Thursday, November 16, 2006

chief joseph

Written for the USC Triathlon Newsletter 11-16-06:

The Nez Perce Indians of the Pacific Northwest had a reputation as being among the most friendly and welcoming to the arrival of the white man to the North American continent. They granted shelter to the Lewis and Clark expedition, freely traded with early trappers and traders, and gave free range to incoming settlers. They welcomed Christian missionaries, going so far as to convert and adopt Christian names, schooling, and culture.

However, as the demands of white settlers for exclusive land ownership increased, the Nez Perce became increasingly disenchanted by their experiences with the U.S. government. Insisting that land was something that could not be owned, bought, or sold, the Nez Perce resisted U.S. government plans for removal and segregation onto reservations. Despite this tension, the Nez Perce were reluctant to engage in open hostilities, and instead tried for peace via land concessions to white settlers.

Unfortunately, conditions erupted into violence in 1877, when Nez Perce Chief Joseph refused U.S. government orders to move his people from their ancestral lands in Oregon. The U.S. government took this refusal as an act of war, and organized a military solution to force the Nez Perce to relocate and surrender their lands.

In response, in an attempt to find freedom for his people, Chief Joseph initiated what has become known as one of the greatest retreats in military history. Leading a force of approximately 200 warriors and 600 women and children, Chief Joseph outmaneuvered and outfought 2,000 U.S. soldiers over 3 months across 1,700 miles of wilderness in hopes of crossing the Canadian border.

His hopes, however, were not to be. Within 40 miles of Canada, the Nez Perce were ambushed by U.S. cavalry in the midst of an autumn blizzard. Besieged, unable to reach Sioux Chief Sitting Bull for help, his people sick and starving, Chief Joseph was forced to surrender and accept the forcible relocation of his people to what eventually became Oklahoma.

It can be argued that Chief Joseph's attempt to reach Canada was an act of despair by a man who reasoned that a U.S. government so intent on relocating his tribe would accept such tribe's departure. But this would only have magnified his anguish when he was confronted by U.S. military forces blocking his path to the border, and suddenly realized that the U.S. government wanted to do more than relocate his tribe, but actually sought to break its spirit and control it.

For Chief Joseph, surrender must have been a supreme act of sorrow. But his options were few. Maintain hostilities, and his people were sure to face utter extermination, either from U.S. soldiers or a deepening winter. With surrender, his people's spirit would be broken, but they would at least have life and that most precious of commodities: hope in another day. He knew that his life, and his people's, would be one of humiliation, disrespect, and utter subjugation--and this was proven true as every legal recourse was exhausted and denied to the Nez Perce. But Chief Joseph believed that as a people the Nez Perce could endure, and that so long as they endured there could be a better tomorrow. All they had to do was to hold out for one day more. A day at a time. An hour at a time. A second at a time.

And so when you are at the lowest point of the deepest depths of the most horrific race, when you are on a hill and seeing only yet another curve up a steeper slope, when you are at mile 130 and realizing you have another 10 to go, whenever your world is nothing but the mother and offspring of all sorrows and all despair, just remember that life is about hope, and hope is found in reaching tomorrow, and that reaching tomorrow is about the power to endure. No matter how bad things are. There is hope so long as you endure. All you have to do is to hold out for one...second...more...

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