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Issue Date:  February 24, 2006

By Kent Nerburn
418 pages, $24.95
The long retreat of the Nez Perce

Reviewed by RICH HEFFERN

The story of Chief Joseph and his band of Nez Perce has become part of our standard lore about the American Indian, up there with Custer’s men at Little Big Horn and the tragic fate of Crazy Horse. Exiled from their homelands in the Pacific Northwest, on the run from the U.S. military and only 40 miles from the refuge of the Canadian border, the Nez Perce were surrounded in the year 1877. Escape was possible only if they abandoned their children, elderly and wounded. Refusing to do this, their leader, Joseph, handed his rifle over to the commanding officer and spoke a famous sentence: “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

The author contends that this story is only half true, and attempts to set the record straight. Informed by new research, he presents another story that is just as full of pathos and nobility. His portrait of the Nez Perce leader shows compassionate leadership at its finest. The author writes: “In Joseph’s words and deeds I caught a glimpse of the true tragic dimensions of the Native American experience since the arrival of the European and of a quality of heart and dignity of spirit that we, as a nation, are poorer for having lost.”

The early part of the tale, taking place when the Nez Perce were still on their native ground, spread from Idaho to Northern Washington, describes good relations with whites after the first contact with the Lewis and Clark expedition. Joseph spent much of his early childhood at a Christian mission. In 1855 his father signed a treaty that allowed his people to retain much of their traditional lands. In 1863 another treaty severely reduced the amount of land, but Old Joseph maintained that this second treaty was never agreed to by his people. By the time Joseph took over leadership, relations had frayed to the breaking point.

Drawing on four years of research and many conversations with Nez Perce descendents, the author’s narrative of the Nez Perce’s long retreat over 1,800 miles of rough terrain, which Joseph led, is comprehensive and poignant.

Here he eloquently describes an encounter between white settlers and the Nez Perce people on the move:

The townsfolk looked on in amazement as the tribesmen and women rode past arrayed in their finest clothes -- white tanned buckskin shirts and dresses covered with beadwork with ermine tails; shell breastplates; colorful blankets. Their horses had elaborate beaded bridles, and the men carried their rifles in beaded gun sheaths. Babies slept soundly on cradleboards beaded with sky blue swirls and intricate floral patterns. No opportunity for adornment had been overlooked, from the braids in the women’s hair to the saddles and bridles of the horses. … The residents of Stevensville watched in relief and awe as the regal procession with its hundreds of families and thousands of finely bred horses passed by right across the river. One man estimated this parade stretched for five miles. It took more than an hour for the whole group to pass.

Kent Nerburn holds a doctorate in religion and art from the University of California. He does a masterful job of recreating this tragic story from our history. He highlights this emblematic outcome of a clash between peoples whose spiritualities of the earth were widely different and shows how these differences led to a classic case of an irresistible force meeting an unmoving, though finally moved, object.

Rich Heffern is editor of Celebration’s E-series publications, Parish Life, The Catechist’s Connection and The Reflecting Community. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, February 24, 2006

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