First Encounters: Native Americans and Christians

First Encounters: Native Americans and ChristiansDiverse Native American religions and cultures existed before and after the arrival of European colonialists. In the 16th to 17th centuries, Spanish conquistadores and French fur traders were generally more violent to Native Americans than were the Spanish and French missionaries, although few Native Americans trusted any European group. The majority of early colonists did not recognize the deep culture and traditions of Native peoples, nor did they acknowledge the tribes' land rights. The colonists sought to convert the Native people in the New World and strip them of their land.

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Religious and cultural difference was part of the landscape of America long before the period of European colonization. The indigenous peoples of this land Europeans called the “New World” were separated by language, landscape, cultural myths, and ritual practices. Some neighboring groups, such as the Hurons and the Iroquois, were entrenched in rivalry. Others, such as the nations that later formed the Iroquois League, developed sophisticated forms of government that enabled them to live harmoniously despite tribal differences. Some were nomads; others settled into highly developed agricultural civilizations. Along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, ancient communities of Native peoples developed ceremonial centers, and in the Southwest, cliff-dwelling cultures developed complex settlements.

When Europeans first occupied the Americas, most did not even consider that the peoples they encountered had cultural and religious traditions that were different from their own; in fact, most believed indigenous communities had no culture or religion at all. As the “Age of Discovery” unfolded, Spanish and French Catholics were the first to infiltrate Native lands, beginning in the 16th century. Profit-minded Spanish conquistadores and French fur traders competed for land and wealth, while Spanish and French missionaries competed for the “saving of souls.” By the mid-century, the Spanish had established Catholic missions in present-day Florida and New Mexico and the French were steadily occupying the Great Lakes region, Upstate New York, Eastern Canada and, later, Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta.

Many of the European missionaries who energetically sought to spread Christianity to Native peoples were motivated by a sense of mission, seeking to bring the Gospel to those who had never had a chance to hear it, thereby offering an opportunity to be “saved.” In the context of the often brutal treatment of Native peoples by early Spanish conquistadores, many missionaries saw themselves as siding compassionately and protectively with the indigenous peoples. In 1537, Pope Paul III declared that Indians were not beasts to be killed or enslaved but human beings with souls capable of salvation. At the time, this was understood to be an enlightened view of indigenous people, one that well-meaning missionaries sought to encourage.

Letters from missionaries who lived among indigenous tribes give us a sense of the concerns many held for the welfare of tribal peoples. A letter by Franciscan friar Juan de Escalona criticizes the “outrages against the Indians” committed by a Spanish governor of what is now New Mexico. The governor’s cruelty toward the people, de Escalona wrote, made preaching the Gospel impossible; the Indians rightly despised any message of hope from those who would plunder their corn, steal their blankets, and leave them to starve. The writings of Jean de Brebuf, a French Jesuit missionary who lived and worked among the Hurons for two years without securing a single convert, reveal the powerful force of religious devotion that compelled missionaries to leave their homes for unknown lands and difficult lives in North America.

Newcomers from England during the 17th century also brought many expressions of Protestant Christianity to the New World. Among them were profit-seeking explorers, with allegiances to the Church of England, and Puritan reformers, rebelling against the Church and in search of religious freedom. Others included English Quakers, Catholics, and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians—all seeking a place to practice their religious commitments free of interference from the state. On the whole, these English settlers saw themselves as settling in a “virgin land” where real “civilization” had not been established. They understood their right to conquest in terms of old English legal traditions based on industry and utility, in which constructing houses, building fences, and laying out plantations constituted legitimate claims to land. They took their Biblical warrant from Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.”

The early history of the colonies reveals a complex story of relations with the Native peoples. Some colonial settlers, like those on Plymouth Plantation, had positive relations with Native peoples. In Puritan Massachusetts, John Eliot mastered Algonkian and then translated the Bible into that language in 1663. His “The Indian Covenanting Confession” was printed in 1669 in both Algonkian and English. He intended to place missionary efforts in the hands of the Indians themselves. With its regard for Indian autonomy, his approach was considered novel for its time. For the most part, the many Indian Wars dominated the encounter of Europeans and Native peoples. They were often complicated by the wrenching divisions within tribes caused by the increasing numbers of “praying Indians” who had been converted by the missionaries.

From today’s perspective, one might argue that even under the best of circumstances, colonial attitudes toward their indigenous neighbors were colored by paternalism, ignorance of tribal cultures, and desire for profit. While in the early years of colonization, Europeans often criticized one another for dealing too harshly or too greedily with their Native neighbors, underneath even their most positive assessments lay romanticism about and essentialization of the “noble savage.”

From the colonial period on, relations between European and Native peoples were predominantly expressed and negotiated in terms of land. The issue of land became, in many ways, the deepest “religious” issue over which worldviews collided. Many of the colonists saw the new land as a “wilderness” to be settled, not as already inhabited, or as Michael Wigglesworth described it in 1662, “a waste and howling wilderness, where none inhabited but hellish fiends, and brutish men that devils worshipped.” The founders of some colonies, such as Massachusetts and Connecticut, wholly disregarded Indian land rights. Others drew up well-meaning treaties and purchase agreements. For example, Roger Williams and William Penn, in founding Rhode Island and Pennsylvania respectively, explicitly criticized the founders of other colonies for their self-justified acquisition of lands.

From the perspective of the Native peoples, the European discovery of the new world was more aptly an invasion. Most were deeply connected to the land but had no traditions of land ownership or private property. They often expressed astonishment that land could be sold or negotiated through treaties, since to them land was not a source of private profit but of life, including the life of the spirits. Some lands were also sacred, as they bore the graves of the dead. Over the course of nearly three centuries, the terms “removal,” “displacement,” and “cession” came to be used by European settlers. Native peoples were to be “removed” from the lands they had occupied, “displaced” to other lands, and their lands “ceded” to the newcomers. Finally, Indian tribes were forcibly “settled” on “reservations,” lands set apart.

The religious encounter of Christian missionaries and Native peoples cannot be separated from the progressive seizure and settlement of tribal territories by European colonists. Through most of American history, however, there has been little recognition of the distinctively religious claims of Native peoples to the land and its sacred sites.

The encounter of Christians and Native peoples is too complex and varied to be characterized in general. There are surprising instances, such as the late 18th century Russian mission in Alaska, where early missionaries saw the Tlingit or Sugpiaq people of Kodiak Island as deeply religious, understanding that faith in terms of their own. More often, however, Christian missionaries did not recognize the customs of the Native peoples as spiritual or religious traditions in their own right and many mission schools effectively removed Native young people from their cultures. Many Christian colonists and missionaries, even those most sympathetic to the lifeways of the Native peoples, categorized Native Americans as “heathens” who either accepted or resisted conversion to Christianity. They did not place Native American traditions under the protection of religious freedom that had been enshrined in the Constitution. It was not until 1978, almost 200 years after the Constitution was signed, that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act gave specific legal recognition to the integrity of Native American religions.


Cjegkitoonuppa (“Slow Turtle”) Supreme Medicine Man for the Wampanoag Nation Chelsea, Massachusetts (Audio)

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Franciscan Letter from Santa Fe

In 1610, Juan de Escalona, a Franciscan friar in the new settlement of Santa Fe, wrote to the Spanish Viceroy in Mexico City about the abuses of the governor of Santa Fe, Don Juan de Onate.

The first and foremost difficulty, from which have sprung all the evils and the ruin of this land, is the fact that this conquest was entrusted to a man of such limited resources as Don Juan de Onate. The result was that soon after he entered the land, his people began to perpetrate many offenses against the natives and to plunder their pueblos of the corn they had gathered for their own sustenance; here corn is God, for they have nothing else with which to support themselves. Because of this situation and because the Spaniards asked the natives for blankets as tribute, even before teaching them the meaning of God, the Indians began to get restless, abandon their pueblos, and take to the mountains.

The governor did not want to sow a community plot to feed his people, although we friars urged him to do so, and the Indians agreed to it so that they would not be deprived of their food. This effort was all of no avail, and now the Indians have to provide everything. As a result, all the corn they had saved for years has been consumed, and not a kernel is left over for them. The whole land has thus been reduced to such need that the Indians drop dead from starvation wherever they live; and they eat dirt and charcoal ground up with some seeds and a little corn in order to sustain life. Any Spaniard who gets his fill of tortillas here feels as if he has obtained a grant of nobility. Your lordship must not believe that the Indians will part willingly with their corn, or the blankets with which they cover themselves; on the contrary, this extortion is done by threats and force of arms, the soldiers burning some of the houses and killing the Indians. . . .

I have told all this to make it clear that the governor does not have the resources to carry out the discovery of these lands. I do not hesitate to say that his majesty could have discovered this land with fifty well‑armed Christian men, giving them the necessary things for this purpose, and that what these fifty men might discover could be placed under the royal crown and the conquest effected in a Christian manner without outraging or killing these poor Indians, who think that we are all evil and that the king who sent us here is ineffective and a tyrant. By so doing we would satisfy the wishes of our mother church, which, not without long consideration and forethought and illuminated by the Holy Spirit, entrusted these conquests and the conversions of souls to the kings of Castile, our lords, acknowledging in them the means, Christianity, and holiness for an undertaking as heroic as is that of winning souls for God.

Because of these matters (and others that I am not telling), we cannot preach the gospel now, for it is despised by these people on account of our great offenses and the harm we have done them.

[From G.P. Hammond and Agapito Rey, Don Juan de Onate, Colonizer of New Mexico, 1595-1628. Part II (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1953), 692-95.]

A Jesuit’s Notes on Mission

Jean de Brebeuf, S.J. (1593-1649) worked as a missionary to the Hurons intermittently for twenty-four years. His 1637 instructions to those who would undertake such missions are intensely practical, requiring both learning and respecting native ways. Brebeuf was tortured and killed by the Iroquois, enemies of the Hurons, in 1649.

You must have sincere affection for the Savages–looking upon them as ransomed by the blood of the son of God, and as our brethren, with whom we are to pass the rest of our lives.

To conciliate the Savages, you must be careful never to make them wait for you in embarking.

You must provide yourself with a tinder box or with a burning mirror, or with both, to furnish them fire in the daytime to light their pipes, and in evening when they have to encamp; these little services win their hearts.

You should try to eat their sagamite or salmagundi in the way they prepare it, although it may be dirty, half-cooked, and very tasteless. As to the other numerous things which may be unpleasant, they must be endured for the love of God, without saying anything or appearing to notice them.

It is well at first to take everything they offer, although you may not be able to eat it all; for, when one becomes somewhat accustomed to it, there is not too much.

You must try and eat at daybreak unless you can take your meal with you in the canoe; for the day is very long, if you have to pass it without eating. The Barbarians eat only at Sunrise and Sunset, when they are on their journeys. You must be prompt in embarking and disembarking; and tuck up your gowns so that they will not get wet, and so that you will not carry either water or sand in the canoe. To be properly dressed, you must have your feet and legs bare; while crossing the rapids, you can wear your shoes, and, in the long portages, even your leggings.

You must conduct yourself as not to be at all troublesome to even one of these Barbarians.

It is not well to ask many questions, nor should you yield to your desire learn the language and to make observations on the way; this may be carried too far. You must relieve those in your canoe of this annoyance, especially as you cannot profit much by it during the work. Silence is a good equipment at such a time. . .

Be careful not to annoy anyone in the canoe with your hat; it would be better to take your nightcap. There is no impropriety among the Savages.

Do not undertake anything unless you desire to continue it; for example, do not begin to paddle unless you are inclined to continue paddling. Take from the start the place in the canoe that you wish to keep; do not lend them your garments, unless you are willing to surrender them during the whole journey. It is easier to refuse at first than to ask them back, to change, or to desist afterwards.

[From R.G. Thwaites, ed., Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents,  vol. 12  (Cleveland: Burrows Brothers, 1896-1901), 117, 119, 121.]

Letter of Roger Williams

In this letter, Roger Williams, founder of the Rhode Island Colony, appeals to Christian concerns and points out the contradiction between the efforts at the conversion of the Indians and the wars that aimed to destroy them.

To the General Court of Massachusetts Bay
October 5, 1654

I humbly pray your consideration, whether it be not only possible, but very easy, to live and die in peace with all the natives of this country.

For, are not all the English of this land, generally, a persecuted people from their native soil? and hath not the God of peace and Father of mercies made these natives more friendly in this, than our native countrymen in our own land to us? Have they not entered leagues of love, and to this day continued peaceable commerce with us? Are not our families grown up in peace amongst them? Upon which I humbly ask, how it can suit with Christian ingenuity to take hold of some seeming occasions for their destructions, which, though the heads be only aimed at, yet, all experience tells us, falls on the body and the innocent.

I pray it may be remembered how greatly the name of God is concerned in this affair, for it cannot be hid, how all England and other nations ring with the glorious conversion of the Indians of New England.

Whether I have been and am a friend to the natives’ turning to civility and Christianity and whether I have been instrumental, and desire so to be, according to my light, I will not trouble you with; only I beseech you consider, how the name of the most holy and jealous God may be preserved between the clashings of these two, viz.: the glorious conversion of the Indians in New England, and the unnecessary wars and cruel destructions of the Indians in New England.

[From Letters of Roger Williams, 1632-1682, vol. 6, ed. John Russell Bartlett (Providence: Publications of the Narragansett Club, 1874), 271-2.]

Suqpiaq and Russian Orthodox

Throughout the 1700s, explorers, trappers, and entrepreneurs from Russia made forays across the Bering Straits to what is now Alaska. In the 1870s, they established a settlement on Kodiak Island, though not without considerable bloodshed. In the 1790s, the first Russian Orthodox mission arrived in Kodiak–eight monks from Finland’s Valaam Monastery. They were to work among the Suqpiaq or Tlingit people. Their first report, filed in 1794, includes both a description of the world view of the Suqpiaq and a sympathetic interpretation of that view. Nearly 7,000 converts were baptized in two years, most of the native population of Kodiak.

The first report filed by the missionaries who arrived in 1794 describes in some detail the mythology of the Suqpiaq:

The world was made by a certain Kashshakhiliuk (wise man), i.e., to put it into more readily intelligible terms, there was an all-knowing, and at the same time personalized Principle, a Creator. There was neither day nor night. The Creator began to blow on a straw, and this is how the land eventually rose from the waters. Then, while he was still blowing, the sky opened, the sun appeared, and after dusk, the stars appeared and the moon rose. . . Finally animals and people came.

We are all born from one father and mother, and all are brothers and sisters of one another.

The place where the first people came from was warm; there were no winters or storms, but always gentle, healthy breezes. In the beginning, people lived in peace and knew no want. The first people were gifted with long life, and were strong and powerful. To begin with, people lived in friendship, knowing no envy, hatred or enmity–and also they wanted for nothing. But as the number of people increased, shortages and need began to appear, and need taught men to make weapons for hunting animals. Then disagreements arose, and enmity, and the weapons were turned on other people. Shortages and pressure from those who were stronger made people scatter further and further, and this is how all the different tribes arose.

The Russian Orthodox missionaries reflected on this Suqpiaq mythology in the context of their own Biblical faith:

“The place where the first people came from was warm. . . the people lived in peace and knew no want. The first people were gifted with long life” and so forth. What do we find in these ideas? This is the Biblical paradise, the innocent and blessed condition of the first human beings. The longevity of the first people is the longevity of the Patriarchs of the Bible.

According to the Kodiak account of the Creation, there was a certain wise man, that is, a certain all-knowing personalized principle, a Creator. . . At the same time, they believe there was neither night nor day; and the Bible says the same. He [the Creator] began to blow on a straw. . . The Bible also relates a similar, gradual process, with the land appearing from the depths of primal chaos. . . . He, the Creator of the world, is so immeasurably great and powerful by comparison to his creation, that for him, the act of breathing alone is enough to create the earth, for there was nothing there before. . . . There are omissions and distortions, but the actual account of Creation has not been lost at all. In the Bible we read: And the Lord God formed man. . . and breathed into him the breath of life. God is not a name but an idea deep-seated in the nature of human beings, something which can not be explained, as Justin the Philosopher wrote (Apology 2, chapter 6).

The detailed moral laws about respect for one’s parents and elders and the promise of long life, are they not the same as the fifth commandment of Moses? “We are all born of one father and one mother, and are all brothers and sisters.” This is what the Scriptures tell us.

[From Colin Bearne, trans. The Russian Orthodox Religious Mission in America, 1794-1837 (Limestone Press: Kingston, Ontario, 1978), 19, 22.]

Red Jacket: Brother! Listen…

Red Jacket, an Iroquois leader well known for his eloquence of speech, responds here in 1828 to Mr. Cram of the Boston Missionary Society, who had come seeking permission to open a mission among the Iroquois in northern New York state.

Friend and Brother! It was the will of the Great Spirit that we should meet together this day. He orders all things, and he has given us a fine day for our council. He has taken his garment from before the sun and has caused the bright orb to shine with brightness upon us. Our eyes are opened so that we see clearly. Our ears are unstopped so that we have been able to distinctly hear the words which you have spoken. For all these favors we thank the Great Spirit and him only.

Brother! This council fire was kindled by you. It was at your request that we came together at this time. We have listened with attention to what you have said. You have requested us to speak our minds freely. This gives us great joy, for we now consider that we stand upright before you, and can speak what we think. All have heard your voice and all speak to you as one man. Our minds are agreed.

Brother! You say that you want an answer to your talk before you leave this place. It is right that you should have one, as you are a great distance from home, and we do not wish to detain you. But we will first look back a little, and tell you what our fathers have told us, and what we have heard from the white people.

Brother! Listen to what we say. There was a time when our forefathers owned this great island [North America was commonly understood to be an island.] Their seats extended from the rising to the setting of the sun. The Great Spirit had made it for the use of Indians. He had created the buffalo, the deer, and other animals for food. He made the bear and the deer, and their skins served us for clothing. He had scattered them over the country, and had taught us how to take them. He had caused the earth to produce corn for bread. All this he had done for his red children because he loved them. If we had any disputes about hunting grounds, they were generally settled without the shedding of much blood. But an evil day came upon us. Your forefathers crossed the great waters and landed on this island. Their numbers were small. They found friends and not enemies. They told us they had fled from their own country for fear of wicked men, and had come here to enjoy their religion. They asked for a small seat. We took pity on them, granted their request and they sat down amongst us. We gave them corn and meat. They gave us poison [liquor] in return. The white people had now found our country. Tidings were carried back and more came amongst us. Yet we did not fear them. We took them to be friends. They called us brothers. We believed them and gave them a large seat. At length their numbers had greatly increased. They wanted more land. They wanted our country. Our eyes were opened, and our minds became uneasy. Wars took place. Indians were hired to fight against Indians, and many of our people were destroyed. They also brought strong liquors among us. It was strong and powerful and has slain thousands.

Brother! Our seats were once large, and yours were very small. You have now become a great people, and we have scarcely a place left to spread our blankets. You have got our country, but you are not satisfied. You want to force your religion upon us.

Brother! Continue to listen. You say that you are sent to instruct us how to worship the Great Spirit agreeably to his mind; and if we do not take hold of the religion which you white people teach we shall be unhappy hereafter. You say that you are right, and we are lost. How do you know this to be true? We understand that your religion is written in a book. If it was intended for us as well as for you, why has not the Great Spirit given it to us; and not only to us, but why did he not give to our forefathers the knowledge of that book, with the means of understanding it rightly? We only know what you tell us about it. How shall we know what to believe, being so often deceived by the white people?

Brother! You say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why not all agree, as you can all read the book?

Brother! We do not understand these things. We are told that your religion was given to your forefathers and has been handed down, father to son. We also have a religion which was given to our forefathers, and has been handed down to us, their children. We worship that way. It teaches us to be thankful for all the favors we received, to love each other, and to be united. We never quarrel about religion.

Brother! The Great Spirit has made us all. But he has made a great difference between his white and red children. He has given us a different complexion and different customs. To you he has given the arts; to these he has not opened our eyes. We know these things to be true. Since he has made so great a difference between us in other things, why may not we conclude that he has given us a different religion, according to our understanding? The Great Spirit does right. He knows what is best for his children. We are satisfied.

Brother! We do not wish to destroy your religion, or to take it from you. We only want to enjoy our own.

Brother! You say you have not come to get our land or our money, but to enlighten our minds. I will now tell you that I have been at your meetings and saw you collecting money from the meeting. I cannot tell what this money was intended for, but suppose it was for your minister; and if we should conform to your way of thinking, perhaps you may want some from us.

Brother! We are told that you have been preaching to the white people in this place. These people are our neighbors. We are acquainted with them. We will wait a little while, and see what effect your preaching has upon them. If we find it does them good and makes them honest and less disposed to cheat Indians, we will then consider again what you have said.

Brother! You have now heard our answer to your talk, and this is all we have to say at present. As we are going to part, we will come and take you by the hand, and hope the Great Spirit will protect you on your journey, and return you safe to your friends.

[From William L. Stone, The Life and Times of Sa-Go-Ye-Wat-Ha (Red Jacket) (New York: Wiley & Putnam, 1841), 189-93.]

Chief Joseph: An Indian’s View of Indian Affairs

In 1879, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perces people of what is now Oregon, testified in Washington, D.C., telling the story of his people’s resistance to signing away their ancestral lands with treaties. In this famous speech, printed in the North American Review, April 1879,  as “An Indian’s View of Indian Affairs,” Joseph goes on to tell how his people were to be forced onto a reservation. He tells of their flight across Montana toward Canada, of their eventual defeat and captivity, and of their forced removal to Kansas, far away from their homeland in the mountains. He died in 1904 without regaining his land in Oregon.

My friends, I have been asked to show you my heart. I am glad to have a chance to do so. I want the white people to understand my people. Some of you think an Indian is like a wild animal. This is a great mistake. I will tell you all about our people, and then you can judge whether an Indian is a man or not. I believe much trouble and blood would be saved if we opened our hearts more. I will tell you in my way how the Indian sees things. The white man has more words to tell you how they look to him, but it does not require many words to speak the truth. What I have to say will come from my heart, and I will speak with a straight tongue. Ahcumkinimamehut (the Great Spirit) is looking at me, and will hear me.

My name is Inmuttooyahlatlat (Thunder traveling over the Mountains). I am chief of the Wallamwatkin band of Chutepalu, or Nez Perces (nose-pierced Indians). I was born in eastern Oregon, thirty-eight winters ago. My father was chief before me. When a young man, he was called Joseph by Mr. Spaulding, a missionary. He died a few years ago. There was no stain on his hands of the blood of a white man. He left a good name on the earth. He advised me well for my people.

Our fathers gave us many laws, which they had learned from their fathers. These laws were good. They told us to treat all men as they treated us; that we should never be the first to break a bargain; that it was a disgrace to tell a lie; that we should speak the truth; that it was a shame for one man to take from another his wife, or his property without paying for it. We were taught to believe that the Great Spirit sees and hears everything, and that he never forgets; that hereafter he will give every man a spirit-home according to his deserts: if he has been a good man, he will have a good home; if he has been a bad man, he will have a bad home. This I believe, and all my people believe the same.

We did not know there were other people besides the Indian until about one hundred winters ago, when some men with white faces came to our country. They brought many things with them to trade for furs and skins. They brought tobacco, which was new to us. They brought guns with flint stones on them, which frightened our women and children. Our people could not talk with these white-faced men, but they used signs which all people understand. These men were Frenchmen, and they called our people “Nez Perces,” because they wore rings in their noses for ornaments. Although very few of our people wear them now, we are still called by the same name…

The first white men of your people who came to our country were named Lewis and Clarke. They also brought many things that our people had never seen. They talked straight, and our people gave them a great feast, as a proof that their hearts were friendly. These men were very kind. They made presents to our chiefs and our people made presents to them. We had a great many horses, of which we gave them what they needed, and they gave us guns and tobacco in return. All the Nez Perces made friends with Lewis and Clarke, and agreed to let them pass through their country, and never to make war on white men. This promise the Nez Perces have never broken. No white man can accuse them of bad faith, and speak with a straight tongue. It has always been the pride of the Nez Perces that they were the friends of the white men.

When my father was a young man there came to our country a white man (Rev. Mr. Spaulding) who talked spirit law. He won the affections of our people because he spoke good things to them. At first he did not say anything about white men wanting to settle on our lands. Nothing was said about that until about twenty winters ago, when a number of white people came into our country and built houses and made farms. At first our people made no complaint. They thought there was room enough for all to live in peace, and they were learning many things from the white men that seemed to be good. But we soon found that the white men were growing rich very fast, and were greedy to possess everything the Indian had. My father was the first to see through the schemes of the white men, and he warned his tribe to be careful about trading with them. He had suspicion of men who seemed so anxious to make money. I was a boy then, but I remember well my father’s caution. He had sharper eyes than the rest of our people.

Next there came a white officer (Governor Stevens), who invited all the Nez Perces to a treaty council. After the council was opened he made known his heart. He said there were a great many white people in the country, and many more would come; that he wanted the land marked out so that the Indians and white men could be separated. If they were to live in peace it was necessary, he said, that the Indians should have a country set apart for them, and in that country they must stay. My father, who represented his band, refused to have anything to do with the council, because he wished to be a free man. He claimed that no man owned any part of the earth, and a man could not sell what he did not own.

Mr. Spaulding took hold of my father’s arm and said, “Come and sign the treaty.” My father pushed him away, and said: “Why do you ask me to sign away my country?  It is your business to talk to us about spirit matters, and not to talk to us about parting with our land.” Governor Stevens urged my father to sign his treaty, but he refused. “I will not sign your paper,” he said; “you go where you please, so do I; you are not a child, I am no child; I can think for myself. No man can think for me. I have no other home than this. I will not give it up to any man. My people would have no home. Take away your paper. I will not touch it with my hand.”

…My father was invited to many councils, and they tried hard to make him sign the treaty, but he was firm as the rock, and would not sign away his home. His refusal caused a difference among the Nez Perces.

…In order to have all people understand how much land we owned, my father planted poles around it and said:

“Inside is the home of my people–the white man may take the land outside. Inside this boundary all our people were born. It circles around the graves of our fathers, and we will never give up these graves to any man.”

…Soon after this my father sent for me. I saw he was dying. I took his hand in mine. He said: “My son, my body is returning to my mother earth, and my spirit is going very soon to see the Great Spirit Chief. When I am gone, think of your country. You are the chief of these people. They look to you to guide them. Always remember that your father never sold his country. You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home. A few years more, and white men will be all around you. They have their eyes on this land. My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your father and your mother.” I pressed my father’s hand and told him I would protect his grave with my life. My father smiled and passed away to the spirit-land.

I buried him in that beautiful valley of winding waters. I love that land more than all the rest of the world. A man who would not love his father’s grave is worse than a wild animal.

…I believe that the old treaty has never been correctly reported. If we ever owned the land we own it still, for we never sold it. In the treaty councils the commissioners have claimed that our country had been sold to the Government. Suppose a white man should come to me and say, “Joseph, I like your horses, and I want to buy them.”  I say to him, “No, my horses suit me, I will not sell them.”  Then he goes to my neighbor, and says to him:  “Joseph has some good horses. I want to buy them, but he refuses to sell.”  My neighbor answers, “Pay me the money, and I will sell you Joseph’s horses.”  The white man returns to me, and says, “Joseph, I have bought your horses, and you must let me have them.” If we sold our lands to the Government, this is the way they were bought.

[From Chief Joseph, “An Indian’s View of Indian Affairs,” North American Review, April 1879, 412-20.]