Born about 1840, of mixed Nez Perce and Cayuse blood, he was given the name Joseph by the missionary Henry Spalding. His Nez Perce name is Hinmaton-yalakit, or Thunder Rolling Over the Mountains.
The Nez Perce, living in what would to become Idaho, eastern Oregon and Washington, were a peaceable and intelligent tribe and it was Joseph’s boast that up to the war of 1877 the Nez Perce had never killed a white man. A traditional aboriginal domain of the people was the Wallowa Valley in Oregon and this land had been guaranteed to the tribe forever by government treaty. In 1875, however, the land was opened for settlement and the people were forced to move. Such a move could have been carried out peaceably, though with great reluctance, but for the murder of some white settlers by furious young men of the tribe and Joseph, the new chief, was virtually forced to go on the warpath. Thus in 1877, facing the loss of land, the loss of freedom, and with the very ethos of their lives threatened, nearly eight hundred Nez Perce decided to leave their ancient homelands and seek sanctuary in the “Grandmother’s Land” – Canada. Here Sitting Bull had retreated after the Custer Battle a year previously and, it was said, enjoyed peace and fair treatment. So began one of the most epic retreats in North American history: a journey of nearly four months and some seventeen hundred miles, outmaneuvering some of the best military strategists of the day.
Even so, in October 1877 at the Bear Paw Mountains, the Nez Perce, exhausted, with over one hundred of their number dead, finally capitulated just forty miles from the Canadian border. Joseph – the only survivor of the able chiefs who had left Idaho four months previously – sent his surrender message to Generals Howard and Miles.
It was a message which for its dignity, eloquence and above all poignancy, has become for all time a tribute to the people he represented:
“Tell General Howard I know his heart…I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed…He who led the young men (Ollicut, Joseph’s brother) is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death…I want to have time to look for my children…maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more for-ever.”
Promises were made to Joseph and his few remaining people that they could return to their beloved valley, but these promises were soon broken and the remnants of a once proud people were sent to the infamous Indian Territory far from their old homes. They were finally allowed back, but not to their valley, and are now settled on reservations in Lapwai and Colville.
Chief Joseph is pictured here in front of one of the Nez Perce’s most prized possessions – the Appaloosa horse. Originally bred by the Nez Perce, the spotted Appaloosa was valued for its distinctive markings and its great stamina. Such prized animals were outfitted in flamboyant ceremonial garb of colorful wool stroud, glass beadwork, dyed horse hair and feathers to match or even rival that of their owners. Joseph himself wears an Indian made “military” style coat decorated with bead strips, leather fringe and brass brads. He holds a society staff of dyed feathers and green stroud wraps. At the top is tied a buckskin bag, decorated with beads and filled with powerful “medicine” which could be any manner of herbs, rocks or any other unusual objects. Many North American Indian tribes practiced a complex system of societies or fraternal orders, each having its own distinct staffs, wands or feathered “flags”. Such ceremonial costumes were used during parades, Fourth of July Celebrations and other important rituals.
“Thunder Rolling Over The Mountains”
Acrylic mixed media 48″ x 72″
(Click images to enlarge)
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Read additional information about Marianne Millar.
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