by Jodi Rave
"I buried him in that valley of the winding water.
I love that land more than all the rest of the world."
-- Young Chief Joseph
JOSEPH, Idaho -- Some of Indian Country's all-time heroes earned their reputations after fighting to remain on the sacred land of their fathers, relatives and ancestors.
These battles continue today.
Nez Pierce Chief Joseph remains one of the most remarkable Native leaders who refused to willingly surrender his father's homeland to white settlers and gold diggers.
In 1877, within a year of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Chief Joseph, the younger, would pull off one of the most extraordinary military feats in U.S. history. It began in the Nez Perce country that existed within Idaho, Washington and Oregon.
The Nez Perce were forced to sign the Stevens Treaty of 1855, which meant they had to give up thousands of acres of land to the U.S. government. They were able to remain in the heart of their territory, which was the Wallowa Valley in eastern Oregon.
But when gold was discovered, new treaties were created. Even though the Joseph Band of Nez Perce refused to sign, they were still forced to new lands in Idaho. Distraught warriors, consequently, killed some white settlers, which started the Nez Perce War, a 1,200-mile retreat of the Joseph Band that led to their final capture in Montana, 40 miles short of Canada where they sought refuge.
But the Nez Perce homeland in the Wallowa Valley still calls.
In 1989, local residents and Nez Perce from Oregon, Idaho and Washington reclaimed 320 homeland-acres in Wallowa, Ore., where they have been reestablishing a presence in the valley. They've already created a Wallowa Band Nez Perce Trail Interpretive Center. The group will host the 17th annual Tamkaliks Celebration from July 20-22.
Over the years, I've visited different areas along the Nez Perce Trail. My first trip began at the end of the trail on the Bear Paw Battlefield in Montana, where Chief Joseph surrendered to U.S. forces in October 1877.
I've also been up in the Bitterroot Mountains on horseback to a spot called the Smoking Place, where the Nez Perce once helped explorers Lewis and Clark find their way through Indian Country as they fulfilled the western expansion mandates of Thomas Jefferson.
About 60 years later, the Nez Perce would cross near the same site through the Bitterroot Mountains in the fight of their lives. Another trail trip led me to the Big Hole National Battlefield, where the Joseph Band outwitted the U.S. Cavalry on its way to Canada.
The Memorial Day weekend would allow me time to finally reach the source of the Nez Perce Trail in the Wallowa Valley. The closer my husband and I got to the area, the more evident it became why the Nez Perce never wanted to leave. Sweeping valleys protected them and their magnificent horse herds in the winter. Highlands provided summer sustenance.
Frankie and I found a local campground near Joseph, Ore., right below the majestic Wallowa Mountains. We spent the morning in this tourist town where all the businesses seemed owned mainly by whites, as did the spectacular homes surrounding the stunning Wallowa Lake.
While we could appreciate the land, the town proved to be another example of 21st century whites capitalizing on Indians who were kicked off the land.
After driving some 350 miles from Montana, our final stop would mark the climax of our trip. We parked our car and entered the graveyard of Chief Joseph, the elder, a site maintained by the National Park Service. I followed a path to a clearly marked grave lined with a wooden fence. As I approached, a massive white headstone came into view and the ground below was covered with white granite rock.
It looked fitting for a chief. I approached with reverence.
I read the headstone. Was this a cruel joke?
I turned around and started walking toward the park entrance. I met my husband on the trail and he asked about the gravesite. "It's not his grave," I said. "It's a white guy buried over there. It says he was a friend of Chief Joseph."
We stood and looked around. We followed a different path. This one led to a tall stone marker. A plaque showed the site stood in memory of Chief Joseph, the elder. Nothing denotes he is buried without a skull because a white settler stole it from a gravesite in Wallowa.
We left that town where people live on land stolen from Chief Joseph. And now it seems, they've even staked claimed to his grave.
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs