Correcting Popular History: Poker Joe & the Nez Perce War

( – promoted by navajo)

Often, people have an unrealistic understanding of the past, one which is often perpetuated by the popular media. One of the popular misconceptions about Indian history involves Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War.  

Most people are aware of the Nez Perce War in 1877 in which the non-treaty bands led the United States Army on a chase which started in Oregon, then into Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. The Army finally caught up with the Nez Perce a few miles from the Canadian border in Montana. While the popular media has credited Chief Joseph as the primary Nez Perce leader, he had relatively little to do with leading the Nez Perce flight.  

Each of the non-treaty Nez Perce bands had their own leaders. During the flight from the Army, the Nez Perce warriors would listen to the wisdom of the war leaders and one of these war leaders would usually lead the entire group. For much of the Nez Perce war the primary war leader was Looking Glass.

One of the interesting Nez Perce leaders during the 1877 war was Poker Joe (Lean Elk), who took his name from his fondness for the game. Poker Joe was from one of a number of families from the Nez Perce band of Eagle from the Light who had left the Clearwater area of Idaho a few years earlier and had resettled among the Flathead in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana. He was a buffalo hunter and a warrior with some understanding of English.

Following the Battle of the Big Hole in which the Army surprised the Nez Perce and killed several important Nez Perce warriors, Poker Joe replaced Looking Glass as the primary leader. All who knew him reported that he had no fear and that he knew not only the location of the buffalo country, but also the locations of the soldiers. In addition, he was lucky in gambling and this meant that he had strong ties to spiritual power.

Poker Joe led the Nez Perce with a strong hand. Each morning he would get the camp moving early, shouting orders with a voice as loud as a bull buffalo’s. He pushed the people to cover as much ground as possible each day. He had them split into several groups, hoping to confuse the soldiers who were following them.

Poker Joe led the Nez Perce south into Idaho and then into Yellowstone National Park. While in Yellowstone, they encountered a group of 9 tourists from Montana. Afraid that the tourists might tell the Army where they were, the Nez Perce took the tourists captive. Poker Joe advised the tourists to escape at the first opportunity. It would seem from this action that the chiefs did not wish to harm the tourists and that chiefs had little control over the warriors.

Coming out of the Park, Nez Perce scouts found an American army waiting for them. Poker Joe devised a strategy in which the Nez Perce made a highly visible move toward the Shoshone River, and then doubled back to the Clarks Fork. The American scouts saw the move toward the Shoshone and moved to block the Nez Perce. By the time the Americans discovered their mistake, the Nez Perce had escaped.  

The Nez Perce felt that they could find refuge among their old allies and friends, the Crow. However, they found that the Crow warriors were now working for the Army. The Nez Perce chiefs decided that their only hope lay in moving north to join Sitting Bull’s Sioux in Canada.

Once the Nez Perce bands had passed through the rugged terrain of Yellowstone National Park and had turned northward on the Great Plains, the chiefs decided that leadership should again be turned over to Looking Glass. Looking Glass berated Poker Joe for driving the people too hard. He argued that Canada-the Old Woman Country-was only a few days ahead and that the people needed short days and long camps to build their strength. Poker Joe argued that this was not the time to rest, but the other chiefs were convinced that there was no longer a reason to hurry. So Poker Joe relinquished his leadership position. He was not happy with the decision, but he respected the decision of the council. Poker Joe told Looking Glass:

“You can lead. I am trying to save the people, doing my best to cross into the Old Woman Country before the soldiers find us. You can take control, but I think we will all be caught and killed.”

A few miles from Canada, in the Bear Paw Mountains, the bands stopped to rest. Seeing American troops coming, the Nez Perce began to hurriedly pack. Looking Glass told them that there was no hurry, that there was plenty of time. Once again, Looking Glass was wrong. In the initial charge, 53 of the 115 men in the Seventh Cavalry were killed as the Nez Perce gunfire was extremely accurate. At the end of the day, however, 22 Nez Perce were dead, including Poker Joe.

2 Comments

  1. Poker Joe was my grandfather.  He escaped with a number of Nez Perce and they reached Canada.  Some lived with the Peigan on the Peigan Reserve including Chief White Bird and many returned to Idaho in the following years.  Chief White Bird died on the Peigan Reserve but Poker Joe married my grandmother, Katayinimaaki/Didn’t Catch the Enemy, a Peigan woman and they raised a family of which the youngest was my mother, Inatkstssim/Little One, Lucy Warrior.  For other information you should look up Hugh Dempsey’s work re the Nez Perce.  Dempsey worked for many years at the Calgary Glenbow Museum.  Also, I, received a copy from the North Idaho Indian Agency regarding my grandfather.  I have a copy from Corbett Lawyer who interviewed my grandfather (whose white name was Joseph Jackson and recorded on their membership thus) when he returned to visit his family with his sons: Sam,Joe and Bobby Warrior in Lapwai.  So there; quit perpetuating false accounts that Lean Elk/Poker Joe was killed at the Bear Paw Mountains.  My grandfather was named Sowo/Warrior by the Peigan in recognition of his fight with the US Army.  My name is Emma Lee Warrior and I still live on the Peigan Reserve.  My address is PO Box 3281, Brocket, AB TOK OHO Canada

    • Dejadawn,

      Hello…we must be family then! My father is Emmit Taylor Sr. and his mother was Amanda Jackson and her grandfather was Poker Joe. I would love to talk and potentially meet you.

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