Grade Levels: K-3

This page contains information to support educators and families in teaching K-3 students about Native Americans, the Nez Perce, and Chief Joseph.  The information is designed to complement the BrainPOP Jr. movie Chief Joseph. It explains the type of content covered in the movie, provides ideas for how teachers and parents can develop related understandings, and suggests how other BrainPOP Jr. resources can be used to scaffold and extend student learning.

Explore the lives of important leaders in American history. This movie will explore the life of Chief Joseph, the leader of the Wallowa band of Nez Perce in the Pacific Northwest. This topic introduces information about a painful time in U.S. history and some children will be sensitive to the subject matter. We highly recommend pausing the movie and holding discussions. Opening a safe forum can help allay children’s anxieties, address misconceptions, and answer questions.

Help children understand that Native Americans were living on the land long before settlers arrived. The Nez Perce were a nomadic people, covering a large area of land in the Pacific Northwest in modern-day Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. In the early 1800s, exploration of the American West had begun, led byLewis and Clark. The Nez Perce people welcomed early settlers and even helped them on their journeys, offering food, shelter, and in some cases, horses. For many years, the Nez Perce built and maintained peaceful relationships with settlers.

Chief Joseph was born Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt (Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain) in 1840 in the Wallowa Valley, which is now part of Oregon. His father, who was chief of the Wallowa band of Nez Perce, had converted to Christianity and taken on the name Joseph. During Joseph the Elder’s tenure as chief, more settlers began moving onto Nez Perce land. The tribe signed a treaty with the government to set up a Nez Perce territory. Then in the 1860s, gold was found on their land. Settlers broke the treaty and began moving onto Nez Perce land. The government offered a new treaty that gave the tribe a significantly smaller portion of land. Joseph the Elder refused to sign the treaty. He renounced Christianity and told his son, “This country holds your father’s body. Never sell the bones of your father and mother.” Joseph the Younger became chief after his father’s death and inherited a tumultuous situation between settlers and his people.

Chief Joseph tried to maintain peaceful relationships. Even when members of his tribe were mistreated by settlers, he never allowed violent retaliation. In 1873, Chief Joseph signed a treaty with the government allowing his people to stay in the Wallowa Valley. A few years later, the government broke the treaty and demanded they leave the area and relocate to a reservation in Idaho. Remind children that a reservation is an area of land set aside for a special group, such as a Native American people. Chief Joseph faced a difficult decision: Should they move peacefully and give up the land that was rightfully theirs or should they stay and fight, knowing that people would be killed?

Chief Joseph chose peace and to keep his people safe. He gathered his people to begin the long journey to an Idaho reservation. Not everyone in his tribe agreed, and a few Nez Perce warriors attacked some settlers. In response, the U.S. army sent troops to attack the Nez Perce. For months, the tribe traveled across different states to outrun and fight the troops. They covered over 1,500 miles of rough terrain. Many tribe members were sick or injured.

Chief Joseph could no longer stand seeing his people suffer. He realized the futility of fighting against an entire U.S. army with the few hundred warriors in his tribe. He made the decision to surrender his people. He said, “I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more, forever.”

Life was not easy after Chief Joseph surrendered. The Nez Perce were sent to reservations far from their homeland, first in Kansas, then in Oklahoma. There they suffered disease epidemics and rough living conditions. Chief Joseph remained active; he gave speeches and wrote letters to government leaders about the injustices done to the Native American people. He believed peace could be achieved if people treated each other fairly, famously saying, “I believe much trouble and blood would be saved if we opened our hearts more.”

Chief Joseph asked that his people be moved back to their homeland in the Pacific Northwest, but for many years his requests were denied. He met with President Rutherford B. Hayes to share the injustices done to his people and request that they be allowed to return home. Later, some members of the Nez Perce were able to move to land in Idaho and some were eventually allowed to move back to the Pacific Northwest, though not to their sacred Wallowa Valley. However, Chief Joseph and a few other members were not allowed to move. They were separated from the rest of their people in a reservation in Washington state. Chief Joseph died in 1904, living in exile from his homeland.

It is important for children to understand Chief Joseph’s legacy of peace. He led with wisdom, honor, and dignity in the face of trying circumstances. He thought about the good of his people in the face of injustice. What lessons can we learn from Chief Joseph’s life? Discuss with children.