Hinmaton-Yalaktit (Nez Perce: Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain) more commonly known as Chief Joseph (March 3, 1840 – September 21, 1904) was chief of the Wal-lam-wat-kain (Wallowa) band of Nez Perce Indians during General Oliver O. Howard’s attempt to forcibly remove his band and the other “non-treaty” Indians to a reservation in Idaho.
What does he have to do with this election?
Barack Obama’s victory means a great deal to African-Americans. But it also has enormous significance to every other group who’s dream of complete inclusion in American society has been advanced. Amongst the many injustices that have stained the legend of America’s rise is the story of its native peoples. Their disposession is not unique in the world’s history, or indeed in that of the Americas. But it is particularly heartbreaking since it was so recent and such a contrast with the ideals professed by newer settlers and their constitution.
On Sunday, I made some calls for the Obama campaign in New York at a phonebank, one of the volunteers at the event was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Chief Joseph and a quote. I began to choke up, as I always do when I am reminded of his remarkable story. If you haven’t already, you may want to watch the PBS/Ken Burn’s documentary The West, a moving and lyrical account of the American West’s settlement.
Chief Joseph had a simple dream, best expressed in his own words.
Do not misunderstand me, but understand fully with reference to my affection for the land. I never said the land was mine to do with as I choose. The one who has a right to dispose of it is the one who has created it. I claim a right to live on my land and accord you the privilege to return to yours.
What he wanted, for himself and for the people he represented or led were the most basic of rights.
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.
Now, I’m well aware that we have not in one fell swoop eradicated all bigotry from this land, it has always existed and in some form will always exist. But I do think one of Chief Joseph’s hopes is closer to realization today than it was yesterday:
Whenever the white man treats the Indian as they treat each other, then we shall have no more wars. We shall be all alike — brothers of one father and mother, with one sky above us and one country around us and one government for all. Then the Great Spirit Chief who rules above will smile upon this land and send rain to wash out the bloody spots made by brothers’ hands upon the face of the earth. For this time the Indian race is waiting and praying. I hope no more groans of wounded men and women will ever go to the ear of the Great Spirit Chief above, and that all people may be one people.
And I hope that in the spirit of reconciliation and advance, President Obama and Senator McCain will work together to further the advance of Native Americans including the substantial population in Senator McCain’s home state. Their’s has been a story of neglect and exploitation, and they hold outgreat hope for change under an Obama administration.
Too many misinterpretations have been made; too many misunderstandings have come up between the white men and the Indians. If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian he can live in peace. There need be no trouble. 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. You might as well expect all rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases. If you tie a horse to a stake, do you expect he will grow fat? If you pen an Indian up on a small spot of earth and compel him to stay there, he will not be contented nor will he grow and prosper. I have asked some of the Great White Chiefs where they get their authority to say to the Indian that he shall stay in one place, while he sees white men going where they please. They cannot tell me.
Hinmaton-Yalaktit was an eloquent speaker, and enjoyed the benefit of good translators.
As the republican party and its supporters mull over their defeat, they will be thinking many thoughts. And there is a “nativist” wing of the party that seethes with rage, in my view without reason or cause. They might wish to remember that on October 5, 1877 after suffering far more pain, loss, disposession, disappointment and heartbreak than they can begin to imagine, Chief Joseph had the grace to wish for peace, even if it was an unjust peace, and said:
I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our Chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Ta Hool Hool Shute is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are — perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my Chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the Sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.