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Native Americans

John Simkin

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Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé tribe was one of the outstanding figures of 19th century America. He wrote an article in 1879 that is still worth reading. For futher details about Chief Joseph see:


Chief Joseph, An Indian's Views of Indian Affairs, North American Review (April, 1879)

My friends, I have been asked to show you my heart. I am glad to have a chance to do so. I want the white people to understand my people. Some of you think an Indian is like a wild animal. This is a great mistake. I will tell you all about our people, and then you can judge whether an Indian is a man or not. I believe much trouble and blood would be saved if we opened our hearts more. I will tell you in my way how the Indian sees things. The white man has more words to tell you how they look to him, but it does not require many words to speak the truth. What I have to say will come from my heart, and I will speak with a straight tongue. Ah-cum-kin-i-ma-me-hut (the Great Spirit) is looking at me, and will hear


My name is In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat (Thunder traveling over the Mountains). I am chief of the Wal-lam-wat-kin band of Chute-pa-lu, or Nez Perces (nose-pierced Indians). I was born in eastern Oregon, thirty-eight winters ago. My father was chief before me. When a young man, he was called Joseph by Mr. Spaulding, a missionary. He died a few years ago. There was no stain on his hands of the blood of a white man. He left a good name on the earth. He advised me well for my people.

Our fathers gave us many laws, which they had learned from their fathers. These laws were good. They told us to treat all men as they treated us; that we should never be the first to break a bargain; that it was a disgrace to tell a lie; that we should speak only the truth; that it was a shame for one man to take from another his wife, or his property without paying for it. We were taught to believe that the Great Spirit sees and hears everything, and that he never forgets; that hereafter he will give every man a spirit-home according to his deserts: if he has been a good man, he will have a good home; if he has been a bad man, he will have a bad home. This I believe, and all my people believe the same.

The first white men of your people who came to our country were named Lewis and Clarke. They also brought many things that our people had never seen. They talked straight, and our people gave them a great feast, as a proof that their hearts were friendly. These men were very kind. They made presents to our chiefs and our people made presents to them. We had a great many horses, of which we gave them what they needed, and they gave us guns and tobacco in return. All the Nez Perces made friends with Lewis and Clarke, and agreed to let them pass through their country, and never to make war on white men. This promise the Nez Perces have never broken...

For a short time we lived quietly. But this could not last. White men had found gold in the mountains around the land of winding water. They stole a great many horses from us, and we could not get them back because we were Indians. The white men told lies for each other. They drove off a great many of our cattle. Some white men branded our young cattle so they could claim them. We had no friend who would plead our cause before the law councils. It seemed to me that some of the white men in Wallowa were doing these things on purpose to get up a war. They knew that we were not strong enough to fight them. I labored hard to avoid trouble and bloodshed. We gave up some of our country to the

white men, thinking that then we could have peace. We were mistaken. The white man would not let us alone. We could have avenged our wrongs many times, but we did not. Whenever the Government has asked us to help them against other Indians, we have never refused. When the white men were few and we were strong we could have killed them all off, but the Nez Perces wished to live at peace...

I know that my race must change. We can not hold our own with the white men as we are. We only ask an even chance to live as other men live. We ask to be recognized as men. We ask that the same law shall work alike on all men. If the Indian breaks the law, punish him by the law. If the white man breaks the law, punish him also.

Let me be a free man - free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself - and I will obey every law, or submit to the penalty.

Whenever the white man treats the Indian as they treat each other, then we will have no more wars. We shall all be alike - brothers of one father and one mother, with one sky above us and one country around us, and one government for all. Then the Great Spirit Chief who rules above will smile upon this land, and send rain to wash out the bloody spots made by brothers' hands from the face of the earth. . . .

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I thought history teachers might be able to make use of this passage of George Catlin's book, Illustrations of the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians (1848).

On an occasion when I had interrogated a Sioux chief, on the Upper Missouri, about their Government - their punishments and tortures of prisoners, for which I had freely condemned them for the cruelty of the practice, he took occasion when I had got through, to ask me some questions relative to modes in the civilized world, which, with his comments upon them, were nearly as follow; and struck me, as I think they must every one, with great force.

"Among white people, nobody ever take your wife - take your children - take your mother, cut off nose - cut eyes out - burn to death?" No! "Then you no cut off nose - you no cut out eyes - you no burn to death - very good."

He also told me he had often heard that white people hung their criminals by the neck and choked them to death like dogs, and those their own people; to which I answered, "yes." He then told me he had learned that they shut each other up in prisons, where they keep them a great part of their lives because they can't pay money! I replied in the affirmative to this, which occasioned great surprise and excessive laughter, even amongst the women. He told me that he had been to our Fort, at Council Bluffs, where we had a great many warriors and braves, and he saw three of them taken out on the prairie and tied to a post and whipped almost to death, and he had been told that they submit to all this to get a little money, "yes." He said he had been told, that when all the white people were born, their white medicine-men had to stand by and look on - that in the Indian country the women would not allow that - they would be ashamed - that he had been along the Frontier, and a good deal amongst the white people, and he had seen them whip their little children - a thing that is very cruel - he had heard also, from several white medicine-men, that the Great Spirit of the white people was the child of a white woman, and that he was at last put to death by the white people! This seemed to be a thing that he had not been able to comprehend, and he concluded by saying, "the Indians' Great Spirit got no mother - the Indians no kill him, he never die." He put me a chapter of other questions, as to the trespass of the white people on their lands their continual corruption of the morals of their women - and digging open the Indians' graves to get their bones, etc. To all of which I was compelled to reply in the affirmative, and quite glad to close my notebook, and quietly to escape from the throng that had collected around me, and saying (though to myself and silently), that these and an hundred other vices belong to the civilized world, and are practiced upon (but certainly, in no instance, reciprocated by) the "cruel and relentless savage."

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I was once invited to a salmon barbecue on Vancouver Island, organised by members of the Coast Salish First Nation. The Chief said a prayer before the barbecue, thanking the Great Spirit for the food and thanking the salmon for giving up their lives so that we could live - nice thought.

I just got back from Alaska - a 7-day cruise through the Inside Passage. We were joined by members of the Tlingit First Nation at the Hubbard Glacier, who talked about their culture and language.

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  • 2 months later...

A great book to read that covers the American governments abuses and genocide of the American Indians is "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" By Dee Brown. He does an excellent job of giving the reader the indians point of view. Interestingly, It was pointed out to me the L. Frank Baum, the writer of "The Wizard of OZ" wrote an article as the editor of a newspaper calling for the extermination of all of the Indians. You should be able to access a copy of this article at the following web site. http://www.northern.edu/hastingw/baumedts.htm

If this doesn't work google has plenty of web sites concerning this topic. Just type in Baums indian policies or something to that effect.

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As a modern linguist, I take a non-specialist interest in minority (and often dying) languages. Here's a site dedicated to nurturing and teaching indigenous Native North American Languages:


I have a friend at the University of Arizona who has been involved in recording the last remaining speakers of selected North American indigenous languages and producing CD-ROMs for subsequent generations that wish to keep their languages and cultures alive.

Has anyone seen the film "Windtalkers", the story about the Navajo radio operators in the Second World War?

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  • 3 years later...

I agree with the above poster, Justin. Dee Brown's Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee

is a great work in understanding the Indian perspective.

And it's truly touching.

Two other books I'd recommend are,

Josanie's War : A Chiricahua Apache Novel by Karl Schlesier

Other Destinies by Louis Owens.

(Both books deal with Indian literature).

Edited by Cigdem Eksi
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