Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 466

The main characters in Chief Joseph are, with few exceptions, historical and include General Oliver Otis Howard, the warrior chiefs, and Chief Joseph. General Howard, however, appears only in the opening scene, when he orders the Nez Perce to move onto the reservation, and at the end, when he accepts...

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The main characters in Chief Joseph are, with few exceptions, historical and include General Oliver Otis Howard, the warrior chiefs, and Chief Joseph. General Howard, however, appears only in the opening scene, when he orders the Nez Perce to move onto the reservation, and at the end, when he accepts Chief Joseph's surrender. As Howard and his troops doggedly pursue the Nez Perce, Howard's presence becomes more foreboding and he seems to symbolize the relentless U.S. government and army that will eventually conquer the entire Native American population.

While Howard acts as Joseph's nemesis, the warrior chiefs, though not fully developed as characters, function as family and support for Joseph. Ollicutt, Chief Joseph's younger brother and one of the Nez Perce chiefs, is referred to as the "tall chief and always fights bravely and skillfully. Chief Looking Glass, a courageous and loyal warrior who dies in battle, derives his name from a small mirror hanging on a string around his neck. White Bird, Chief of the Salmon River Nez Perce, always feels guilty because some of his more volatile young warriors—Red Moccasin Top, Swan Necklace, and Wallaitits—sparked the war by killing Richard Devine and Henry Elders, white settlers who had often mistreated Native Americans. Toohulhulsote, a chief and medicine man of the Nez Perce Dreamer religion, refuses to be intimidated by any white settler, and when he angrily confronts General Howard during negotiations, he is arrested. Despite his own huge size and ferocious courage, he readily acknowledges Joseph's abilities as a war chief. Chief Yellow Bull is an aged, battle- scarred warrior who fights bravely and stands by Joseph even after the surrender, exemplifying the loyalty in war and in defeat that Chief Joseph commanded. Pile of Clouds, the trail chief, urges Joseph not to rest in the Bear Paws Mountains but rather to push on into Canada; his death vision and urgency foreshadow the inevitable Nez Perce defeat. With the deaths of most of these warrior chiefs late in the journey, Joseph knows he must surrender.

Chief Joseph's Nez Perce name denotes his stature as the Inmutuyahlatlat or Thunder-Traveling-Across-the- Mountains. His selfless concern for his people prompts his decision to lead them to safety in Canada. Although he wants peace and claims that he is not a war chief, he fights courageously for his people when war becomes inevitable, thus epitomizing the Nez Perce saying: "Take courage! This is a good day to die." In fact and legend, Joseph was a brilliant military tactician who, with three hundred warriors, engaged the U.S. Army in thirteen battles, either defeating them or fighting to a draw. Finally, emerging from Ashabranner and Davis's narrative are Chief Joseph's wisdom and quiet dignity, which are evident in his moving "I will fight no more forever" speech.

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