Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Study Guide

Dee Alexander Brown

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Chapter 13 : The Flight of the Nez Percés | Summary



The Nez Percés—so named for their nose piercings—initially lived in territory spanning parts of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. They have been friends with the white man since the Lewis and Clark expedition came through their territory in the first few years of the 19th century. The Nez Percés were once able to boast that none of them "have ever killed a white man," but this soon changes.

The government begins asking the Nez Percés for their land in 1855. Tuekakas, whom the white men refer to as "Old Joseph," won't sign the peace treaty that means to confine his people to a reservation. A subsequent treaty in 1863 takes away the Wallowa Valley on the border of Idaho and Oregon, plus three-fourths of the Nez Percés land. This leaves them with a small reservation in Idaho.

Old Joseph won't go, and after he dies in 1871, his son, Joseph, refuses to go too. Joseph asks President Grant to allow his tribe to remain in the Wallowa Valley. Grant approves his request in the form of an executive order on June 16, 1873.

The Nez Percés land still isn't safe. White settlers want it for themselves, and they begin stealing horses and cattle from the Indians. Politicians claim the Nez Percés are the ones doing the stealing and characterize the tribe as "being a threat to the peace." In 1875 the Wallowa Valley is reopened to white settlers, and the Wallowa Nez Percés are told to go to the Lapwai reservation. They hold out for two years until 1877, when General Howard is ordered to use whatever means necessary to get them there.

Joseph's warriors are ready to go to war after several cows are stolen by white settlers while the Nez Percés cross the Snake River. Joseph disagrees—it's too dangerous. The white soldiers outnumber their warriors two to one. That night a group of warriors sneaks away from camp and kills 11 white men. Now battle is inevitable.

The Wallowa Nez Percés are victorious in their first fight against Howard's troops. They meet up with Chief Looking Glass at the Clearwater River, and add another 150 warriors to their group. Joseph and the other chiefs decide their only hope now is to flee to Canada like Sitting Bull and his Hunkpapa Teton Sioux.

The Nez Percés are familiar with the mountainous territory, and they manage to outpace Howard's soldiers. But another regiment has built a barricade ahead at a narrow pass on Lolo Creek. Captain Charles Rawn tells Joseph his people can pass only if they give up their weapons. Joseph refuses, and the Nez Percés and their cattle sneak out of the canyon a few days later. They head for the Big Hole, a familiar hunting ground, and take time to rest and hunt. Unbeknownst to them, another column of soldiers is headed in their direction. Colonel John Gibbon attacks the Nez Percé camp on August 10, 1877. Eighty Nez Percés, mostly women and children, are killed, but the warriors manage to inflict a lot of damage on Gibbon's regiment. They also steal many of Gibbon's mules, which are carrying the soldiers' supplies.

The Nez Percés cross Yellowstone National Park where General Sherman happens to be camping. He had come to find out how 300 Nez Percé warriors and their families "could make fools out of the entire Army of the Northwest." He sends the Seventh Cavalry after them, and orders "Bear Coat" Miles to head them off from another direction.

The Nez Percés are a day away from the Canadian border when Miles finds them. A bitter battle ensues with 600 white soldiers facing off against fewer than 300 Nez Percé warriors. The next day, a few of Miles's Sioux scouts ride onto the battlefield holding a truce flag. They tell Joseph that Miles is "sincere and really want[s] peace." Joseph goes to talk to Miles and is taken prisoner. His warriors free him on the third day.

Howard's regiment arrives the same day. Joseph knows his people can't hold out much longer, but Looking Glass and White Bird want to keep fighting. Hours later, Looking Glass is shot through the forehead. Joseph surrenders to Miles the next day.

Instead of being sent to the Lapwai reservation as promised, the Nez Percés are "shipped ... like cattle" to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where they are held as prisoners of war. Nearly 100 of them die before they are moved to Indian Territory. While there, Joseph is allowed to visit Washington, DC, and meets "all the great chiefs of government." He is disgusted by their false and broken promises. His pleas to let his people be free are ignored.

However, there are still some free Nez Percés. While Joseph was surrendering to Miles, White Bird and a small group of warriors made it to the Canadian border. On their second day there they run into Sioux scouts, who take them to live with Sitting Bull.


Joseph and his father have a very different understanding of the meaning and value of land than the white men trying to claim it. Old Joseph believed "no man owned any part of the earth, and a man could not sell what he did not own." The Nez Percés see the earth as being part of their physical selves. The earth creates them, and when they die the earth accepts them back. The governor of Washington, Isaac Stevens, simply can't comprehend this mindset. To him, land is a commodity just like corn or cattle. When broken into little pieces it can be traded, sold, and stolen. But Joseph and Old Joseph look at the land as a continuous whole that cannot be broken apart.

This is a common belief throughout American Indian culture, but not all the Nez Percé chiefs allow themselves to be guided by it. The Wallowa Valley Nez Percés initially lose their land because chiefs from other bands sold the land without Old Joseph's permission. Brown doesn't indicate why, although it is most likely that they, like some of the Sioux in the case of the Black Hills, understood if they didn't agree to sell the land to the white men it would be taken from them without compensation. They may have been trying to make the best of a bad situation, or they may have had no choice in the matter. In any case, this causes Joseph and his father to also place blame for the loss of the valley on their own kinsmen, not just the white men. Until the Wallowa band meets up with Looking Glass's band, they are fighting the white man on their own.

Joseph never wanted to fight. Like numerous other Indian chiefs on the Plains and the Plateau, he believed peaceful negotiations were better for the safety and longevity of his tribe than going to war. He was proud of the strength and skill of his people, but he also knew they were greatly outnumbered by the seemingly endless supply of American soldiers. His primary goal as chief is to keep his tribe alive. But just as Santee Sioux chief Little Crow and Modoc chief Captain Jack were forced into war by their men killing white settlers, so was Joseph. In all of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, there is only one instance of a chief turning his back on warriors who harmed white people or their property against the chief's wishes. That was Little Robe, who cast out the Southern Cheyenne Dog Soldiers from the Southern Cheyenne camp. Even that doesn't really count, because he wasn't the Dog Soldiers' direct chief—they answered to Tall Bull. Little Robe evicts the Dog Soldiers because he doesn't want the rest of the tribe to get hurt. On the whole, American Indian chiefs take full responsibility for the actions of their people. Instead of abandoning them or punishing them for reckless acts, they make a new plan to ensure the safety of the entire tribe.

For all his annoyance with the Nez Percés, General Howard doesn't want war, either. He knows firsthand how much more effective peaceful negotiations are than war, as evidenced by his experience with the Chiricahuas four years earlier. But his leniency with Cochise damaged his reputation with his superiors, who didn't like "Indian lovers." Getting the Nez Percés to their designated territory is Howard's chance to redeem himself, but to do this he has to ignore his conscience. He knows it's a big mistake to force Joseph and his people to leave the Wallowa Valley, but he also doesn't want to be reprimanded for doing his job incorrectly. It took enormous bravery for the few soldiers who stood up to their superiors to do so. They had to determine whether their careers were more important than their morals. Only a few people, like Edward Wynkoop, prioritized morals. Many more were ashamed of their actions, yet obeyed orders to keep their jobs.

Of course, there were also many soldiers who had no qualms about contributing to the extinction of an entire race of people. The Nez Percés who survive Gibbon's attack are horrified by what the soldiers did to the bodies of the Indian women and children they killed. Bodies were "riddled with bullets," and heads were "smashed in by bootheels and gunstocks." One of the Nez Percé warriors remarked it was as if some of the soldiers "acted with crazy minds." In a way they did, because many of them were drunk. But alcohol wasn't to blame for the exceedingly violent end to the lives of defenseless women and children. Many soldiers simply hated Indians. Their superiors stoked feelings of hatred by demonizing the Indians and telling lies about them. Military leaders told these kinds of lies not only to garner support from Washington, DC, for military campaigns, but also to convince their soldiers the white man was in the right. They figured it would be easier to get their soldiers to kill unarmed Indians, even women and children, if they thought the entire race was evil.

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