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Chief Joseph Of The Nez Perce by Robert Penn…
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Chief Joseph Of The Nez Perce (1983)

by Robert Penn Warren

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It was interesting to read the story of Chief Joseph in poem form. ( )
  avogl | Jul 10, 2013 |
Robert Penn Warren uses long form poetry to great effect in chronicling the tragic outcome of the federal government’s broken treaty of 1855 with a band of Nez Perce, led by the renowned Chief Joseph. Told from the perspectives of Chief Joseph, General Oliver Howard and Colonel Nelson Miles, the poem is interspersed with quotes from historical accounts and closes with the author’s own visit to the site of the band’s final surrender in eastern Montana.

The Nez Perce, who referred to themselves as the Nimipu or “Real People”, lived in Wallowa in what is now northeast Oregon, a land they considered sacred as the burial grounds of their fathers. They were a peaceful people with a deep reverence for their fathers who had gone before and “…kept watch on sons to be sure that truth was spoken, and that each showed himself a man. (p. xi)”
Their honesty is immaculate and their purity of purpose and their observance of the rules of their religion are most uniform and remarkable. They are certainly more like a nation of saints than a horde of savages.
-Jean Baptiste Le Moyne De Bienville (p.4)


Chief Joseph, whose true name was Thunder-Traveling-to-Loftier-Mountain-Heights, was witness as a boy to his father signing the 1855 treaty that promised them rights to their sacred lands in Wallowa. However, the gold rush of the 1860s led the federal government to renege on their agreement and a new treaty was unilaterally developed, requiring that all Nez Perce be moved to a single reservation in Idaho.
”A promise how pretty!-but our sacred land
They trod. They spat on our earth. It was like
A man’s spit on your face. I, then a boy,
I felt the spit on my face.…” (p.7)


Joseph’s band refused to sign the new treaty or to move from their lands, and a decade later won a further guarantee from President Ulysses S. Grant. But the President’s high-mindedness ultimately faded in the face of pressure from miners and white settlers. While trying to comply with a forced relocation, Joseph’s band suffered an unwarranted attack by the Army. Attempting to flee to the protection of Sioux Chief Sitting Bull in Canada, the Nez Perce were relentlessly pursued and fought valiantly against an Army eager for revenge.
“Near dawn they struck us, new horse-soldiers. Shot
Into tepees. Women, children , old died.
Some mothers might stand in the river’s cold coil
And hold up the infant and weep, and cry mercy.
What heart beneath blue coat has fruited in mercy?
When the slug plugged her bosom, unfooting her
To the current’s swirl and last darkness, what last
Did she hear? It was laughter. (p. 23)


Believing they had finally reached safety at the Little Bear Paws Mountains in Montana, Chief Joseph was unprepared for Colonel Miles’ final attack. Forced to surrender, he accepted Colonel Miles’ promise that they would be returned to territory in the Northwest.
Black braids now framed a face past pain.
.…………………………………………………………. ​
…and the head
Of Joseph is bowed, bowed as in courtesy
To words of courage and comfort. But
The head may be bowed to words by others unheard.
……………………………………………………………. ​
Straight-standing, he thrusts out his rifle,
Muzzle-grounded, to Howard. It is
The gesture, straight-flung, of one who casts the world away. (p. 44-45)


But Commanding General William Tecumseh Sherman failed to keep Miles’ promise and Joseph spent years negotiating with the government, while the members of his band dwindled from illness. Joseph and 150 survivors were eventually relocated to a reservation in northeastern Washington, but never allowed to resettle in Wallowa. Chief Joseph died in 1904 of what was officially recorded by his physician as a broken heart. ”At least, no sacred land had he ever sold. (p. 57)”

Warren writes with deep respect for a Native American leader who never wavered from his resolve to live in peace and reverence for his ancestors, on the land of his people’s burial grounds. He also achieves an unusually nuanced portrayal of the disparity of opinion that existed within the federal government regarding these events – the support expressed by some within Indian Affairs and the Army for the Nez Perce’s claims; General Howard’s deeply conflicted emotions even as he pursued Chief Joseph’s band; Colonel Miles’ surprisingly generous terms of surrender; and the admiration felt by the murderous General Sherman for the Nez Perce’s fighting skills, courage and humanity, even as he forced many to their deaths at Fort Leavenworth. This is an outstanding example of historical poetry and is highly recommended. ( )
8 vote Linda92007 | Jan 26, 2013 |
A short, yet powerfully tragic poem about the slaughtering of the Nez Perce tribe, and the disintegration of their sacred culture.
This poetry clearly portrays the rich culture and society of Native American Indians, and devastating historical events.
"Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce" was unexpectedly violent, and far more bloody than I would have anticipated for anything of the genre.
However, this takes away none of its harsh and sad beauty.
A realistic, darkly beautiful work of poetry and American history. ( )
2 vote joririchardson | Jan 19, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0394713567, Paperback)

This poem, by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Penn Warren, relives the story of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, who so proudly and valiantly denied the "white man" who were not content to let them live as they had always done, and who were forcibly relegating them to a small piece of land on the other side of the country.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:33:59 -0400)

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