This year marks the 27th anniversary of the first National Native American Heritage Month declared by President George H.W. Bush. It’s one of the few times American Indians are anything but stereotypes or invisible. Unfortunately, while Indians and some of our allies make an effort to correct the historical record, too many myths continue to thrive.
Take the case of Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, who is known to most Americans as Chief Joseph, a leader of the Wallowa band of Nez Perce (Nimíipuu) of Oregon.
He is best remembered for leading a nearly 1,200-mile flight of hundreds of his people toward Canada 140 years ago to join the Hunkpapa Lakota Sitting Bull at a time when the U.S. Army was penning up the Plains tribes on ever smaller reservations in the wake of the defeat of the Seventh Cavalry at Little Big Horn the year before.
As you can read in Elliott West's The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story, it was a close thing. Joseph and his band almost made it to Canada, chased the entire distance by the one-armed Gen. Oliver Howard, Gen. Nelson Miles, and their troops. By the time the Nez Perce surrendered, many of the tribe's leading warriors, including Joseph's brother, were dead, many women and children and elders had died from the rigors of the attempt to escape, and everyone still alive was starving. The pursuit, or the versions of it that the Army-embedded reporters sent back to their editors, generated some sympathy, especially in the East where scores of tribes had been exterminated through disease, war, and murder long before the Nez Perce made their doomed bid for freedom.
When the battered Nez Perce gave up, Joseph is said to have given a short statement, which has since become one of the most famous American Indian speeches ever. It was published in a variety of newspapers and magazines immediately after the surrender and brought brief celebrity to Joseph and his band, which did not prevent the tribe from being removed for a time to Oklahoma, a trip that killed many survivors of the aborted trek to Canada and an exile that killed many more.
The speech concludes with the words: "From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever."
It’s one of those iconic phrases that has made its way onto posters and into probably 90 percent of the articles written about the Nez Perce since 1877. It says something about our national zeitgeist that it’s a surrender speech that is the most famous thing an American Indian has ever been quoted as saying.
But whatever he actually said, Joseph never delivered that poetic remark because he didn’t speak English. Twenty-five-year-old Lt. Charles Erskine Scott Wood, who later became an accomplished poet and essayist, originally said he had taken down those words as translated by Arthur Chapman and conveyed to him by Old George, a Nez Perce from another band.
In other words, Joseph's speech, which would have been delivered in the Sahaptian dialect of his people, came down to us through two interpreters before Wood became the only person to write down what were purportedly the surrender words.
Years later, Wood claimed to have taken down Joseph's interpreted words on the spot as he handed over his Winchester to General Miles. Old George was no longer mentioned. Decades before Wood’s death in 1944, those words had been widely challenged.
There was good reason for this criticism. Usually, the speech is seen written as prose. But literary critics noticed an odd thing—the Nez Perce were apparently fond of English sonnets. Because this was the unrhymed 14-line structure that Wood—soon to become a well-published poet—had given as the preface to the chief’s most quoted words:
“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-suit is dead.
The old men are all dead.
It is the young men, now, 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,
and to see how many of them I can find.”
“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.”
Eventually, more damning evidence than literary criticism appeared regarding the speech. Most notable was the fact that Wood himself
changed what he had written and several times revised specific claims he had made relating to how those words, as we would say today, went viral. Here’s Arnold Krupat
While he had varying degrees of editorial control over the nineteen versions of the speech published between 1877 and 1939, Wood also revised the text, speaker, and contexts. After Wood’s death in 1944, historians doubting Wood’s veracity became more explicit, even though the “Surrender Speech” had become nationally-accepted as authentic Native American oratory. Since 1972, several historians have formally denounced Wood as “prostituting the truth,” as being “unreliable,” as “composing the famous speech himself,” as not“ being particular about the truth.” After Wood's death, the pencil draft of his original report came to light. In the margin, it read, "Here insert Joseph's reply to the demand for surrender." [boldface added—MB]
How much of it was invention we'll probably never know. Possibly every single word. There are, however, many verifiable remarks Chief Joseph definitely made. Here is one he should always be remembered for:
"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. [...] "If we ever owned the land we own it still, for we never sold it. In the treaty councils the commissioners have claimed that our country had been sold to the government. Suppose a white man should come to me and say, Joseph, I like your horses, and I want to buy them. Then he goes to my neighbor and says to him: 'Joseph's horses. I want to buy them,' but he refuses to sell. My neighbor answers, 'Pay me the money and I will sell you Joseph's horses.' The white man returns to me, and says, 'Joseph, I have bought your horses and you must let me have them.' If we sold our lands to the government, this is the way they were bought."
It should be noted that Chief Joseph’s alleged surrender speech is far from the only famous Native speech that has been distorted or invented. A supposed 19th-century speech by Chief Seattle was invented by a movie script writer in 1971 and went viral. The alleged last words of Crazy Horse— delivered, it is said, to Sitting Bull around the campfire four days before his death and sounding suspiciously like a romanticized New Age version of what American Indians are supposed to sound like—were never said.
Books, posters, and Pinterest pins rife with fabricated statements—often with a stereotypical, supposedly Native American ring to them—can be found everywhere. The typical example often is attributed to “ancient American Indian proverb,” or “Iroquois saying” or “Cherokee blessing” or some such imprimatur. Be skeptical. You can be just about certain that such sayings are not what they purport to be. That makes them lies, no matter the good intentions of the person who spreads them. And American Indians have had enough lies told about us.