Anecdotes of Chief Joseph
With the death of Chief Joseph, the famous leader of the Nez Perces, the United States has lost its most celebrated Indian. Joseph, since the death of Red Cloud and Sitting Bull, has been the most discussed American Indian. He was the last of the great warrior chiefs. Descendant of a long line of fighters, chieftain, since early manhood, of the Nez Perce tribe, and followed with constant devotion by his dwindling people, Chief Joseph was the last Indian leader who dared to put up a real fight against civilization; and in his desperate Waterloo he put up a fight that gave Gen. Nelson A. Miles and Gen. O. O. Howard all they could do to nab him and crush him till he grimly buried the hatchet. Chief Joseph it was who, when the United States took away the reservation given him and his people by grant, brandished a defiant fist and after years of peace dragged the Government into one last fierce struggle between red and white, and the old chief came out of it blue, but silent. When he took up the cause of his little band again it was with the diplomacy of a vanquished man, beaten by a civilization which finally landed him in a half-dollar show at Madison Square Garden. This was a year ago, after New York society had fondled the old chief without awakening in him any enthusiasm. Now that Chief Joseph is dead, the mantle of his diluted power falls to his son, Flo-Cut, of a generation which knows little of the old-time warfare.
Red Cloud, perhaps, was the most famous of latterday Indians. From the time of Red Cloud’s death Joseph typified the Indian nation, for he was the last of the really great chiefs. No one knows how old he was, but he is believed to have approached fourscore. He died near Spokane, in the little reservation set by for his tribe after his Waterloo in the Bear’s Paw Mountains, in the Yellowstone, in 1877.
For twenty-five years Chief Joseph stayed among his people quietly, living peacefully in the reservation mapped out for them near Spokane, and making only one long journey away, when he visited New York at the time of the Grant celebration in 1897. To General Miles, who afterward became his close friend, and who always calls him “The Napoleon of Indians,” Joseph had said: “From where the sun now stands I fight no more against the whites.” And his word was kept.
But a little over a year ago the Indians grew suspicious of the near-approaching homes of the whites, and the old chief, stung by the fear of another order to “move on,” journeyed to Washington to petition the President to regrant them the Wallowa Valley in Oregon. But official deeds of right and the long unquestioned holding of property by white settlers in the Oregon Valley made intricate difficulties loom up on the legal horizon, and Chief Joseph finally dropped his plea. It is thought that General Miles, his victor and his champion, was chiefly instrumental in persuading the old chief that he and his people would be safe in their Washington home, where he died Thursday, September 22, 1904.
The chief’s first visit to New York, in 1897, was in the nature of a tribute to the man who had granted his tribe the reservation afterward wrested from them. Joseph had gone to Washington on business, and General Miles suggested to him that he go to New York and join the Grant celebration. The old chief, however, was too poor to take the additional trip, though he said he would like to, and when he did come it was as the guest of Colonel Cody, or, as he was invariably known to the chief, Buffalo Bill.
Chief Joseph participated in the parade at the dedication of Grant’s Tomb, and at this time much discussion was caused by a report that he had refused to ride near General Howard. In line with the talk caused by this alleged action there was a revival of the controversy in regard to the amount of credit relatively due to Miles and Howard for the victory over the chief in the Yellowstone so many years before.
While in New York on this visit the big chief stayed at the Astor House, and he appeared there in full regalia, shortening the breath of the less outre guests. He wore his enormous head-dress, his most astonishing mark of distinguish ment, and it caused more craning of Astor House necks than anything else about him. Joseph, however, wasn’t at all daunted, and had his own opinion about some New York arrangements of the head, though he didn’t say anything to indicate this until one afternoon in an Indian exhibition camp in South Brooklyn, where he had gone to rest after he had looked at New York till he was tired.
Here he was visited by a young woman who was dressed to impress and had a store of slated questions to ask. “Did you ever scalp anybody ?” she inquired. Chief Joseph pondered a moment and then turned to the interpreter. “Tell her,” he said, pointing at the combination aviary and garden on her head, “that I have nothing in my collection as fine as that.”
When he returned to New York again he took a trip to the Fifth Avenue Hotel with two or three of his admirers and had his first experience with a modern bar. A fat whisky glass was procured and filled to the brim. The chief, with his usual taciturnity, lifted the glass and swallowed its contents with one wonderful gulp.
When, a year ago, he came East for the second time, he was entertained at the White House and also in the Washington home of General and Mrs. Miles, and a little later he came on to New York. His utter taciturnity always made it impossible to know whether he was pleased with anything or not, but his voluntary trip to the metropolis on this visit seemed to indicate that he had enjoyed his first experience. Now he was made a temporary pet in society, and later astonished his entertainers by consenting to join Cummins’s Indian Congress and Life on the Plains during that show’s exhibition at Madison Square Garden. After it was over he returned to his reservation, and remained on it till he exchanged it for the happy hunting-grounds.
Chief Joseph was famous for his face and figure. He was tall, straight as an arrow and wonderfully handsome, his features being as clear-cut as chiseled marble. He never spoke a word of English, but some of his sayings, translated, have become famous. He used to say: “Look twice at a two-faced man”; “Cursed be the hand that scalps the reputation of the dead”; “The eye tells what the tongue would hide”; ” Fire water courage ends in trembling fear”; ” Big name often stands on small legs”; “Finest fur may cover toughest meat”; “When you get the last word with an echo you may do so with a squaw.”