In the year 1805, Lewis and Clark, the famed explorers, reached the Clearwater River in present-day Nevada. They were half-starved and weak with dysentery. Right then and there, the Nez Percé tribe could have wiped out Lewis and Clarks’ expedition. Instead, the tribe offered food and shelter to the white explorers, beginning a long friendship between the tribe and white settlers. But in the end, “white greed” ruined the friendship forever.
This passage echoes the first chapter of the book, in which Brown discussed how Native Americans treated white explorers with kindness and hospitality prior to the late 19th century. It was white greed, understood in the sense of Manifest Destiny and white expansion westward, that soured relations between whites and Native Americans.
In the year 1855, the U.S. government offered the Nez Percé a new treaty. The treaty would move the tribe away from its ancestral home and onto a reservation. The tribal chiefs refused to sign any such treaty. In 1863, the government tried again: this time, the treaty would have deprived the Nez Percé of their lands and moved them to a reservation in Idaho. This time, the chiefs agreed to the treaty. However, one important chief, Old Joseph, refused to sign. After Old Joseph’s death in 1871, his son, Young Joseph, became an important chief. He refused to cooperate with the government agents, claiming that his people would never surrender their lands.
Old Joseph and his son clearly felt a duty to protect their people’s land rights. In this sense, they were different from certain other chiefs of the era, who willingly sold away their people’s land in return for lavish gifts from the U.S. government.
By the mid-1870s, white settlers had found gold on Nez Percé land. In negotiations with the U.S. government, however, Nez Percé chiefs refused to surrender their lands. They argued that their people had always lived on the land, and that their bodies themselves were a part of the land. However, Young Joseph lacked the manpower to defend his people from the U.S. military. Troops marched his peoples off their land and into Idaho.
The Nez Percé tribe’s notions of property and ownership are slightly different from the conceptions Brown has discussed previously. They see themselves as part of the land, which makes the notion of leaving the land utterly absurd. While this way of thinking about land might seem unusual, it’s no less “mythological” than the doctrine of Manifest Destiny that brought white settlers out to California in the 1870s.
Young Joseph was trapped: he could either refuse to comply with the U.S. and face extermination, or he could comply and appear weak to his people. In the end, he decided to fight for his people. He led an attack on the U.S. military and won his first skirmish. In July 1877, Young Joseph’s people rode to a large U.S. military encampment in Montana. The U.S. military refused to allow the tribe to pass without a fight. In early August, the military led an attack on Young Joseph. In the battle, Nez Percé women and children were murdered. Young Joseph was able to lead his people to safety, but he lost many followers.
Young Joseph’s commitment to his people’s lands was so strong that he was willing to risk his own life, as well as the lives of his people, to protect the land. At the same time, Brown also suggests that Young Joseph was primarily motivated by a desire to live up to his people’s expectations (and, it’s loosely implied, to cement his control over his own people, much like Little Crow in the earlier chapter).
The Nez Percé crossed through Yellowstone National Park, which at the time was the only official national park in the United States. General Sherman chased the Nez Percé through the Park, and sent the Crows north to ambush Young Joseph’s troops. In September 1877, the Crows battled the Nez Percé, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides. Joseph was captured, but his followers managed to free him three days later.
Young Joseph’s resistance to the white settlers proved so powerful that the U.S. military had to deploy General Sherman, regarded as one of the most dangerous and effective killers of Native Americans, as well as the Crows, who were Native American mercenaries.
Young Joseph and his remaining followers fled to Canada and united with Sitting Bull. In Canada, Young Joseph’s people died of dysentery and other diseases. Joseph visited the White House and made eloquent speeches begging white America for compassion and mercy. Nevertheless, the white settlement of the Western United States continued. Young Joseph later agreed to live on a reservation with his people, and he died in 1904. The physician listed the cause of death as “a broken heart.”
This short chapter ends with particular poignancy: Young Joseph, whom Brown has portrayed as a bold, heroic leader, seems to die because of shame and sadness. He’s fought for his people and their rights, and he’s lost. The increasing hopelessness of these later chapters foreshadows the events of the final, gruesome chapter, concerning the Wounded Knee Massacre.