He huddled with the other boys for a moment, then turned and spoke solemnly. "They all had eyes like dead fish," he said.

The strangers were led back to camp, where everyone gathered around them. They seemed by all accounts to be men, though not of any tribe that had ever been seen before. Their language was not recognizable and their condition was barely above that of animals. They were filthy and squalid and gave off a repulsive odor. With their hairy faces, there was some thought that they might be descended from dogs.

The "sunset hair" acted as the leader. He seemed friendly and offered gifts. Most important, he and the others with him carried guns with long barrels, a mysterious weapon of which the Nez Perce had only recently learned. Earlier that year, a band of hunters who had gone across the mountains to the buffalo country had traded for six of these strange weapons and brought them back to the Nez Perce villages. They spoke in awe of what these guns could do--about the terrific noise they made and how a ball placed in the long barrel could kill an animal from a distance far greater than that reached by an arrow.

The Nez Perce had long been known as the makers of the finest bows and arrows of any tribe, having learned to steam the horn of the mountain ram until it softened, then to shape it into a bow and strengthen it with rawhide attached with the boiled blood of the sturgeon or the grease from the skin of the salmon. Once hardened, these bows were powerful enough to launch an arrow completely through the body of a deer. All the tribes with whom the Nez Perce traded were hungry to obtain them.

But these long-barreled guns were even more powerful--perhaps not as efficient for warfare, but well able to pierce the leather shields of enemies and quite capable of stopping attackers and terrifying horses at a great distance. That these beings had these guns spoke of great power and influence, whether in fact they were men or beasts.

The dog-men were led down the hill to the camp of Twisted Hair, a chief who had been too old to go off on the raiding party against the Shoshone. Though frightened, he greeted the strangers with hospitality, feeding them a meal of camas roots and salmon. They seemed both appreciative and friendly.

While the strangers ate and slept, the situation was discussed in council. There was some thought to kill them, because stories had long been told about strange, pale-skinned men coming from the east who would bring sickness and ruin. But one old woman called Watkueis, or "She Who Had Returned from a Far Country," spoke to spare their lives. Years ago she had been captured by Blackfeet while in . . .


Excerpted from Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce by Kent Nerburn Copyright © 2005 by Kent Nerburn. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Kent Nerburn has been widely praised as one of the few writers who can respectfully bridge the gap between native and nonnative cultures. His book Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder won the 1995 Minnesota Book Award.

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Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce: The Untold Story of an American Tragedy 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Accurate and heartfelt research is obvious in Kent Nerburn¿s depiction of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce¿s lengthy and tragic journey attempting to return to their homeland. Artfully merged with the facts is an essence of a Native American voice that cultivates a realism making this book an excellent read that touches the heart and shames those whose history participated in the horrific attempt to annihilate a human race, one which we come to know and respect through Nerburn¿s writing.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Draws you in and won't let you go GREAT BOOK
Spad More than 1 year ago
This is a historical narrative from the Native American perspective and it clearly sets forth the serious mistakes our government made, not only with Chief Joseph's motivations, but, by analogy, with the motivations, feelings and desires of all Native Americans. A very insightful approach to a historical event that should make us less than proud of our government's actions.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is not the "white-man's" view of Chief Joseph but told from the Native American perception. Well written and riveting story. I highly recommend this book for a more rounded view of this historical figure put in the geographical context so often ignored.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a very good book. I would recommend it to anyone with an interesting this subject.
FalconerGrove More than 1 year ago
An excellent, riveting account of Joseph and the Nez Perce. As a nature lover, an Indian lover and a Christian I really appreciate Nerburn's approach. I feel he captured the heart of the struggle and not just the facts.
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fissherman More than 1 year ago
A very great book to read.If you want to get an insight into the way the Indians where treated ,this book you should read.
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Horribble worst book ever written
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Smiles. Yay!!!!
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I dont have one she said
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She walks in and immediatly runs to bramblebreath. "Heyy can you hear me?" She gently shakes her.