Setting

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 186

Historically, Chief Joseph takes place during the 1877 Nez Perce War in the American Northwest. The action begins in Idaho, near the Oregon-Washington border, as General Oliver Otis Howard orders the Nez Perce to leave the Wallowa, meaning "Land of the Winding Waters" in Nez Perce, and move to the...

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Historically, Chief Joseph takes place during the 1877 Nez Perce War in the American Northwest. The action begins in Idaho, near the Oregon-Washington border, as General Oliver Otis Howard orders the Nez Perce to leave the Wallowa, meaning "Land of the Winding Waters" in Nez Perce, and move to the Lapwi Reservation. With Joseph's decision to lead his people to Canada, where they can live in peace and pursue their old way of life, the narrative follows the Nez Perce's sixteen-hundred-mile march from Idaho into northern Montana, then south through Montana to Big Hole and Camas Creek, where the tribe crosses into Wyoming and Yellowstone Park, and then toward Canada. About thirty miles from safety in Canada, the Nez Perce are surrounded by the U.S. Army at Bear Paws Mountains, and Joseph surrenders. Because the action takes place on the frontier of the American West, the specific story of the Nez Perce defeat reflects the general history of western expansion: the inevitable military defeat of Native Americans followed by an influx of white settlers who destroy the Native American way of life and the frontier itself.

Literary Qualities

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 275

In translating fact about Chief Joseph into fiction, Ashabranner and Davis attempt to balance Joseph's private and public personas. Although they portray Joseph as a leader of legendary courage and dignity, they also reveal his moments of doubt: after the victory at White Bird Canyon, when White Bird exclaims that they have won their first battle, Joseph wonders, "Can we win the last one?"; and as he observes the exuberant Nez Perce youths on the hunting trip, Joseph worries that their happiness will soon end with the sounds of the war drums.

A less subtle literary device occurs at the end of each chapter, with a suspenseful sentence that leads logically and urgently into the next chapter. The fourth chapter ends with the impending birth of Joseph's second daughter as he hopes that she will "live to see peace," but the fifth chapter opens ominously with Colonel Perry's attack at White Bird Canyon. The next-to-last chapter ends as the army organizes a new attack against the decimated Nez Perce, and the final chapter is appropriately titled, "I Will Fight No More."

The symbol that dominates the narrative is the telegraph, or "the singing wires" that the Native Americans say are faster than the fastest pony, than the locomotive, and than a bird in flight. The Nez Perce odyssey becomes a race against the telegraph. By extension, the telegraph symbolizes the onslaught of white civilization and the end of the Native Americans' way of life. Within the novel's plot, the Nez Perce are doomed not only because of the army's superior force, but also because of the coming of technological advances as symbolized by the telegraph.

Social Sensitivity

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In a foreword to Chief Joseph, Ashabranner and Davis claim that they wish to "add to the legend of a great American, while keeping the facts straight," and they do this well, without moralizing. In their attempts to reach a younger audience, the authors simplify the story of the Nez Perce to the point of melodrama at times, and neglect in-depth treatment of peripheral characters, including women.

The painful social issues surrounding the story of Chief Joseph remain relevant today, as various Native American tribal leaders still seek just treatment from the U.S. government. The tragedy of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce represents the tragedy of other Native Americans: Chief Osceola and the Seminoles; Chief Black Hawk and the Sauks; Chief Sitting Bull and Chief Crazy Horse and the Sioux; Chief Geronimo and the Apaches; the Cherokees' trail of tears; the Wounded Knee massacre. Violating its own constitution, the U.S. government captured land that Native Americans had roamed for hundreds of years. Ashabranner and Davis avoid explicit condemnation of the government, but they implicitly address this issue.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 414

Balch, Glenn. Horse of Two Colors. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1969. Balch's juvenile novel is about a young Nez Perce who escapes after two years of captivity and makes his way north with a stallion that sires the first Appaloosa.

Beal, Merrill D. I Will Fight No More Forever: Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War. New York: Ballantine Books, 1975. Highly recommended for its photographs, historical information, and notes and bibliography.

Bleeker, Sonia. Horsemen of the Western Plateaus: The Nez Perce Indians. New York: William Morrow, 1957. Bleeker's mixture of fact and fiction makes for interesting and informative reading.

Brown, Dee Alexander. Wounded Knee. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974. Amy Ehrlich's adaptation of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee traces the white man's conquest of Native Americans, especially the symbolic end of Native American freedom at Wounded Knee.

Chalmers, Harvey. The Last Stand of the Nez Perce: Destruction of a People. New York: Twayne, 1962. Chalmers uses an interesting literary technique: the chapters alternate between written historical accounts and the recollections of Yellow Wolf, one of Joseph's braves.

Gidley, M. With One Sky Above Us: Life on an Indian Reservation at the Turn of the Century. New York: Putnam, 1979. Recommended for its readability and detailed pictures of Chief Joseph, his warriors, tribe, and villages.

Haines, Francis. The Nez Perces: Tribesmen of the Columbia Plateau. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972. With interesting photographs, this book contains some material never before published and is a scholarly but readable study.

Harrison, Jim. A Good Day to Die. New York: Dell, 1981. In this novel portraying his protagonists' journey out west to destroy a supposed dam, Harrison indirectly contrasts the dignity, purpose, and courage of the Nez Perce with the lack of such virtues in modem man.

Howard, Oliver Otis. Nez Perce Joseph. 1881. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1972. A firsthand account written by the officer responsible for finally capturing Chief Joseph and his tribe.

Wolper, David (producer). I Will Fight No More Forever. 1975. Although it is not based on Ashabranner and Davis's novel, this movie adaptation of the Chief Joseph story contains historical facts about the Nez Perce and depicts the hardships and deprivations of their heroic trek. The film stars James Whitmore as General Howard, Sam Elliott as Colonel Niles, and Ned Romero as Chief Joseph. Romero captures the emotion, power, and dignity of Chief Joseph's "I will fight no more" speech in a dramatic final scene, but overall the movie is, at best, a grade B western.

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