Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

by Dee Brown

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Summary and Analysis Chapter 13: The Flight of the Nez Percés

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Chief Joseph: Chief of the Nez-Percé tribe who gave a famous speech upon surrendering to Colonel Miles.

Colonel Nelson Miles: Nicknamed Bear Coat by the Indians, he led the Army’s campaign to defeat and capture the Nez Percés.

For 70 years, from their first encounter with the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805 until the 1870s, the Nez Percés had enjoyed relatively good relations with whites. In 1863, they sign a treaty sending the tribe to a small reservation in Idaho. Old Joseph, a chief who was deeply angered by the treaty, dies in 1871 and is replaced by his son, Chief Joseph, as tribal chief. Cattlemen and gold seekers move into tribal land in the Wallowa Valley, and in response, the government tells the tribe to move to the Lapwai reservation. Facing difficulties in the effort to get to Lapwai before the deadline assigned and angered by the command to go to the reservation, the tribal chiefs decide to resist, and they win a battle at White Bird Canyon on June 17, 1877. After holding a tribal council, the Nez Percés decide to flee to Canada to escape punishment for their rebellion, and they retreat. A battle with the Army on August 9 at Big Hole River decides little, and in September after being surrounded by soldiers, the tribe surrenders. A small band of Nez Percés find refuge with Sitting Bull in Canada, but most of the tribe is returned to Lapwai, while Chief Joseph and roughly 150 other Nez Percés are sent to the Colville reservation in Washington. Joseph eventually dies on September 21, 1904.

The help given Lewis and Clark in 1805 by the Nez Percés established good relations with the whites, but apparently it was impossible for any Indian tribe to remain on good terms with whites for long. So it is that Brown tells how the tribe’s land was reduced by treaty, then by invasion from white miners and cattlemen in the years around 1870. Chief Joseph decided he had to fight the whites rather than simply submit to them, despite having little hope of victory. And indeed, this chapter describes the slow, gradual defeat of the Nez Percés during the summer of 1877. When Chief Joseph says, “I am tired; my heart is sick and sad,” the readers’ feelings of sympathy for Chief Joseph and his tribe’s plight are mixed with an increasing realization that the other Indian tribes are in a similarly grim situation.

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