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The Nez Perce and the Dawes Act

Grade level: 8-12

This lesson asks students to view westward expansion from the perspective of the Nez Perce and their leader Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt (Chief Joseph). Students follow the epic struggle of the Nez Perce against the United States government by viewing "Good Words" from Episode 6, "Fight No More Forever," of The West. As each small segment is shown, a discussion follows in which students are asked to problem solve the best response had they been the leader of the Nez Perce. The lesson proceeds to a role-play set in 1887 (using profiles from the Interactive Biographical Dictionary) in which students impersonate and then evaluate how a variety of Americans viewed the historic stand of the Nez Perce at the time. A document analysis of the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 sets the stage for evaluating its aftermath. The lesson ends as the class holds two debates. One, set in 1900, asks students to propose alternative legislation to the Dawes Act. The second asks students to act as historians as they evaluate the motives behind passage of the act itself.

Estimated Time
Necessary Materials
Teaching Procedure
Assessment Recommendations
Extension/Adaptation Ideas
Relevant National Standards


Students will:

  • understand the expansion of the United States in the Pacific Northwest from the Nez Perce perspective,
  • assess the effect of Chief Joseph's legacy on our identity as Americans, and
  • learn about the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 and its consequences.

Estimated Time
Many of the activities suggested in this lesson can be implemented in two or three class periods. The complete sequence of activities would take approximately 10 class periods.

Necessary Materials

Teaching Procedure
Activity I: The Epic Struggle of the Nez Perce

  1. Write on the board the two following quotations:
    • "Whensoever hostile aggressions..require a resort to war, we must meet our duty and convince the world that we are just friends and brave enemies.
      — Thomas Jefferson, 1806 in a letter to Andrew Jackson

    • "Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time; the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence."
      — Martin Luther King, Jr. in a speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, 1964

  2. Ask students to discuss when they believe, if ever, war is justified. Try to elicit from students specific examples from history of "just" wars, or of leaders of successful non-violent movements.

  3. Now show the opening of Episode 6, "Fight No More Forever," of The West. The introduction lasts until approximately 7 minutes into the film. It describes how the Nez Perce Indians helped Lewis and Clark survive their journey across America at the beginning of the 19th Century, only to find that by century's end they were betrayed and forced on to reservations. Their reaction to their tragic predicament forms the first part of this lesson.

  4. Now begin to show the sequence "Good Words," which begins at approximately 102 minutes into the film and ends 20 minutes later. You will show this segment in small clips, stopping to discuss controversial questions along the way. Throughout, ask students to stay attuned to the words of Chief Joseph and his powerful and poetic use of language.

    If you do not have access to the film, this Web site offers substantial text resources with all of the same information, plus more. You might also look to the chapter, "The Flight of the Nez Perce," in Dee Brown's classic book Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.)

    From 102:00 stop approximately four minutes later when Oliver Howard declares that Chief Joseph's band of Nez Perce must be moved onto a reservation within the month.

  5. Ask the following questions eliciting as much controversy as possible:
    • Do you think Chief Joseph's father was foolish not to move onto a reservation along with other bands of Nez Perce?

    • Should Chief Joseph and his followers agree to move on to the reservation now, or should they put up a fight?

    • Should Joseph have refused Howard's offer to buy their lands for them in an attempt to save them?

    • How do you explain Howard's role as military commander of this effort, given his enlightened role as head of the Freedman's Bureau after the Civil War? (See the profile of Oliver Howard for more information.)

  6. Continue to show the film beginning with the sequence of drumbeats. Only a minute or two further in the film describes how, against Chief Joseph's wishes, young Nez Perce warriors murder 18 white settlers. Unwittingly, Chief Joseph leads his people into war.

  7. Now distribute relief maps of the Northwestern United States (or use an overhead to project one). Ask students to locate the Wallowa Valley in Oregon and the current-day state of Idaho where the reservation assigned to the Nez Perce was located. (See The West: Places for online maps.) If possible, also show a map of Indian tribes in this area, such as the one at the University of Texas at Austin: united_states/Early_Indian_West.jpg (624K).

  8. As they look at their maps ask the class: What do you think Chief Joseph should do now? Should he remain a pacifist or become a war leader? List on the board the various options the class suggests, such as flight to Canada, refuge with another tribe. Ask students to consider the terrain in this region of the country. Distribute maps showing precipitation and rainfall and ask: What will be the most difficult aspects of survival in this part of the country?

  9. Tell the class that as you continue to show them the next sequences of the film you would like them to take notes. They should divide a sheet of paper into two columns, one marked "Nez Perce" and the other "U.S. Army." Ask them to keep score of the losses suffered by both sides.

  10. Now continue to show the film through the fight at White Bird Canyon, the flight through the Bitterroot Mountains, the battle at Big Hole, Montana. Stop when a discussion of Big Hole is complete at approximately 108 minutes.

    Now pose the following questions:

    • Should Chief Joseph continue to fight, especially since his Indian allies, the Crows, have deserted him?
    • What could justify the continued loss of Nez Perce lives?
    • What effect do you think these events might have had on American citizens around the country as they read news of these events in their papers?

  11. Continue to show the film as students take notes. They can trace the Nez Perce journey on a map, or you can download and distribute the following map: united_states/Early_Indian_West.jpg (624K).

  12. Stop at approximately 119:00 with Chief Joseph's famous speech, which ends "I will fight no more forever."

    Ask the class:

    • Should the Nez Perce have surrendered at this point? If so why?
    • On what condition did Chief Joseph surrender?
    • In what ways could Chief Joseph's (and the war chief Looking Glass') strategy of retreat be compared to George Washington's lengthy retreat during the American Revolution? Can a retreat be an offensive tactic as well as a defensive one?
    • In what ways could Chief Joseph's attempts to win his people's freedom be compared to Nat Turner's ill-fated slave rebellion?

    Continue to the end of the film.

  13. Focus on Chief Joseph's famous speech, paying close attention to what he has to say about words: "Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country now overrun by white men. They do not protect my father's grave. They do not pay for my horses and cattle. Good words do not give me back my children. . ."

    Now pose the questions:

    • What effect did the flight of the Nez Perce have on the Nez Perce nation?
    • Would you characterize their flight and fight as a success or failure?
    • What effect did it have on America?
    • What effect have Chief Joseph's words had on America's conscience?

Activity 2: Interviews Set in 1877

  1. To try to assess what might have been the effect of these events on U.S. citizens of the time, the class will set up several panels or discussion groups. Each panel will consist of a group of historical or imaginary people living in 1877 after the defeat of the Nez Perce, and one moderator to pose questions. The groups will meet ahead, gather information, and discuss some of the controversial questions the moderator will pose when the panel speaks before the class. The moderator should act as chair of the group. All members of a group should be familiar with the biographies of all the discussants.

    You can print out biographies for all the historical figures from "People in The West." The class should also be familiar with events from 1866-1877; see the Interactive Timeline. Remind students that when they are interviewed they should not refer to events in their lives that occurred after 1877, although they can use those events to reflect on what is important to the character they are impersonating. For an overview of events in the Nez Perce war see also The Great Outdoors Recreation Pages: Nez Perce National Historical Trail (

  2. Assignments are as follows:

    Group I

    Group II

    • Alfred Terry
    • John Gibbon
    • Philip Sheridan
    • Surviving member of Chief Joseph's band of Nez Perce.
      (This character can be based on the biography of Looking Glass, who in some ways differed from Chief Joseph in his approach to the crisis faced by the Nez Perce.)

      Key questions can focus on whether the U.S. Army has just accomplished a heroic victory or been humiliated by the Nez Perce in the eyes of the American public.

    Group III

    Group IV

    • A settler in Oregon whose relative died in the Salmon River massacre when young warriors, against the advice of Chief Joseph, sought revenge for their removal to reservations. (Reading the biography of Narcissa and Marcus Whitman may help to formulate this imaginary character.)
    • A land developer and speculator. You can model yourself on the life of William Gilpin.
    • An Easterner who is eager to Christianize the Indians and teach them to adapt to the lifestyle of nineteenth-century Americans. (For ideas read the biography of Alice Fletcher.)
    • Juan Cortina
    • Mariano Vallejo
    • Emmeline Wells
      See also her essay, "Is It Ignorance.

      Each member of this group should write out a biography which he or she shares with the group. Students should reflect on how the news of the surrender of Chief Joseph would have affected the character they are assuming in the role play. The moderator should pose questions about the panelists' response to the news and how it may affect their lives in the future.

  3. Debriefing
    Once all groups have presented their panel discussion to the class, ask the class to summarize what they have learned. Pose this question: Should Chief Joseph be considered an American hero for his fight against the United States government?

Activity 3

  1. Using "Events in the West," ask students to figure out by what date all Indian leaders and their tribes had surrendered to the U.S. government and were placed on reservations. Ask students what they think life was like in the 1880's and 1890's for the majority of U.S. citizens. Where did they live, how did they earn a living, travel, how were they educated just a little over 100 years ago.

    In contrast, what do students imagine life was like for American Indian nations on reservations? What do students know about different tribes and the variety of lifestyles they encompassed? What, if anything at all, do students think the U.S. government should have done in regards to Indian nations on reservations? If you were a member of an Indian tribe, such as the Nez Perce, how would you answer this question? Let students suggest various lines of action or inaction.

  2. Now have students watch "Friends of the Indian" in Episode 7 ("The Geography of Hope"), which begins at approximately 56:00 and ends approximately six minutes later with a discussion of the Zuni. It covers the Eastern reformers who advocated that Indians be Christianized, "civilized" and assimilated into mainstream American life.

  3. Next introduce a study of two documents in "Archives of the West": "Indian Policy Reform" by President Chester Arthur and the "Dawes Act."

  4. After students have read the first document make two columns on the black board, one labeled "problems" and the other "solutions." Elicit from students the following information and list their answers on the board:
    • What problems does Arthur identify regarding the U.S. government and the Indians? List them.
    • What solutions does Arthur offer to remedy the situation?
    • Whom does Arthur blame, if anyone, for the sorry state of Indian and U.S. relations?
    • What is the "tone" of his speech?
    • How does Arthur view American Indians?
    • What do you think are his sources of information?
    • What is your opinion of the solutions he puts forth? Debate them one by one.

    Now turn to the extract from the Dawes Act. Ask students

    • In what ways does the Dawes Act seems to remedy the problems identified by Arthur?
    • In what ways does the act seem to be protecting Indians?
    • In what way(s) does the act weaken and dismantle the power of Indian nations?
    • What do you predict will be the outcome of the Dawes Act on Indian nations?

  5. Next show "The Outcome of Our Earnest Endeavors" from Episode 8 ("One Sky Above Us"). It deals with the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 and its effect on the Nez Perce. This segment begins at approximately 10:00 and ends at 24:07. (You may choose to continue watching through the subsequent episode about the Sioux and Wounded Knee that ends at 41:18). Give students time to share their reactions to this segment before you proceed with the next activity.

    For an excellent lesson on the Dawes Severalty Act and for the Act in its entirety, go to the Constitution Community, a Web site of the National Archives at

Activity 4: Debating the Dawes Act

  1. The class will be divided into teams. Each team will present an argument which focuses on a different controversy about the Dawes Act. Both teams should read "Selections from 'With the Nez Perces'" by E. Jane Gay and "What Were the Results of Allotment?" ( by Professor E.A. Schwartz.

  2. Directions for each team are as follows:
    • Team I
      Team I will pretend that they are being brought before a Congressional Committee in 1900 to re-evaluate the Dawes Act, and to hear alternative plans. Class members on Team II will act as members of Congress at the hearing.

      Team I should be divided into three smaller groups composed of from two to five students each. One group will be assigned to defend the Dawes Act. The two other groups must brainstorm alternative legislation to the Dawes Act and present it before the Committee. When the three groups have presented their plans to the Congressional Committee, the Committee (i.e. the rest of the class) will discuss the plans and vote to adopt the one it deems best.

    • Team II
      This team will debate an issue of current historical interpretation. They will be divided into two opposing sides to debate the following resolution:

      Resolved: That the Dawes Act was the result of well-intentioned reformers who had reasonable expectations that it would improve life for American Indians.

      The affirmative team will support the proposition, the negative team will argue against the proposition.

      Class members in Team I will act as judges for the debate presented to the class by Team II.

  3. Teams can be divided with each member assigned to debate one particular issue such as:
    • Who were the most active sponsors of the Dawes Act?
    • Were the sponsors aware of whether or not the kind of land allotted under the Dawes Act was actually suitable for farming?
    • Was it unreasonable to believe that private property and farming were superior to communally held land devoted to hunting, gathering and/or farming?
    • What role, if any, did Indians themselves play in arguing for or against the Dawes Act?
    • What happened to land not allotted to Indians? What does this show about possible motives of the plan?

Assessment Recommendations

  • Students can be assessed for the research they did in preparing for their role plays in Activity 2. Did their panel presentations reflect an understanding of historical events as well as the people they represented?
  • Students can be assessed for their presentations and debating skills in Activity 4.
  • Students can be assessed for their general participation in class discussion.
  • Students can be assessed for their constructive participation in the learning groups (activities 2 and 4) to which they were assigned.
  • Students can be assessed for their work on some of the writing assignments suggested below.

Extension/Adaptation Ideas

  1. Ask students to research the history of the Lakota (Sioux) and compare it to that of the story of the Nez Perce in the 19th Century. Ask students to compare and contrast their leaders, Sitting Bull and Chief Joseph.
  2. Assign students to research what happened to the Nez Perce or other American Indian nations after the New Deal. How did policy contrast with that under the Dawes Act?
  3. Ask students to research the Nez Perce today. Some relevant Web sites include: Nez Perce Photography ( and Nez Perce Information & Education (
  4. Ask students to research the current struggles of various Indian nations to regain their lands and other rights. A good source is American Indian History and Related Issues (
  5. Research and compare the fate of indigenous peoples in the American West of the 19th Century to indigenous peoples in the Amazonian rainforest of today. What issues are similar? Which are different? For what are various groups advocating?

Relevant National Standards
This lesson addresses the following national curriculum standards established by the National Center for History in the Schools.

  • History
    • Era 4 Standard 2E
      The Student understands the settlement of the West. Therefore the student is able to: Analyze cultural interactions among diverse groups in the trans-Mississippi region.
  • Civics
    • Era 6: Standard 4A
      The student understands the various perspectives on federal Indian policy, westward expansion, and the resulting struggles. Explain the provisions of the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 and evaluate its effects on tribal identity, land ownership, and assimilation. Evaluate the legacy of 19th century federal Indian policy.

About the Author
Joan Brodsky Schur teaches social studies and English at the Village Community School in New York City. Her work in the classroom has been described in various articles she has written over the years for Social Education. Joan and fellow-colleague Sari Grossman are the editors of In A New Land: An Anthology of Immigrant Literature. Joan is also a contributing author to the Constitution Community, a Web site of the National Archives at

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