chief-joseph-572661-lw-001I’ve always been a fan of Chief Joseph — or as his people knew him (phonetically) Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt (Nez Perce: “Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain”), or Hinmatóoyalahtq’it (“Thunder traveling to higher areas”). Next to, or maybe equal to, Thomas Jefferson, I find him the most eloquent speaker on the particularly American concept of individual freedom in the context of the greater good of fellow men, society and the environment. Chief Joseph’s territory is up in the Northeastern corner of Oregon, a place I’ve had a hard time getting to before. But with a trip to Glacier National Park, it was suddenly on the way. Since Chief Joseph’s famous retreat — which my father said he studied at West Point as a strategic and brilliant strategy for dealing with a pursuing enemy of many times your size — routed through Yellowstone National Park, suddenly, Chief Joseph’s steps became an important feature of my East to The West roadtrip.

But first, I had to get from Boise to the Wallowa Valley, Chief Joseph’s beloved homeland, the loss of which eventually caused him to die from what the attending doctor ruled “a broken heart”. Apparently, there is no easy way. I eventually had to veer West to Baker City then swing back East along the Oregon Trail in reverse. I hadn’t really wanted to do that. There was a time, when I was a kid, when I was taken somewhere along the Oregon Trail, probably in Kansas. There were some trails there where we used to ride our ponies and I remember being told to dismount and stand in a long rut — waist deep to a ten year old — which I was told was the impression still left from wagon wheels from the 500,000 or so people who traversed there on their way to The West. At age 10, I thought that was fantastic and I couldn’t imagine anything more exciting than to be in a wagon train. As I grew up, read more and learned of the tremendous cost — not just to the settlers who were dispossessed by a great recession and promised “free land” — but to the Native Americans and to the fragile ecosystem of the West, I decided I wanted nothing more to do with Oregon-bound wagon trains.

Yet, apparently, if you are traveling from Boise to Enterprise, Oregon, you have to go by the Oregon Trail. So I found myself snaking through what some settlers called the most difficult part of that route. This section of canyons along the Powder River was also called the Burnt River. The local Cayuse and some Nez Percé tribes had a tradition of burning the grasslands to promote newer and healthier grass. Later, they started burning to discourage the hordes of settlers who were pouring in. It was appropriate that, as I traversed the canyons, I drove past a 40 mile stretch of wildfire burned hills — probably the result of a recent lightning strike.

The topography was a strange mixture of burnt sagebrush hills descending to flowing rivers and wetlands.

The topography along the trail was a strange mixture of burnt sagebrush hills descending to flowing rivers and wetlands.

By this time, I was so mad at those damn pioneers, I almost didn’t stop at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. I’m glad I did. It’s a good overview of this massive emigration, heavy on the story of the settlers, but trying to include the Native American’s side of the story. They needn’t have bothered. On an earlier roadtrip, I visited the reservation and cultural center of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, Walla Walla and Cayuse in Pendleton. They had their own interpretive center that told their side of the story. It wasn’t pretty. But let’s give kudos to the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Their dioramas showed the settlers as dirty and inappropriately dressed as I expected they would be. And they strove for realism even to the point of including steaming piles of faux manure in the tableaux. On a more historical note, the center is up on a commanding hill and various paths from the Center take you to the actual historic trails where you, too, can stand in wagon train ruts. I passed on that.

I was anxious to get to Chief Joseph’s Wallawa Valley. And once I did, by turning on to the Hell’s Canyon Scenic Byway, I saw why he would languish once he realized he would never be able to return. After miles and miles of burnt hills, I wound into pine forests with wildflowers still blooming by the side of the road. Earlier, the roadside had been strangely devoid of wildlife, but along the byway, I saw a Golden Eagle, hawks and Monarch Butterflies.

Pine trees cooled the air, although they weren't as thick as in Tahoe where, even in summer, it sometimes feels gloomy.

Pine trees cooled the air, although they weren’t as thick as in Tahoe where, even in summer, it sometimes feels gloomy.

When I climbed to the Hell's Canyon Overlook and beheld the deepest gorge in the U.S., I understood Chief Joseph's love for this country.

When I climbed to the Hell’s Canyon Overlook and beheld the deepest gorge in the U.S., I understood Chief Joseph’s love for this country.


Seeing Joseph Canyon, the traditional winter camping grounds of his Nez Percé tribe, which is not as deep or formidable, but just as beautiful, I understood why no other land was enough for Chief Joseph.

I have to say, the saddest thing about traversing the land that was stolen from Chief Joseph is seeing how many places are adorned with the name of Narcissa Whitman, who should not be remembered for anything except cultural insensitivity. If you’ve watched the excellent Ken Burns documentary The West, you’ll know here story. She came out here as one of the first White women in the territory, anxious to impose her Christianity on the Natives. Initially they were open to the idea, but their tradition was to worship in their homes. When the local Cayuse tribe asked if they could come to her house and worship Jesus, she turned them away on the grounds that they were too “dirty and flea-ridden”. Her disdain for them only grew until she turned completely away from missionary work and decided her work was to aid and abet the travelers on the Oregon Trail — in other words, helping to dispossess the Indians she disdained. When measles struck, with devastating effect on the local Indians but less so on White people, the Cayuse assumed that Narcissa, who they knew despised them, had caused the plague. They massacred her and thirteen others. I say she deserved it. What I hate to see is that that nasty woman has somehow gotten her name affixed to nearly every forest, town and monument from here to the Idaho border. This is Chief Joseph’s land. His name and his tribe’s name should dominate. Apparently, only as I get to Idaho and Montana, in the land of Joseph’s exile, does the landscape start bearing his name.

The perfect place to contemplate Chief Joseph: the Standing Bear Tipi overlooking Joseph Canyon.

The perfect place to contemplate Chief Joseph: the Standing Bear Tipi overlooking Joseph Canyon.

I’ll be thinking of Chief Joseph tonight as I stay at the excellent Rim Rock Inn where I have reserved the Standing Bear Tipi overlooking Joseph’s Canyon. I hope to get some excellent star photography. I hope to contemplate Joseph’s words about brotherhood and individual rights and honor his memory. Chief Joseph. If you don’t know him, read more about him.

Some of my favorite Chief Joseph quotes particularly relating to equal rights:

Treat all men alike. Give them the same law. Give them an even chance to live and grow.
The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it.
I believe much trouble would be saved if we opened our hearts more.
We ask to be recognized as men.
I only ask of the government to be treated as all other men are treated.
And, of course, his famous surrender speech when his decimated band was finally stopped only 40 miles from where they could have joined Red Cloud and Sitting Bull in Canada:
I am tired of fighting. Our Chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Ta Hool Hool Shute 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, and see how many of them 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.