A revisionist account of Nez Perce history and one of its most controversial figures.
Under Chief Joseph’s leadership, the schoolbook version of the story goes, hundreds of Nez Perce Indians outmaneuvered U.S. soldiers for three months, making their way to Canada. But on October 5, 1877, after a bloody five-day battle, Chief Joseph admitted defeat. The speech he made upon his surrender earned him a spot as one of America’s great orators. Indeed, white America made a hero out of Joseph, affecting what Nerburn (The Wisdom of Native Americans, not reviewed, etc.) calls a “cultural canonization.” The chief was lauded for his wit and his courage—once he was no longer a threat to the designs of the U.S. government. The Nez Perce themselves, the author notes, rejected the lionizing of Chief Joseph, and have been, in fact, rather ambivalent about him. Many resent that white America made an icon of Joseph but largely erased the Nez Perce people from the national story. Some natives even revile Joseph, blaming him for surrendering. In short, the familiar narrative is, at best, oversimplified. Nerburn, therefore, aims to provide not just a biography of Joseph, but also the story of the Nez Perce: their complicated and wily but largely trusting relationship with white Americans throughout the 19th century, their horrific and brave flight from Idaho. The author’s most innovative interpretations come in the final 75 pages, in which he charts the “marketing” of Joseph and the commodification of all things related to the chief. The man who bought Joseph’s horse knew that he could sell that horse’s offspring for beaucoup dollars; the chief signed autographs for the white tourists who came to ogle the Indians in their post-surrender squalor; he courted reporters and, according to Nerburn, enjoyed his fame.
Neither the first attempt to demythologize Joseph, nor the last word on his people, but an intriguing study of a man and a legend.