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"I will fight no more, forever" The Sad Struggle of the Nez Perce
Within the Nez Perce tribe, elder people were held in reverence because of their experience, and the entire people were led by a band of chiefs. The chief who led the warriors was named Looking Glass. He was a very handsome tall man who was by all accounts a military genius.
When I am gone, think of your country. You are the chief of these people...Always remember that your father never sold his country...the white men will be all around you. They have their eyes on this land. My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your father's body. Never sell the bones of your father and mother.
Chief Joseph asked Howard to let him have a few more months, after thousands of years of occupying their land, to prepare for departure. General Howard, who remarked in his diary that the land rightfully belonged to the Nez Perce, refused his request and told him that any Nez Perce remaining in one month's time would be moved to the reservation.
When Chief Joseph told his people of the unbelievable situation, many of the young warriors were enraged and wanted to fight the whites. The Nez Perce were outstandingly skilled warriors, and fought with fierceness unmatched in the open field. Still, to fight the whites would only bring more death and sorrow to their situation. A dead warrior could not be replaced, while there was a limitless supply of white soldiers.
Joseph was called a coward, but the tribe reluctantly accepted their new fate and began preparing to leave. However, a group of young warriors wanted revenge against settlers who had been robbing, raping, and murdering without any punishment. They exacted revenge on the worst of the settlers, killing over a dozen whites in a night of war cries and blood. This was all the excuse that the US government needed to attack the entire village. When the tribal council heard about the killing of settlers, they decided to leave before government troops attacked.
Out of the 800 Nez Perce, there were about 200 warriors. The United States government sent out 2000 cavalry in pursuit of this roaming village. The Nez Perce, under the military leadership of Looking Glass, evaded the army for four months. They killed and wounded hundreds of American soldiers, skilled veterans from the civil war.
They did everything they did to fluster and confuse their enemy. The US soldiers wanted blood; many of them had seen what had happened to Custer's army at Little Big Horn and they wanted revenge. The Nez Perce set up ambush points, fake trails, and took routes over mountain ranges that white generals had thought impossible.
The Nez Perce suffered their most striking defeat at the battle of Big Hole, in western Montana. They arrived in the valley, a traditional hunting ground, days ahead of General Howard's troops. Chief Looking glass decided that they were far enough ahead to rest a few days. The elderly accepted this much needed stop, while some young warriors claimed that they had dreams they would be attacked if they remained in the valley. Chief Looking Glass assured them that there was nothing to worry about, and decided that they did not even need to post guards around the encampment.
At that very moment a group of soldiers was marching from nearby Fort Missoula to Big Hole. General Howard had telegraphed ahead and set up a pre-dawn attack on the entire camp.
Disgusted by such a display of brutality, the warriors quickly staked out the village and began to bury the dead while the non-combatants started making their way towards the Crow reservation.
The tide turned very quickly once the warriors of the Nez Perce got organized. They captured the Howitzer canon before it fired a third shot. They then proceeded to wreak havoc on the US army with their rifles, some warriors using traded guns superior to those of the US army. After 24 hours of holding the US cavalry at bay, the warriors vanished into the cover of the bush and caught up with their tribe.
When the Nez Perce arrived in Crow reservation, the Crow were unable to let them live there. Newspapers from all across the country were watching Chief Joseph, who they nicknamed "Red Napoleon". Many people were actually rooting for the Nez Perce to escape from General Howard.
Escape now meant reaching Canada, where Sitting Bull and his Sioux people had formed an exile camp. Chief Joseph and his people walked endlessly, over mountain passes and crossing rivers in a constant run from the US army. As the winter came on with its cold Montana snowfall, the very young and the elderly began to die.
The farthest most of the Nez Perce people made it north was Bear's Paw, Montana, just 40 miles from Canada. It was in Bear's Paw that the US army laid siege to the 700 or so remaining Native Americans. After five days of death and sorrow, Chief Joseph went to the US army camp and surrendered his rifle. As he handed it over he said this speech:
I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed . . . .it is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food; no one knows where they are-perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children. Maybe I will find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs; I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.
When the rest of the tribe was allowed to move back to the Nez Perce reservation, Chief Joseph was sent to the desert in eastern Washington as a "dangerous element". He would eventually die there, stricken with grief because he never returned to his homeland. The official cause of death written on the certificate by the agency doctor: a broken heart.
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Nick - Massacres and mayhem: manifest destiny at its worst