I will fight no more for­ever

The Covington News - - News -

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.

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