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Chief Joseph: a great American hero

by on
in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

It remains an irony and a mark of Chief Joseph’s leadership that, although he carried no authority over anyone except his own small tribe, everyone considered him the great chief of the prosperous Northwest tribes known as the Nez Perce.

Through broken treaties and broken promises, Joseph still stands as an icon of bravery, compassion and leadership. Some examples:
  • When white settlers killed a Wallowa tribesman in a dispute over horses, Joseph was promised an investigation. When nothing happened, he told the settlers they’d have to leave. Still, nothing happened. But Joseph refused to retaliate.

    “We could have avenged our wrongs many times, but we did not,” Joseph later said. “The Nez Perce wish to live in peace.”

  • At one point the Nez Perce were ordered to move immediately to a reservation. A general escorted Joseph there, but the only acceptable site already had Indians and whites living on it. The general offered to remove them but Joseph declined.

    “It would be wrong to disturb these people,” Joseph said. “I have no right to take their homes. I have never taken what did not belong to me. I will not now.”

  • Even as his people were herded to reservations, Joseph kept petitioning for their release.

    “You may as well expect the rivers to run backward,” said Joseph, “as that any man who was born free should be contented while penned up.”

  • The U.S. Army colonel to whom Joseph eventually surrendered called him “a man of more sagacity and intelligence than any Indian I have ever met.” Even Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman lauded the tribe as honorable and brave, but then overrode a promise to let them go home.

    “When will those white chiefs begin to tell the truth?” Joseph asked.
The words that immortalized Joseph, however, are those he spoke during his surrender to a U.S. cavalry officer, after his gallant but outnumbered braves had made their last stand in 1877:

“My heart is sick and sore,” he said. “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more, forever.”

—Adapted from Chief Joseph: Guardian of the People, Candy Moulton, Forge/Tom Doherty Associates.

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