By Ellen Nimmo
Tell me if this ever happens to you. You’re going along, it’s an ordinary day, but then someone says something to you with what feels like an extra layer of meaning. How or why? You can’t quite pinpoint. It’s not dramatic or remarkable in any other way than it just hits your ears with a subtle note that says: Hey, pay attention. Kind of like that scene in the movie, the one where all the dialogue goes silent, but the music track picks up and all the sudden Hans Zimmer seems to be orchestrating a scene, but this time you have no idea where or what the drumline is leading you towards.
It happens to me sometimes. Albeit rarely.
Recently it happened. The words came from the mouth of a man named Cletus, so we can pretty much count it as a notch or two more interesting already. Cletus was telling me about a war reenactment that takes place late summer, up near Yellowstone and the like. Perhaps it’s better deemed an anti-war reenactment? I’m not sure. But where the Zimmer music came in was when he mentioned Chief Joseph. Cletus mentioned him to me twice that day and upon the second time I noticed the tenor of significance (whether real or imagined) vibrating through my ear canals and into the basin of my mind.
I’d heard about Chief Joseph before, but the details of his story were a watery memory at best. Until now. Chief Joseph, born Hinmuuttu-yalatlat (Thunder Rolling Down a Mountain), also sometimes spelled Inmuttoo-yahlatlat, was born in the Wallowa Valley region of Oregon in 1840. He was part of the Nez Percé tribe, which was one of the most powerful and most peaceable tribes during the early portion of the 19th century, but during the decades following Inmuttoo-yahlatlat’s birth, the U.S. began to press Native tribes more and more into surrendering their land and moving onto reservations.
Reservations, as you likely know, have often existed on portions of land that were deemed less desirable, less profitable, and all-in-all less attractive than other areas of our country’s terrestrial landscapes. The situation for the Nez Percé was to be no different.
In eight short years the Treaty of Walla Walla, which had allocated 7.7 million acres to five Sovereign Tribal Nations (including the Nez Percé) shrunk to a mere 760,000 acres in a new proposal put forth by government officials. A powerful abracadabra that would befuddle even the clever Bugs Bunny. Gold rushes seem to have that effect. The treaty was signed by a representative of the Nez Percé Nation in the hope that the vain promises of financial rewards, hospitals, and schools would be honored and fulfilled. Chief Joseph opposed this “deal” and his refusal to comply deepened the cracks, exacerbating the erosion of peace between Native peoples and the encroaching military, opportunistic settlers, prospective prospectors, and so on. Still, Chief Joseph battled any violence that might have erupted. Making both compromise and concession in the faith of safeguarding some semblance of peace for the Nez Percé Nation.
But negotiations with greed rarely go well.
In 1877, upon another reversal of promise and policy, Chief Joseph expressed his deeply held belief of human equality to General Howard in an attempt to prevent yet another relocation for his people. In turn, Howard gave Joseph and his people 30 days to leave the reservation or become instruments of war. The Nez Percé decided in favor of peace and prepared to depart, but were nevertheless pursued as they journeyed north to a hopeful reprieve in Canada. You can see a map of their four-month long trek here.
Along their extended march Chief Joseph and the Nez Percé peoples often outmaneuvered, out-battled, and out-compassioned the Army troops who outnumbered Joseph and his followers by a teeming ratio of at least ten to one. Endearing themselves to the hearts of many whites along their route, Joseph and many of his followers acted in kindness and concern for their fellow human, despite the oppression they had endured year after year.
I wish this was the part in the story where Chief Joseph and his people found a resting place. Some solace. Some prosperity and peace; a land to once more call home. But that isn’t how this story goes.
The last leg of Joseph’s trail led him through eight months of prison camp, seven years of res-life in Oklahoma, an inconsequential meeting in D.C. with then President Rutherford B. Hayes, and yet another relocation, this time onto the Colville Reservation in Washington.
He died in 1904 of a broken heart.
The speech he gave at the surrender to U.S. troops has become famous. It echoes through time in sounds of sorrow. Joseph, by all accounts, was a man worn by the never-ending exodus of war.
Or was he the truer victor?
Only the Great Spirit knows.
For my part? I can’t help but wonder. Baptized into the Christian faith by choice, a faith which held and holds peace as a cornerstone (Matt 5:9), Joseph must have looked at his oppressors, many of them undoubtedly claiming Christianity as their guiding principal, in stoic astonishment. Could we truly worship the same Benevolent Creator?
Only the Great Spirit knows.
Cletus probably didn’t realize his words would key in the epic music that was to send me off on an excavation, a journey of discovery, when he talked to me of Chief Joseph and his trek north, but then again, maybe he did. Either way I’m grateful for this glimpse back into the lives and convictions of those who have gone ahead of me. Certainly, there’s a lot in Joseph’s story that saddens me deeply. Still, when I think about what he and his endured in the name of peace . . . somehow, it gives me so much hope.
A fire of perseverance surrounds me. Drums tremble and ignite no words, but a dance.
A dance of thanksgiving. For the one who was and is and is to come (Rev 1:8). And a prayer for peace like Thunder Rolling Down a Mountain, falling as tears of joy from heaven.