I will fight no more forever
Surrender is never an easy thing to contemplate. Whether it’s about an idea, an ideal or a course of action, the mere thought of giving up is a repulsive thing. My personal experience does not include military service. Having never been there, I can only hope for a glimmer of understanding engendered by those situations. In truth, I cannot identify with whatever a military commander, faced by overwhelming and insurmountable enemy forces, must feel when contemplating surrender to ultimately save lives under his command. On this date, Oct. 5, some 131 years ago, the head of the Nez Perce Indian tribe, Chief Joseph, surrendered to the United States Army in what was then known as the Montana Territory. Refusing to honor an 1863 treaty made by people far removed from the Pacific Northwest, he and his 800 tribesmen had made for the safety of Canada, where the Nez Perce hoped to resettle and live in peace. Skillfully using some of the Army’s tactics against them, establishing skirmish lines and fighting rear-guard actions to cover his withdrawals, Chief Joseph won the grudging admiration of those seeking to capture and corral his people on a reservation. But the onset of an early and fierce winter worked against the Nez Perce in their flight northward; with his people freezing in place less than 40 miles from the Canadian border, Chief Joseph on this date capitulated and, in so doing, spoke eloquently of his people’s condition, closing with: “…from where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” He was 37 years old at the time. His lesser chiefs were all dead, along with whole elements of his tribe’s fighting forces. Starving women, desperately looking for food for their children, were fleeing into the mountains and almost certain death. Yet the very contemplation of surrender was anathema to Chief Joseph. Clasping his dying father’s hand a few years before, he had promised never to give away the Nez Perce land, their hunting grounds and revered burial places. “Any man who would not defend his father’s grave is worse than an animal,” he said at the time. Chief Joseph knew the legacy of the white man. They came to the New World accompanied with an infectious greed for territory, making treaty after worthless treaty which they abrogated almost before the ink dried, and imprisoned tribe after tribe on reservations of worthless land. He feared that despite promises made for the Nez Perce being returned to their beloved Wallowa Valley in what is now northeastern Oregon that they’d be taken elsewhere. Chief Joseph’s trepidations were well-founded, and prescient. The Nez Perce were taken, instead, to what is now a part of Oklahoma. The mighty voice of Chief Joseph, whose Indian name translates, roughly, as “thunder rolling down the mountain,” was reduced to a whisper. But no ordinary man was this Chief Joseph. A persuasive speaker, a student of the white man and his ways, he visited Washington, D.C. in 1879 and pleaded with President Rutherford B. Hayes for the Nez Perce to be returned to their lands. After repeated entreaties, in 1885 the tribe was relocated to the Colville Reservation in what is now the state of Washington, but it came at a price. The Nez Perce were forbidden from ever returning to the Wallowa Valley. Chief Joseph again visited Washington in 1903, one year before his death, at the invitation of President Teddy Roosevelt, but to no avail. I once studied at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, and resided in Prentiss Hall. The dormitory was named for Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, wife of Methodist missionary Marcus Whitman, who in 1835 implored the Methodist-Episcopal Church of Boston to render spiritual assistance to the Nez Perce Indians. In 1836 the Whitmans headed west along with the Reverend and Mrs. Henry Harmon Spalding, who were to minister to the nearby Cayuse Indians. The Whitman Mission was established in 1843, just west of Walla Walla along the Oregon Trail. The Whitmans became well regarded by the Nez Perce; their Mission provided medical care for the sick, a resting place for travelers and a spiritual haven for whites and Indians alike. Unfortunately, the fiery-tempered Spalding had alienated some Cayuse renegades, who on a horrible day in 1847 set upon the Whitman Mission. Massa- cred were Marcus and Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, along with 16 men and older boys; the Cayuse took 53 women and children into captivity, releasing them after a month to appease whites. Nonetheless, the first Cayuse War broke out shortly thereafter, eventually leading to that day, 131 years ago, when Chief Joseph bitterly surrendered “…to fight no more forever.” One summer day in 1994 I walked in the very ruts made by wagon trains on that Oregon Trail at the Whitman Mission. I’d driven through the Wallowa Valley and up into the accessible Wallowa Mountains, and I’d peered down into North America’s deepest gorge, Hell’s Canyon, cut by the Snake River. The view was austere, really, but starkly beautiful, and it brought with it a deeper understanding of what losing this land meant to the Nez Perce. And so, on Oct. 5, 2008, I find myself thinking of Chief Joseph and his people, the forced breaking of the promise made to his father and his bitter surrender 131 years ago. And I think someday there has to be an accounting, for surely the Native Americans — they who were here first and lost the most — must not be forgotten. In the days of Chief Joseph, the Nez Perce maintained 30 established settlements and upwards of 200 seasonal sites throughout 17 million acres of land. Today fewer than 2,000 Nez Perce remain, living on a reservation in northern Idaho. Surrender, indeed, is never easily contemplated. Perhaps one day, if America continues along the path of righting past wrongs, the Nez Perce will once again inhabit the Wallowa Valley, in peace, truly to fight no more, forever.