A Role Model of Leadership

Chief Joseph was born in the Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon. In his early 30s, he became the chief of the Nez Perce Native American tribe. When the traditional land of the Nez Perce started to be encroached upon by white settlers, Chief Joseph became concerned.

The Governor of the Washington Territory met with Chief Joseph and other Nez Perce leaders to designate areas for Native Americans and settlers. The treaty of Walla Walla designated 7,700,000 acres for the Nez Perce.

The treaty lasted only eight years when the government convened another council and reduced the Nez Perce lands to 760,000 acres. Chief Joseph’s home place was not included in the new territory. The Nez Perce were promised schools, hospitals, and financial rewards for signing.

The new treaty caused a split within the Nez Perce since some Nez Perce leaders accepted it and others did not. Chief Joseph honored his dying father’s wish to never sell the land where he was buried.

Chief Joseph negotiated with the federal government to maintain his home place as a part of the Nez Perce land. The federal government again reneged on its commitment and demanded that the Nez Perce leave their homeland. After a considerable back-and-forth between the Nez Perce and the government, no agreement was reached. The Nez Perce were given 30 days to leave. Throughout, Chief Joseph urged for peace.

In spite of Chief Joseph’s efforts, war broke out. Chief Joseph attempted to lead his people to Canada. For months, the Nez Perce outmaneuvered the much more dominant federal troops leading to admiration from the American public. Chief Joseph’s tribe was finally captured 40 miles from the Canadian border.  The Nez Perce were assured they could return to the lands the federal government assigned to them. Again the federal government reneged on its promise and sent the Nez Perce to federal prison. Eventually, the Nez Perce were allowed to return to the Pacific Northeast.

Chief Joseph continued to fight for his people. He appealed to two Presidents, but to no avail. He died in 1904 at the age of 64 from what his doctor diagnosed as a broken heart. He was denied permission to be buried in his homeland.

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            “Good words do not last long unless they amount to something. Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country now overrun by white men. They do not protect my father’s grave. They do not pay for my horses and cattle. Good words will not give me back my children. Good words will not make good the promise of your war chief, General Miles. Good words will not give my people health and stop them from dying. Good words will not give my people a home where they can live in peace and take care of themselves.” – Chief Joseph

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