Strong Language, Vol. 5: Chief Joseph's surrender speech

“What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?” “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."

Great writing is everywhere – in questions that ask more of us than might first appear, in realizations that flash like fire through escape-proof rooms, in advice that gives shape to the reality of the world – in the language that makes us alive; in the language that makes us human.

In this installment of Strong Language, we look at the 1877 surrender speech by Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, a Native American tribe indigenous to what is today northeastern Oregon. After negotiations over the forced transfer of the Nez Perce to a reservation dissolved in violence, Joseph counseled his people to abandon their ancestral lands and seek asylum in Canada. Pursued by U.S. Army cavalry, Joseph led nearly 750 men, women and children in a fighting retreat across the northern plains, crossing nearly 1,200 miles in three months, in what became known as the Nez Perce War.

The war ended on October 5, 1877, in the Bear Paw Mountains of Montana, 40 miles from the Canadian border. After five days of fighting in sub-zero weather, with his major war leaders dead and his supplies nearly nonexistent, Joseph gathered the 430 Nez Perce who were left to him and went before his enemies. The speech he gave was brief; his phrasing was powerful, simple – and so very sad. We present it below, in its entirety:

“Tell General Howard [General Oliver O. Howard, who led the Army pursuit] I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Too-hul-hul-sote 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, to 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.”

It is a beautiful thing to read, and were you to speak it aloud, as we recommend you do, you would feel in your mouth the weight of the warrior’s words. This is a stripped speech: telegraphic in its lack of adornment, journalistic in its form, with nothing to detract from its power, and nothing to blunt the speaker’s pain.

From Joseph’s words – from the beauty in them, and the heartbreak – we offer this communications insight:

  • Be simple; be direct; be human: your audience, whether online or in person, whether reading your article or listening to your speech or watching your video, is made up of human beings. Human beings who love and are loved, just like you. Human beings with fears and aspirations and regrets and resolutions, just like you. Human beings who, ultimately, are searching for fulfilment and have only so long to find it…just like you.

It sounds obvious, doesn’t it, when stated that way? It is, of course – and yet it’s not. In fact, the simple reality of your audience’s humanity – of the basic humanness of each person within your audience – is extraordinarily easy to forget when we try to communicate with each other.

We might almost approach this insight as a variation on the “Golden Rule,” which most of us will remember from childhood: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The variation might be: “speak unto others as you would have them speak unto you.” You are as alive and as human as every member of your audience, and you must strive, in all your communications, to put yourself – your energy, your spirit, your emotion, your humanity – inside your message.

Do not hide behind buzzwords; do not cloud your phrasing with corporate-speak; do not overwrite or overproduce or do anything that masks you: the man or the woman within the message. Emotions are potent, and directness reaps results.

That’s all for this edition of Strong Language. In our next installment…no. You wouldn’t believe us if we told you. You really wouldn’t.