Man's inhumanity to man might well be the title of the theme of this novel. Even though Joseph has tried to live in peace with the whites, and even though his people ask nothing more than to be left alone, they are driven from their homeland, deprived of their horses and cattle which represent their livelihood, and hunted like wild animals. The same settlers who are helped by the Indians, turn informers on them. Not one of the white people, from miners to homesteaders to various military leaders ever seems to have considered the Indians as human beings. Their behavior stands in direct contrast with Chief Joseph's actions. When the Indians capture some white women, they release them and even give them horses. When the army encounters a village of women and children, it butchers them as enemies. There is not the least consideration given to even their most reasonable request. They are ordered to evacuate their homeland in the Wallowa mountains in early spring. When their leaders point out the difficulty of crossing the rivers swollen by spring run-off, and ask for a later time, they are disregarded. As a result, they lose most of their cattle, and their old people and children are endangered.
Not all the Nez Perce agree with their leader, and many feel, as Joseph's own daughter Sound of Running Feet does, that it would be better to fight than to give in. Yet they are overruled by Joseph who feels that shedding blood is wrong, unless they are forced to defend themselves. Every time the Nez Perce take a stand and fight, they win, but their victories become hollow as the final confrontation approaches inevitably. If we stand and fight, Joseph admonishes, the end will only come more swiftly.