Of all the
Native Americans who lived or are living in the Pacific Northwest, two who
enjoy the most recognition are Chief Seattle and Chief Joseph. Seattle was
the Lushootseed leader after whom the city of Seattle was named, the largest
city to be so honored. Joseph was chief of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce
and a leader of the Nez Perce during their desperate, daring 1877 war with
the United States. Both were noted orators.
Chief Joseph and Chief Seattle
The Pacific Northwest remains remote from the rest of the country, but here, as elsewhere, Native Americans figure prominently in its unfolding history. Coyote of Columbia River mythology still animates our folklore. The Spokane prophet Circling Raven announced the imminent arrival of a new people and leaders like the Nuu-chah-nulth headman Maquinna and one-eyed Concomly of the Chinooks impressed fur traders enough to earn prominence in early narrative histories of the region. In 1831, the Nez Perce were among the group making the portentious trip to St. Louis seeking information about the white man's religion. When trade and missionary work turned to conquest, the bravery and sagacity of Kamiakin of the Yakama, Moses of the Middle Columbia Salish, and Leschi of the Nisquallies commanded respect from friend and foe alike. The Wanapam prophet Smohalla kept religious traditions alive east of the Cascades while John and Mary Slocum inspired a religious fervor on upper Puget Sound that developed into the Indian Shaker Church. The creativity and strength needed to survive forced assimilation and racial bias continues to find expression in figures as diverse as the late Nisqually fishing rights activist Billy Frank and Spokane/Coeur d'Alene writer and film director Sherman Alexie.
So Seattle and Joseph do not stand alone or even apart from other Northwestern native leaders who have defended and inspired a people sorely tested by history. That they are better known than the others has much to do with the sentiments they evoked from the Americans who invaded their lands.