1879, Washington D.C.
Chief Joseph, originally known as Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, was the leader of a Native American tribe in Oregon, USA who became famous as the voice of his people. For centuries, the United States Government and white Europeans before them had been forcibly and violently taking away land from the people to whom it belonged – the Native Americans who had lived there for thousands of years.
On a visit to the country’s capital, Chief Joseph spoke about his tribe’s plight and equality for all men, irrespective of the colour of their skin.
“At last I was granted permission to come to Washington. I am glad I came. I have shaken hands with a good many friends, but there are some things I want to know which no one seems able to explain. I cannot understand how the Government sends a man out to fight us, as it did General Miles, and then breaks his word. Such a government has something wrong about it. I cannot understand why so many chiefs are allowed to talk so many different ways, and promise so many different things. I have seen the Great Father Chief (President); the Next Great Chief (Secretary of the Interior); the Commissioner Chief; the Law Chief; and many other law chiefs [Congressmen] and they all say they are my friends, and that I shall have justice, but while all their mouths talk right I do not understand why nothing is done for my people. I have heard talk and talk but nothing is done. Good words do not last long unless they amount to something. Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country now overrun by white men. They do not protect my father’s grave. They do not pay for my horses and cattle. Good words will not give my people a home where they can live in peace and take care of themselves.
All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers. The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it. When I think of our condition, my heart is heavy. I see men of my own race treated as outlaws and driven from country to country, or shot down like animals.
I know that my race must change. We cannot hold our own with the white men as we are. We only ask an even chance to live as other men live. We ask to be recognized as men. We ask that the same law shall work alike on all men. Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think and act for myself.”
Although the United States Government continued to oppress and ill-treat Native Americans, Chief Joseph’s words brought attention to the plight of his people at the hands of a tyrannous and racist regime. A rare voice of conscience for the West, he died in September 1904 of a broken heart, still in exile from his homeland.
Since his death, the chief has received many honours – the city of Joseph, Oregon as well as numerous schools, dams and roads have been named after him. In the last few decades people have finally started taking notice of the many atrocities committed on the Native American people in the past and gradually moved towards more equal rights for them.
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