Chief Joseph was a peace chief, a position I dearly wish we held in our culture. He spent most of his time caring for the welfare of the women and children and the tribe's horses. His father, Old Joe, had embraced the coming white man, eager to learn from him and drink from the Christian well. Thus young Joe also became known by the name of the father of Jesus instead of Hinmaton-Yalatkit (Thunder Rolling Down From The Mountains).
The tribe's early experiences with whites began with Lewis and Clark. They all sought peaceful accommodation and for a while that was the case. Missionaries with real estate ambitions were but the beginning of a sea of woe that was soon to wash over the Nez Perces. When gold was discovered in the Wallowa Valley all bets were off. When a small band of hot headed braves took matters into their own hands and killed a number of their most offensive white neighbors the die was cast. Thus began the long and painful journey to escape to the safety of Canada, where the Queen and the RCMP were renowned for fairness and justice.
Among all the tragic elements of this tale few compare to the fact that, having reached the edge of the US, the Nez Perces, cold and starving from their long travail being chased by General Howard from the west, paused a week to gorge on new found supplies. They were tired from the relentless pace that Poker Joe had forced upon them. Unlike the other war chiefs Poker Joe, having gained his name from drinking and playing cards with whites, had a better understanding of white mentality and determination. In a culture that enjoyed sitting around and relaxing Poker Joe must have appeared like a drill sergeant. At the last minute, a short march from safety, Poker Joe was relieved of duty. The tribe sat. They ate. They relaxed. Scouts were not positioned. They were attacked from the east by General Miles and destroyed.
So what does Poker Joe have to teach us today? Plenty. Assuming we are to rid ourselves of Bush and Co. in 2009 are we to sit back and relax? During the Clinton years, an imperfect but seeming Shangri-La by comparison, the neocons were never resting. Like the US Army in the late 1870s they were on the move: consolidating, deregulating, propagandizing, and plotting. Today it is just as easy to sitting around the warm glow of the television set absorbing spin and the mindless brainwashing of unfettered consumerism every bit as unaware of the forces on the move as were the na´ve Nez Perces on the plains of Montana.
Meanwhile the General Howards and the General Miles of today are strategizing. Has anyone heard of the North American Union? Of a joint currency called the Amero? Do you know what a VCHIP is? Do you think Bush and the rest of the oilmen and bankers care a rat's ass about the welfare of the tribe? Years ago holocaust survivor Elie Weisel, referring to the overarching treat of nuclear annihilation we all share, said "We're all Jews now". I'm suggesting we're all Nez Perce now.
The same forces of twisted Christianity and greed that facilitated the ethnic cleansing of the North American continent are being brought to bear on all of us. We don't need to be marched to Oklahoma. Destroy the middle class, ignore the poor and bingo, just turn the whole place into the "rez". The Ninth Ward of New Orleans is but the latest stop on the Trail of Tears.
As a white kid who grew up in middle class New Jersey I'm sure I'm not telling American Indians or blacks anything they don't know. They know more about lies and bigotry than I will ever imagine. I'm speaking to the other white kids from New Jersey. The ones who think everything's just fine. Like frogs on a slow boil we fail to acknowledge the erosion of our rights and liberties at great peril. To fail to hold our corrupt and criminal leadership accountable is to grease a slippery slope.
Maybe the Nez Perce never had a chance. Maybe we don't either. Maybe this greed and insanity if destined to play itself out to horrible ends. Chief Joseph did the best he could. When he surrendered he was promised he could eventually return to his beloved Wallowa Valley. That never happened. Had the tribe listened to Poker Joe they would have found safety in Canada.
We have many scouts out today tracking the movement of the troops aligned against our freedom: Cindy Sheehan, Cynthia McKinney, Greg Palast, David Swanson, Rob Kall, Rachel Maddow, Jim Hightower, and the late Molly Ivins to name a few. The information is there. But when you're feeling complacent remember Poker Joe. Freedom may just be a little more effort away.