Monday, June 2, 2014

Chief Joseph and General Howard: When Do We Stand Up for Truth and Justice?

Chief Joseph and General Howard:  

When Do We Stand Up for Truth and Justice?

With reflections on clergy abuse

Sometimes our stories are too personal.  We cannot understand what has happened because we are too close to the situation.  Or perhaps, we cannot see the forest through the trees.  We need to hear the stories of others so we can better understand our own.  I was baptized Catholic by a priest who was later was accused of and confessed to abusing children.  My first response was to deny the serious nature of the accusations against the priest.  My journey to understanding and supporting survivors of clergy abuse took years of research and reaching out to and meeting survivors.  I feel frustrated by being unable to convey to other Catholics that more needs to be done, not merely by the leadership of the Church but by them, the people sitting in the pews.  I hope that the story of Chief Joseph and General Howard and the Nez Perce War of 1877, can illustrate what has gone wrong and the need for more parishioners to work to end abuse and to bind up the wounds of survivors.

In June 1877, the Wallowa band of Nez Perce (Nimiipuu) led by Young Chief Joseph, attempted to flee to Canada rather than face certain attack by white soldiers and settlers.  About 750 warriors, elders, women, and children fought while they fled from up to 2,000 soldiers and settlers for almost 4 months.

They had hoped to find refuge in Canada, following in the footsteps of  Chief Sitting Bull and his band of Sioux, who fled there after winning the Battle of the Little Bighorn the year before.

By October 5, the Wallowa Nimiipuu were within 40 miles of the Canadian border.

Their numbers included a man called Tzi-kal-tza, whose oral history recorded that he was the son of William Clark, the explorer who passed through Nimiipuu territory in 1805 and 1806.

The father of Young Chief Joseph, Old Chief Joseph, met William Clark and his co-exploration leader, Merriwether Lewis in 1805, when he was just a boy.  After Lewis and Clark came the fur trappers and then Christian Missionaries, Marcus Whitman and Henry Spalding, who seemed more interested in creating a safe place for white immigrants to settle than in representing Christ on earth.  Then, beginning in 1843, came the wagon train after wagon train of whites settlers.

Old Chief Joseph tried to keep peace with the settlers.  He converted to Christianity in 1839, and took the name of Joseph.  But the whites kept coming and coming, and they wanted land for farming and mining.  Farmers were not such bad neighbors except for the fact that they wanted the Wallowa Valley for its lush pastures and rivers with water for irrigation.  It was the miners hungry for gold who were completely unwilling to share the land.

The white settlers pushed the US government to negotiate with the Nez Perce for their land.  A treaty signed in 1855, preserved the sacred homeland of the Wallowa Valley for the Nimiipuu, but that treaty was not to last.  Gold was found in the Wallowa Mountains shortly afterwards.  The US government imposed a new treaty giving the Wallowa Nimiipuu space on a much smaller reservation in Idaho, but this land was already home to other bands of Nimiipuu.  This was too much for Old Chief Joseph.  He renounced Christianity and died in 1871, after making his son promise never to give up their people's beloved summer home -- the Wallowa Valley.

That son was Young Chief Joseph, the Chief Joseph most people are familiar with.

Young Chief Joseph tried to keep his promise to his father, but the pressure from the US government, settlers, and miners was relentless.

In April 1877,  the Civil War general Oliver Howard conveyed US government orders for the Wallowa Nez Perce to relocate to the reservation by Lapwai, Idaho.  General Howard felt that the US governments position was wrong, but he also felt a loyalty to his government.  In addition, he would sacrifice his career as a general if he did not follow orders.  Others less sympathetic to the Nimiipuu would have carried our government policy if he didn't.

Young Chief Joseph asserted that it was against Nimiipuu tribal traditions to take land that belonged to others.  General Howard informed Joseph that he would attack his people if they did not leave the Wallowa Valley.  Joseph chose to lead his people out of their lands on their own terms instead of being forcibly relocated to Idaho.

In early June 1877, Joseph gathered his people in their winter grounds along the Imnaha River, thirty miles to the east of where the town of Joseph currently sits, and they began moving their horses and cattle and other possessions to Idaho.  The Wallowa Nimiipuu numbered less than 800 people including warriors but also elders, women and children who could not fight or move quickly.

The Nimiipuu warriors under Joseph's guidance were very humane.  They set free white women taken captive in battle and scalped no prisoners, a practice followed by many other tribes.

General Howard was also not a violent bully.  He advocated for the Wallowa Valley Nimiipuu to return to their lands.  He was also an advocate for the education of blacks, including former slaves.  He was very aware of the efforts by whites to stop the education of blacks through violence when the law could not longer prohibit their education as it had before the Civil War.  His advocacy led to the founding of Howard University, and he served as its first president.  The University is named for him.

Perhaps if had been up to General Howard and Chief Joseph, there would have been no war as neither wanted to fight.  Unfortunately, as the Wallowa Nimiipuu approached the reservation in Idaho, some young men led by a warrior whose father had been killed by whites a few year earlier, attacked and killed at least 18 white settlers.

Joseph knew the white soldiers would pursue and fled with his people to protect them.  A contignent of white settlers and soldiers attacked the fleeing Nimiipuu in White Bird Canyon on the Salmon River in Idaho on June 17, 1877. Thirty-four soldiers died that day while the Nimiipuu warriors armed with inferior weapons rode in circles around them.

In the three and one half months that followed, Chief Joseph and his people fought and fled  almost 1,800 miles through five states (Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming) before surrendering on October 5.  Joseph's people had suffered 150 deaths, and they were starving and freezing in the cold fall weather in the northern mountains of Montana.

Charles Erskine Scott Wood, a young lieutenant who served with General Howard and later worked as a lawyer in Portland, Oregon, wrote down the famous surrender speech by Chief Joseph,

"I am tired of fighting.  Our chiefs are killed.  Looking Glass is dead.  Toohulhulsote is dead.  The old men are all dead.  It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led 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 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. "

Reflections comparing clergy abuse and the story of General Howard and Chief Joseph:

Perhaps General Howard is much like family members and members of the community today who see abuse and struggle to come to terms with it and report it or act against it.

Sometimes the people perpetrating abuses, like General Howard, do good in other parts of their lives.

With the wave after wave of white settlers coming, the Nimiipuu never had a chance.  They were always going to lose their land.  Truthfully the details I have included are scant.  The more you know, the worse it gets.

I think about myself and my own childhood.  I was sexually abused at age 4.  I was so young.  I have only three memories that precede the abuse -- three memories of a normal life before it was snuffed out and eliminated as a possibility.  I was abused so young I never had a chance.

I also see the parallels in society.  General Howard was a good man.  He did much good in this world, but he is also the everyman unwilling and unable to sacrifice his own life to stop injustice.

Abuse is like this.  There are abusers who are easy to condemn -- abusers who murder and rape and torture and do not much else of note.  Names come to mind: Ted Bundy,  John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer... These people are so dangerous that they cannot exist outside of a prison cell because they pose such a risk to the safety of others.   Then there are other prolific abusers who don't murder their victims but manage hide quietly in society as people don't believe the victims who come forward.  Fr. Joseph Birmingham, a Catholic priest who served in Massachusetts, may have abused between 500 and 1,000 boys.  He spent many hours of each day hunting for boys to rape.  But he was a priest.  He was never put on trial and never served time in prison.  Who would ever believe that a Catholic priest could abuse children?  But there are other priests who merely abused dozens of children and managed to do some good too, such as the priest who served in my former Catholic parish, which will remain nameless.  Several of his survivors have come forward, but mostly behind closed doors.  How many more remain silent?  How do you count the many children and adults the priest abused?  Adult men and women who endured his unwanted attentions have come forward in private, but they cannot sue.  Most have chosen silence as they fear recriminations from other parishioners who mostly don't support survivors.  Does the priest have one dozen victims or two dozen or three dozen?  I don't know.  But not all of my parish priest's time was spent pursuing victims.  He ate lunch with a mentally challenged woman on a regular basis and counseled another woman struggling to recover from child sex abuse and alcoholism.  He was always patient with the elderly woman obsessed with Catholic priests who called the rectory every day.  Other priests grew tired of her unwanted attentions and told her not to call anymore.  But that priest, the one who abused, always took her calls and was never unkind to her.  Her children were grown and she had no grandchildren or if she did, they never visited.  Being kind to her could not serve to connect him to children to abuse.  Being kind to her served no purpose other than being kind to a lonely, elderly lady who could not leave her home and who annoyed other people so much she had few friends.  Maybe the priest did more good I don't know about.  I do know that he was friendly and fun and a good homilist.  Still he is not a good comparison to General Howard.  Parish staff and the parishioners make a better comparison to the General.  There were rumors of the priest's misconduct with adult women and teenaged boys, but almost everyone who knew anything about his behavior chose to remain silent.  When the former Youth Minster of the Parish came forward to report strange behavior and sexual harassment by the priest, people vocally supported the priest.  No one supported the Youth Minister in public.  In fact, she was so harassed by other parishioners that she left the Catholic Church.

General Howard is like so many ordinary Catholics I've met.  He was a really good man who did lots of good in his life, but one time when challenged to do the right thing, he failed.  He chose his career and safety over doing what his heart told him was the right thing to do.

How often are we are challenged to do the right thing and fail?

Have you ever been a part of a community where child abuse, rape, or domestic violence has taken place?

What did you do?

Did you support the abuser because he or she was otherwise a good person and it was hard to believe he or she perpetrated abuse?

Did you support the victim?

Did you remain silent, not knowing what to do?

What is the right course of action?

What does it feel like for the victim to come forward alone and disbelieved and unsupported?

Is the question of what to do always clear or can it be murky and challenging?  Why or why not.

© 2014 Virginia Pickles Jones

Links to other walks with reflections for compassion and healing:

Princess, the Domestic Violence Survivor Who Was Abused by her Husband and then by Her Church

Iwetemlaykin: Safe and Welcoming Home

Memorial for Old Chief Joseph: Coping With Painful Memories Through Rituals

Wallowa Lake in Late Winter: Finding Beauty in the Present Moment


1., April 17, 2014.

2.  "Chief Joseph." 2014. The website. Apr 17 2014

3.The website. April, 17 2014.

4.PBS website, April 17, 2014
ARCHIVES (1874 - 1877)


5., April 17, 2014.

  FRIDAY, MARCH 18, 1904



6. Joseph of the Nez Perce, April 17, 2014.

Excerpted from the book Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains - 1918
by Charles A. Eastman (Ohiyesa)

7., April 17, 2014.

8.  How the West Was Lost, 1993, © 2010 Baseline, All rights reserved.  © 2010 All Media Guide, LLC Portions of content provided by All Movie Guide ®, a trademark of All Media Guide, LLC, on the internet, April 17, 2014.

9.  Imnaha basalts:, April 17, 2014.

10.  Wallowa lake, April 17, 2014.

11.  Hiking Oregons Geology by Ellen Morris Bishop and John Elliot Allen, April 17, 2014.

12.  Chinese massacre by pioneers, April 17, 2014.

13.  Gathering historical research on William Clark's Nez Perce, Rambling Thoughts and Other Stuff..., May 31, 2014.

No comments:

Post a Comment