Chief Joseph and the BIA

United States - Scott #1364 (1968)
United States – Scott #1364 (1968)

The Office of Indian Affairs was formed on March 11, 1824, by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, who created the agency as a division within his department, without authorization from the United States Congress. Renamed the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in 1947, it is currently responsible for the administration and management of 55,700,000 acres (225,000 km²) of land held in trust by the United States for Native Americans in the United States, Native American Tribes and Alaska Natives. The BIA is one of two bureaus under the jurisdiction of the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs: the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education, which provides education services to approximately 48,000 Native Americans.

Located in Washington, D.C., the BIA is headed by a bureau director who reports to the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. The current director is Michael S. Black. The current assistant secretary (acting) is Lawrence S. Roberts, an enrolled member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. On January 1, 2016, Roberts succeeded Kevin K. Washburn, an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, who served from October 9, 2012, to December 31, 2015. The BIA oversees 567 federally recognized tribes.

Agencies to relate to Native Americans had existed in the U.S. government since 1775, when the Second Continental Congress created a trio of Indian-related agencies. Benjamin Franklin and Patrick Henry were appointed among the early commissioners to negotiate treaties with Native Americans to obtain their neutrality during the American Revolutionary War.

In 1789, the U.S. Congress placed Native American relations within the newly formed War Department. By 1806 the Congress had created a Superintendent of Indian Trade, or “Office of Indian Trade” within the War Department, who was charged with maintaining the factory trading network of the fur trade. The post was held by Thomas L. McKenney from 1816 until the abolition of the factory system in 1822. The government licensed traders to have some control in Indian territories and gain a share of the lucrative trade.

The abolition of the factory system left a vacuum within the U.S. government regarding Native American relations. Secretary of War John C. Calhoun created the Office of Indian Affairs in 1824 and appointed McKenney as the first head of the office, which went by several names. McKenney preferred to call it the “Indian Office”, whereas the current name was preferred by Calhoun.

In 1832, Congress established the position of Commissioner of Indian Affairs. In 1849, Indian Affairs was transferred to the U.S. Department of the Interior. In 1869, Ely Samuel Parker was the first Native American to be appointed as commissioner of Indian affairs.

One of the most controversial policies of the Bureau of Indian Affairs was the late 19th to early 20th century decision to educate native children in separate boarding schools, with an emphasis on assimilation that prohibited them from using their indigenous languages, practices, and cultures. It emphasized being educated to European-American culture. Some were beaten for praying to their own creator god.

With the rise of American Indian activism in the 1960s and 1970s and increasing demands for enforcement of treaty rights and sovereignty, the 1970s were a particularly turbulent period of BIA history. The rise of activist groups such as the American Indian Movement (AIM) worried the U.S. government; the FBI responded both overtly and covertly (by creating COINTELPRO and other programs) to suppress possible uprisings among native peoples.

Chief Joseph and his family, photographed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, circa 1880.
Chief Joseph and his family, photographed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, circa 1880.

In 2013, the Bureau was greatly affected by sequestration funding cuts of $800 million, which particularly affected the already-underfunded Indian Health Service. The Bureau is currently trying to evolve from a supervisory to an advisory role. However, this has been a difficult task as the BIA is known by many Native Americans as playing a police role in which the U.S. government historically dictated to tribes and their members what they could and could not do in accordance with treaties signed by both.

The United States has had a long history of portraying Native Americans on postage stamps, although the Bureau of Indian Affairs has never been directly honored. The October 24, 1968, issue of the U.S. Post Office Department’s Postal Bulletin in giving details of the soon-to-be-released Chief Joseph stamp wrongly claimed it was the first postage stamp to feature a Native American. The USPS website has corrected that with a list of American Indian subjects on stamps, the earliest of which is the 4-cent denomination of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition issue titled “Indian Hunting Buffalo” released on June 17, 1898 (Scott #287). Even before that, natives are portrayed in the frame of the 1-cent Columbian stamp of 1893 (Scott #230) as well as on at least two other values in that issue (Scott #231 and 237). The fact that this is a great topical to collect (and Native American-themed stamps doesn’t have to be limited to those released by the United States) can be seen in the online exhibit by the National Postal Museum entitled “The American Indian in Postage Stamps“.

Scott #1364, the 6-cent stamp portraying a painting of Chief Joseph, was issued on November 4, 1968, to honor the American Indian and to celebrate the opening of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Robert J. Jones of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing designed the stamp, which features a painting of Chief Joseph by Painting of Chief Joseph, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. in 1878 after the Nez Perce leader was taken to Fort Leavenworth as a prisoner. The 22×18 inch oil painting is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. Calligraphy was by Crimilda Pontes of Washington, D.C. This five-color stamp required three passes through the presses: two by offset and one by Giori. For the flesh tones, red and yellow were laid on by offset, followed by brown by intaglio. The warrior’s hair was printed black by intaglio, with blue tones by offset. The stamp was issued in panes of 50, perforated 11, with a total printing of 125,100,000.

Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt (or Hinmatóowyalahtq̓it in Americanist orthography), popularly known as Chief Joseph or Young Joseph, was a leader of the Wal-lam-wat-kain (Wallowa) band of Nez Perce, a Native American tribe of the interior Pacific Northwest region of the United States, in the latter half of the 19th century. He succeeded his father Tuekakas (Chief Joseph the Elder) in the early 1870s. Chief Joseph was renowned as a humanitarian and peacemaker.

Chief Joseph was born Hinmuuttu-yalatlat (alternatively Hinmaton-Yalaktit or Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt (“Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain” in Nez Perce), or Hinmatóoyalahtq’it (“Thunder traveling to higher areas”) on March 3, 1840, in the Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon. He was known as Young Joseph during his youth because his father, Tuekakas, was baptized with the same Christian name and later become known as “Old Joseph” or “Joseph the Elder”.

Original Nez Perce territory (green) and the reduced reservation of 1863 (brown)
Original Nez Perce territory (green) and the reduced reservation of 1863 (brown)

While initially hospitable to the region’s newcomers, Joseph the Elder grew wary when white settlers demanded more Indian lands. Tensions grew as the settlers appropriated traditional Indian lands for farming and grazing livestock. Isaac Stevens, governor of the Washington Territory, organized a council to designate separate areas for natives and settlers in 1855. Joseph the Elder and the other Nez Perce chiefs signed the Treaty of Walla Walla, with the United States establishing a Nez Perce reservation encompassing 7,700,000 acres (31,000 km²) in present-day Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. The 1855 reservation maintained much of the traditional Nez Perce lands, including Joseph’s Wallowa Valley. It is recorded that the elder Joseph requested that Young Joseph protect their 7.7-million-acre homeland, and guard his father’s burial place.

In 1863, however, an influx of new settlers, attracted by a gold rush, led the government to call a second council. Government commissioners asked the Nez Perce to accept a new, much smaller reservation of 760,000 acres (3,100 km²) situated around the village of Lapwai in western Idaho Territory, and excluding the Wallowa Valley. In exchange, they were promised financial rewards, schools, and a hospital for the reservation. Chief Lawyer and one of his allied chiefs signed the treaty on behalf of the Nez Perce Nation, but Joseph the Elder and several other chiefs were opposed to selling their lands and did not sign.

Their refusal to sign caused a rift between the “non-treaty” and “treaty” bands of Nez Perce. The “treaty” Nez Perce moved within the new reservation’s boundaries, while the “non-treaty” Nez Perce remained on their ancestral lands. Joseph the Elder demarcated Wallowa land with a series of poles, proclaiming, “Inside this boundary all our people were born. It circles the graves of our fathers, and we will never give up these graves to any man.”

Joseph the Younger succeeded his father as leader of the Wallowa band in 1871. Before his death, the latter counseled his son:

My son, my body is returning to my mother earth, and my spirit is going very soon to see the Great Spirit Chief. When I am gone, think of your country. You are the chief of these people. They look to you to guide them. Always remember that your father never sold his country. You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home. A few years more and white men will be all around you. They have their eyes on this land. My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your father’s body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother.

Joseph commented: “I clasped my father’s hand and promised to do as he asked. A man who would not defend his father’s grave is worse than a wild beast.”

The non-treaty Nez Perce suffered many injustices at the hands of settlers and prospectors, but out of fear of reprisal from the militarily superior Americans, Joseph never allowed any violence against them, instead making many concessions to them in the hope of securing peace. A handwritten document mentioned in the Oral History of the Grande Ronde recounts an 1872 experience by Oregon pioneer Henry Young and two friends in search of acreage at Prairie Creek, east of Wallowa Lake. Young’s party was surrounded by 40–50 Nez Perce led by Chief Joseph. The Chief told Young that white men were not welcome near Prairie Creek, and Young’s party was forced to leave without violence.

In 1873, Joseph negotiated with the federal government to ensure his people could stay on their land in the Wallowa Valley. But in 1877, the government reversed its policy, and Army General Oliver O. Howard threatened to attack if the Wallowa band did not relocate to the Idaho reservation with the other Nez Perce. Joseph reluctantly agreed. Before the outbreak of hostilities, General Howard held a council at Fort Lapwai to try to convince Joseph and his people to relocate. Joseph finished his address to the general, which focused on human equality, by expressing his “[disbelief that] the Great Spirit Chief gave one kind of men the right to tell another kind of men what they must do.” Howard reacted angrily, interpreting the statement as a challenge to his authority. When Toohoolhoolzote protested, he was jailed for five days.

The day following the council, Joseph, White Bird, and Looking Glass all accompanied Howard to examine different areas within the reservation. Howard offered them a plot of land that was inhabited by whites and Native Americans, promising to clear out the current residents. Joseph and his chieftains refused, adhering to their tribal tradition of not taking what did not belong to them. Unable to find any suitable uninhabited land on the reservation, Howard informed Joseph that his people had 30 days to collect their livestock and move to the reservation. Joseph pleaded for more time, but Howard told him he would consider their presence in the Wallowa Valley beyond the 30-day mark an act of war.

Returning home, Joseph called a council among his people. At the council, he spoke on behalf of peace, preferring to abandon his father’s grave over war. Toohoolhoolzote, insulted by his incarceration, advocated war. In June 1877, the Wallowa band began making preparations for the long journey to the reservation, meeting first with other bands at Rocky Canyon. At this council, too, many leaders urged war, while Joseph continued to argue in favor of peace. While the council was underway, a young man whose father had been killed rode up and announced that he and several other young men had retaliated by killing four white settlers. Still hoping to avoid further bloodshed, Joseph and other non-treaty Nez Perce leaders began moving people away from Idaho.

Map of the flight of the Nez Perce and key battle sites of the Nez Perce War, 1877.
Map of the flight of the Nez Perce and key battle sites of the Nez Perce War, 1877.

The U.S. Army’s pursuit of about 750 Nez Perce and a small allied band of the Palouse tribe, led by Chief Joseph and others, as they attempted to escape from Idaho became known as the Nez Perce War. Initially they had hoped to take refuge with the Crow Nation in the Montana Territory, but when the Crow refused to grant them aid, the Nez Perce went north in an attempt to obtain asylum with the Lakota band led by Sitting Bull, who had fled to Canada following the Great Sioux War in 1876. In Hear Me, My Chiefs!: Nez Perce Legend and History, Lucullus V. McWhorter argues that the Nez Perce were a peaceful people that were forced into war by the United States when their land was stolen from them. McWhorter interviewed and befriended Nez Perce warriors such as Yellow Wolf, who stated, “Our hearts have always been in the valley of the Wallowa”.

Robert Forczyk states in his book Nez Perce 1877: The Last Fight that the tipping point of the war was that “Joseph responded that his clan’s traditions would not allow him to cede the Wallowa Valley”. The band led by Chief Joseph never signed the treaty moving them to the Idaho reservation. General Howard, who was dispatched to deal with Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce, tended to believe the Nez Perce were right about the treaty: “the new treaty finally agreed upon excluded the Wallowa, and vast regions besides”.

For over three months, the Nez Perce deftly outmaneuvered and battled their pursuers, traveling more than 1,170 miles (1,880 km) across present-day Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. One of those battles was led by Captain Perry and two cavalry companies of the U.S. Army, who engaged Chief Joseph and his people at White Bird Canyon on June 17, 1877. The Nez Perce repelled the attack, killing 34 soldiers, while suffering only three Nez Perce wounded. The Nez Perce continued to repel the Army’s advances, eventually reaching the Clearwater River, where they united with another Nez Perce chief, Looking Glass, and his group, bringing the size of their party to 740, though only 200 of these were warriors.

The final battle of the Nez Perce War occurred approximately 40 miles south of the Canadian border where the Nez Perce were camped on Snake Creek near the Bears Paw Mountains, close to present-day Chinook in Blaine County, Montana. A U.S. Army detachment commanded by General Nelson A. Miles and accompanied by Cheyenne scouts intercepted the Nez Perce on September 30 at the Battle of Bear Paw. After his initial attacks were repelled, Miles violated a truce and captured Chief Joseph; however, he would later be forced to exchange Chief Joseph for one of his captured officers.

General Howard arrived on October 3, leading the opposing cavalry, and was impressed with the skill with which the Nez Perce fought, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines, and field fortifications. Following a devastating five-day siege during freezing weather, with no food or blankets and the major war leaders dead, Chief Joseph formally surrendered to General Miles on the afternoon of October 5, 1877. The battle is remembered in popular history by the words attributed to Joseph at the formal surrender:

Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, to see how many I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.

The popular legend deflated, however, when the original pencil draft of the report was revealed to show the handwriting of the later poet and lawyer Lieutenant Charles Erskine Scott Wood, who claimed to have taken down the great chief’s words on the spot. In the margin it read, “Here insert Joseph’s reply to the demand for surrender”.

Although Joseph was not technically a war chief and probably did not command the retreat, many of the chiefs who did had died. His speech brought attention, and therefore credit, his way. He earned the praise of General William Tecumseh Sherman and became known in the press as “The Red Napoleon”. However, as Francis Haines argues in Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Warrior, the battlefield successes of the Nez Perce during the war were due to the individual successes of the Nez Perce men and not that of the fabled military genius of Chief Joseph. Haines supports his argument by citing L.V. McWhorter, who concluded “that Chief Joseph was not a military man at all, that on the battlefield he was without either skill or experience”. Furthermore, Merle Wells argues in The Nez Perce and Their War that the interpretation of the Nez Perce War of 1877 in military terms as used in the United States Army’s account distorts the actions of the Nez Perce. Wells supports his argument: “The use of military concepts and terms is appropriate when explaining what the whites were doing, but these same military terms should be avoided when referring to Indian actions; the United States use of military terms such as “retreat” and “surrender” has created a distorted perception of the Nez Perce War, to understand this may lend clarity to the political and military victories of the Nez Perce.”

By the time Joseph had surrendered, 150 of his followers had been killed or wounded. Their plight, however, did not end. Although Joseph had negotiated with Miles and Howard for a safe return home for his people, General Sherman overruled this decision and forced Joseph and 400 followers to be taken on unheated rail cars to Fort Leavenworth, in eastern Kansas, where they were held in a prisoner of war campsite for eight months.

Painting of Chief Joseph made by Cyrenius Hall at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1878. The painting is at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Painting of Chief Joseph made by Cyrenius Hall at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1878. The painting is at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Toward the end of the following summer, the surviving Nez Perce were taken by rail to a reservation in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma); they lived there for seven years. Many of them died of epidemic diseases while there.

In 1879, Chief Joseph went to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Rutherford B. Hayes and plead his people’s case. Although Joseph was respected as a spokesman, opposition in Idaho prevented the U.S. government from granting his petition to return to the Pacific Northwest. Finally, in 1885, Chief Joseph and his followers were granted permission to return to the Pacific Northwest to settle on the reservation around Kooskia, Idaho. Instead, Joseph and others were taken to the Colville Indian Reservation in Nespelem, Washington, far from both their homeland in the Wallowa Valley and the rest of their people in Idaho.

Joseph continued to lead his Wallowa band on the Colville Reservation, at times coming into conflict with the leaders of the 11 other unrelated tribes also living on the reservation. Chief Moses of the Sinkiuse-Columbia, in particular, resented having to cede a portion of his people’s lands to Joseph’s people, who had “made war on the Great Father”.

In his last years, Joseph spoke eloquently against the injustice of United States policy toward his people and held out the hope that America’s promise of freedom and equality might one day be fulfilled for Native Americans as well. In 1897, he visited Washington, D.C. again to plead his case. He rode with Buffalo Bill Cody in a parade honoring former President Ulysses Grant in New York City, but he was a topic of conversation for his traditional headdress more than his mission.

In 1903, Chief Joseph visited Seattle, a booming young town, where he stayed in the Lincoln Hotel as guest to Edmond Meany, a history professor at the University of Washington. It was there that he also befriended Edward Curtis, the photographer, who took one of his most memorable and well-known photographs. Joseph also visited President Theodore Roosevelt in Washington, D.C. the same year. Everywhere he went, it was to make a plea for what remained of his people to be returned to their home in the Wallowa Valley, but it never happened.

An indomitable voice of conscience for the West, on September 21, 1904, still in exile from his homeland, Chief Joseph died, according to his doctor, “of a broken heart”. Meany and Curtis helped Joseph’s family bury their chief near the village of Nespelem, Washington, where many of his tribe’s members still live. The Chief Joseph band of Nez Perce who still live on the Colville Reservation bear his name in tribute to their prestigious leader.

Bureau of Indian Affairs flagSeal of the Bureau of Indian Affairs

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