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Edward S. Curtis and The North American Indian, Spring-Summer 2018: Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé

This library guide is an overview of the Archives & Special Collection exhibit on Edward S. Curtis and The North American Indian.

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Chief Joseph - Nez Percé

Photogravure of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce

Chief Joseph - Nez Percé, 1903

The name of Chief Joseph is better known than that of any other Northwestern Indian.  To him popular opinion has given the credit of conducting a remarkable strategic movement from Idaho to northern Montana in the flight of the Nez Percés in 1877.  To what extent this is a misconception has been demonstrated in the historical effort to retain what was rightly their own makes an unparalleled story in the annals of the Indian's resistance to the greed of the whites.  That they made this final effort is not surprising.  Indeed, it is remarkable that so few tribes rose in a last struggle against such dishonored and relentless objection.

Print caption by Edward S. Curtis, The North American Indian, Portfolio VIII, Plate no. 256, 1911.


Speech in Washington, D.C.

Chief Joseph

Washington, January 17, 1879

…. I do not understand why nothing is done for my people.  I have heard talk and talk, but nothing is done.  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 all 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 good health and stop them from dying.  Good words will not get my people a home where they can live in peace and take care of themselves.  I am tired of talk that comes to nothing.  It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and all the broken promises.  There has been too much talking by men who had no right to talk.  Too many misrepresentations have been made, too many misunderstandings have come up between the white men about the Indians.  If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian he can live in peace.  There need be no trouble.  Treat all men alike.  Give them all the same law.  Give them all an even chance to live and grow.  All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief.  They are all brothers.  The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it.  You might as well expect the rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented when penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases.  If you tie a horse to a stake, do you expect he will grow fat?  If you pen an Indian up on a small spot of earth, and compel him to stay there, he will not be contented, nor will he grow and prosper.  I have asked some of the great white chiefs where they get their authority to say to the Indian that he shall stay in one place, while he sees white men going where they please.  They can not tell me.

I only ask of the Government to be treated as all other men are treated.

Chief Joseph, quoted in “An Indian’s Views of Indian Affairs.”  By Young Joseph and William H. Hare.  The North American Review, Vol. 128, No. 269 (April, 1879): 432.

Curtis device

Death of Chief Joseph

The summer following Joseph’s death [on September 21, 1904] the writer visited Nespilem, to be present at the “Joseph potlatch” --- the giving away of all his earthly possessions…  

…This was the closing act in the drama of the life of Joseph, the last of the Nez Percé “non-treaty” chiefs.  To employ words in the condemnation of the great wrong that his people suffered would be useless, for was it not but one of countless iniquities that have marked the white man’s dealings with the Indians since the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth? 

Edward S. Curtis, The North American Indian, Text VIII, 40, 1911.


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