The band of Nez Perce Indians who made the Wallowa Valley their home traditionally gathered fish, game, and wild plants. They followed changing seasons to headwaters of rivers and high mountains of the Wallowas in the summer and returned to deep canyons of the Snake River and its tributaries in winter.
At Walla Walla, in 1855, Indians from many Northwest tribes, including almost all Nez Perce chiefs and sub-chiefs, signed a treaty leaving the Wallowas and large chunks of land in the present states of Idaho and Washington to the Nez Perce. In 1863, with the discovery of gold and increased pressure from settlers, a new meeting of Nez Perce bands was convened. The government asked the Indians to reduce their lands by almost six million acres. Accepting a reservation approximately one-tenth of what they agreed to in 1855.
Several chiefs, including Old Chief Joseph, Tuekakas, father of the famous Young Chief Joseph, Heinmot Tookyalakekt, walked out, and from that time on became known as ‘non-treaty' Nez Perce. After this walkout, an Idaho Nez Perce chief named Lawyer and other chiefs were browbeaten into signing a treaty on behalf of all Nez Perce. Government folks reported to Washington ‘the job was done.'
Young Chief Joseph never accepted the 1863 treaty. He continued to befriend Wallowa settlers and government officials. But he also looked for a way for his people to remain in the Wallowas of Oregon. In fact, in 1873, President Ulysses S. Grant signed an executive order decided that Wallowa lands had not been legally ceded and ordered the removal of white settlers. Howls from settlers and Oregon politicians caused a quick reversal of that decision.
Following the defeat of Custer in 1876 a new discipline was imposed on Indians by the U.S. Army. Young Chief Joseph's band of Nez Perce and all others must constrain themselves to the boundaries of the 1863 reservation. But after searching the confines of a greatly reduced territory, Young Chief Joseph found no land suitable for his people that was not already occupied.
After discussions in May 1877, General Howard incarcerated the Nez Perce spokesman, Toohoolhooltzote. Young Chief Joseph then decided his people would have to resettle away from the reservation lands in Idaho to preserve their culture and religion. As a result of this some dissension broke out. Some Nez Perce preferred to settle in Lapwai to avoid retaliation by the U.S. government, while others prepared to travel to buffalo country, or Canada, for freedom. In June 1877 near the reservation young warriors killed some white settlers. One of the warriors was the son of a man killed by a settler. The ‘Nez Perce War' - really a 1200 mile retreat ending 40 miles short of Canada - ensued.
At the conclusion of the fighting, Young Chief Joseph and the others were sent to Oklahoma, Indian Territory, where many died. Joseph pleaded to Congress, "If I can not go to my own home, let me have a home in some country where my people will not die so fast."
Remembering the Past - Part 2
The bands of Nez Perce, including Looking Glass and White Bird, who fled with Joseph's people are now scattered in exile from Canada to Oklahoma. Many of the non-treaty Nez Perce, descendants of the participants in the Flight of 1877, remain in exile in Nespelem, Washington, on the Colville Indian Reservation. According to historian Alvin Josephy:
"In 1885, after eight long years and a massive campaign by eastern humanitarians, Joseph and the other exiles were allowed to return to the Northwest. But Idaho’s settlers and politicians still considered the 150 surviving Nez Perce ‘dangerous troublemakers,' ‘criminals,' and ‘murderers,' and even threatened Chief Joseph with death. Unable to join the other Nez Perces on the Idaho reservation, or return to their homeland in Oregon's Wallowa Valley, they were taken under military escort ...(to live among)... non-Nez Perce Indians on the Colville reservation in Washington Territory." (Josephy, 1994).