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Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians
by William R. Swagerty, University of the Pacific, Stockton
(updated June 8, 2005)
Photo 1: Chief Joseph
standing in Pendleton Robe Lee Moorhouse Photo, Pendleton,
Oregon, c. 1901 Courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society
One of the most famous Indians in American history, Chief Joseph
was born in 1840 near the Grand Ronde River in present-day northeast
Oregon. The warm and dry interior of a natural cave provided a
safe place for a family on the move to give birth to their child.
Son of Old Chief Joseph (Tuekakas), a Cayuse-Umatilla-Nez Perce,
and Khapkhaponimi, a Nez Perce (pronounced Nes Purse) woman whose
name translates “strong leader of women,” Young Joseph
was named Hinmahtoo-yahlatkekht, “Thunder Rising over Loftier
Mountain Heights.” The name reflects the place he was born,
the life he led, and the legacy he left behind.
Illustration 1: “Joseph,
Toowe-tak-hes, Chief of the Nez Perce Indians,”
pencil sketch by Gustav Sohon, artist at the 1855 Walla
Walla Treaty Council, reproduced courtesy of Washington
State Historical Society, Tacoma.
The Nez Perce called themselves “Nee-Me-Poo,” which
translates “the people.” A custom among the Nee-Me-Poo
was to allow outsiders to intermarry, thereafter assuming affiliation
with the band or band leader of that particular group. Such was
the case with Joseph’s father, whose maternal lineage included
Nez Perce heritage. At the time of young Joseph’s birth,
Tuekakas was a respected leader of the Wallamotkin (or Wallowa)
Band of the Nez Perce in present-day Oregon.
Hinmahtoo-yahlatkekht was raised as a traditional Nez Perce in
the village of In-nan-toe-e-in, one of seven children. His older
brother, Sousouquee, his younger brother, Ollokot (meaning “Frog”)
and his sisters were all close and important to Joseph. The children
grew up trying to understand new ideas and pressures as whites
came into their lives. That tension dates back to 1839 when their
parents were married in 1839 by a Presbyterian missionary sent
from the east coast to live among the Nez Perce.
Photo 2: Henry Harmon
Spalding with Bible and hoe; Courtesy National Park Service,
Nez Perce National Historical Park, Neg. # 1789
Henry H. Spalding and his wife, Eliza, established a mission
and school at Lapwai in 1836 near present-day Lewiston, Idaho.
Joseph’s father was one of the first to show interest in
Christianity. Because of this, Young Joseph was baptized with
the biblical name, “Ephraim.” The family moved between
the Wallowa Valley and the Clearwater River country, where Spalding’s
mission had been built on Lapwai Creek. Late in life, Joseph recalled
being a student of Mrs. Spalding and liking his experience, but
many Nez Perce stayed away and very few converted to Christianity
due to the Spaldings’ rigid attitude and lack of tolerance
of Nez Perce customs and religion. To Spalding, the Bible and
the hoe were the tools that would lead the Nez Perce to a better
life. Most Nez Perce could not accept this point of view.
During Joseph’s youth, the Wallamotkin Band of Nez Perce
numbered several hundred people. They spent their days in relative
peace, breeding and herding horses, fishing for salmon, hunting,
and gathering camas bulbs and other foods native to the Plateau,
a region distinguished by dramatic changes in elevation from valleys
and canyons a few feet above sea level to mountains higher than
10,000 feet. In this diverse environment, the Nez Perce lived
amidst forested mountains, rolling hills covered with grass, large
rivers with extensive flood plains, deep canyons, and flat highlands
(i.e. the geographic term, “plateau”).
Chief Joseph’s ancestors are thought to have been residents
of this area for at least 13,000 years. When first described by
the white explorers Lewis and Clark in 1805, the Nez Perce lived
in around seventy villages, each with several extended families.
Their population was estimated to be 7,850 individuals. Prior
to this, it is difficult to know how many Nez Perce lived at any
given point in time. A hundred years earlier, it is likely that
they had a larger population living in as many as 100 villages,
but beginning in the 1780s, their population began to decline
as European and Asian sailors landed and introduced new diseases
into the region. The worst of these was smallpox, which spread
up and down the Columbia River in the 1780s killing at least half
of the native peoples living between the Pacific Ocean and the
Rocky Mountains. Other diseases spread by water, air and contact
with infected peoples’ clothing or skin further reduced
the Nez Perce. Measles, mumps, chicken pox, and influenza or the
common cold–“childhood diseases” that could
also kill white children and adults, took many Indian lives causing
disruption of normal patterns of life.
The Nez Perce had many close relatives, who spoke various dialects
of the same language within the language family called “Plateau
Penutian.” Some bands such as those at Kamiah and Kooskia
in present-day Idaho were described as “upriver bands;”
others closer to Joseph’s people were called “downriver
people.” All spoke Nimipuutimpt, “Nez Perce.”
Others within the same language family spoke a related dialect
called Sahaptian. These included the Yakimas, Walla Wallas, and
Palouse in present-day Washington State, groups along the Columbia
River in present-day Oregon including the Umatilla (near Pendleton),
and the Celilo (near The Dalles). Yet another group within the
family spoke Klamath, whose homeland extended as far south as
present-day northern California.
Map 1: Close up of
Map, “Native Languages and Language Families of
North America,” from Languages, vol. 17 of Handbook
of North American Indians. (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian
Institution Press, 1996, end map)
Map 2:, “
Nez Perce territory in the 19th century
with modern town and reservation locations” from
Plateau, ed. Deward E. Walker, Jr., vol. 12 of Handbook
of North American Indians (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian
Institution Press, 1998), p. 421, Fig. 1.
Some Nez Perce traveled beyond the region of their language family
to hunt buffalo, to visit distant friends, and to trade. Their
closest friends were other speakers of Sahaptian such as the Umatilla
and Yakima along the Columbia River and its tributaries. They
also had close ties with the Coeur d’Alene to their north
in Idaho, the Salish and Pend d’Oreille of the Bitterroot
and Mission valleys in western Montana (both named by the French
and later called the Flathead Indians), and the Crow of eastern
Montana and Wyoming.
Map 3:, “Neighboring
Tribes to the Nez Perce Indians,” from Bill Gulick,
Chief Joseph Country, p. 11. Courtesy of the Caxton Printers,
On the long trips into Montana and northern
Wyoming, the Nez Perce used buffalo-hide tipis such as the ones
seen below in this first photograph ever taken of what are believed
to be Nez Perce people camping somewhere on the Yellowstone River
Photo 3: “Encampment on
the Yellowstone River, near mouth of Shields River, Mont.,
1871.” William H. Jackson, photo from the DeLancey
Gill Collection, Bureau of American Ethnology. Courtesy
National Anthropological Archives, National Museum of Natural
History, Smithsonian Institution. Neg. # 2976.
Photo 4: “Skin lodges
in encampment on Yellowstone River near mouth of Shields
River, Mont, 1871.” William H. Jackson, photographer.
Courtesy National Anthropological Archives, National Museum
of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. Neb. # 2979.
[Note: The men in this photo have been recently
idenfied as Looking Glass and his brother, No Hunter].
We have no photographs of “Ephraim”
or Joseph as a youth. His formative years in the Wallowas of eastern
Oregon were a mix of learning traditional Nez Perce language and
customs and new ideas and lifeways introduced by missionaries,
settlers, and Indian agents. He grew up in a mat-lodge similar
to the one pictured below, which served as a three-season dwelling
made out of local reeds woven into mats which could be tied together
to form a comfortable house.
Photo 5: Mat lodge; Lee Moorhouse photographer Courtesy
National Park Service, Nez Perce National Historical Park,
Spalding, Idaho, Neg. # 1590