Posted by: bkivey | 5 October 2010

An American Hero

133 years ago today Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce surrendered to General Nelson Appleton Miles in the Montana wilderness in an effort to secure a future for his people free of persecution. His skill and ability during the months-long fighting retreat in an effort to reach safe haven in Canada earned him the respect of friend and foe and is skillfully portrayed in the 1975 made-for-TV movie I Will Fight No More Forever. This movie is well worth locating and watching.

Though he proved himself adept in the military arts, Chief Joseph’s first inclination was always to peace and accommodation. When settlers first showed up on his tribe’s traditional lands he made good-faith efforts to work with them and the Federal government, a faith and effort not reciprocated by a country guided by the principle of Manifest Destiny. In contrast to many of those he dealt with, Chief Joseph maintained his honor, dignity, and principles, and by extension those of his people. Despite the counsel of many of his chiefs, he only chose armed resistance as a last resort.

What I find notable is how Chief Joseph expressed several American ideals in his speech at Lincoln Hall in Washington D.C. on 14 January 1879. From a man whose people were very poorly treated by a nation that purported to uphold high ideals we have:

Equality of Men

We only ask an even chance to live as other men live. We ask to be recognized as men. We ask that the same law shall work alike on all men. If an Indian breaks the law, punish him by the law. If a white man breaks the law, punish him also.

Equality Under the Law

Treat all men alike. Give them the same laws. Give them all an even chance to live and grow. All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers. The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it.

Individual Freedom

Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think and act for myself — and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty.

Chief Joseph never asked for special dispensations, reparations, or status as a protected minority, though much of the US governments actions toward First Nations peoples was genocide in deed if not in name. All he ever asked for was equal opportunity and the respect and dignity due all people. His desire was for his people to be treated as peers rather than victims. While Chief Joseph was never a citizen, this country should be honored to have him as one of our own.


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