Tuekakas, despairing of his efforts to make peace between competing faiths, had indeed torn up his Bible in 1863, and imposed strict rules of traditional worship, language and practice on his people. Protected by the natural isolation of their valley and the ample unclaimed land that still lay beyond their borders, the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce were now among the last Native peoples within the United States whose lifestyles remained largely unsullied by colonial influence. Tuekakas fiercely protected their independence, marking the boundaries of his homelands by building a line of cairns running over Minam Summit, refusing the offers of free government beef that were clearly intended to undercut the band’s hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and destroying the equipment of any speculators or surveyors who wandered in from the increasingly populated Grande Ronde Valley in search of unclaimed grazing land. His position was clear: ‘Inside is the home of my people – the white man may take the land outside. Inside this boundary all our people were born. It circles around the grave of our fathers, and we will never give up these graves for any man.’
But Tuekakas was growing frail, his sight now so weak that a Nez Perce boy was assigned to share his saddle, acting as his eyes. His sons would soon have to lead the band – the gregarious and vigorous Ollokot, revered as a hunter and warrior, and the more thoughtful Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekht, a name approximately anglicised to Thunder Rolling over the Mountains. Having accompanied his father to many councils and meetings, Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekht, just thirty-one, had developed an impressive ability to handle the eccentricities of white people, one reason why he would soon acquire nationwide fame; another, in the rapidly simplifying world of the mass media, was that he had a second, recognizable and pronounceable name. He had adopted his father’s baptized title, and had come to be known as Joseph.
Tuekakas died in August 1871. His son Joseph would later eloquently describe his final moments in a famous passage that, while possibly unreliable in translation, is piercingly clear in sentiment:
Soon after this my father sent for me. I saw he was dying. I took his hand in mine. He said, ‘My son, my body is returning to my mother earth, and my spirit is going to see the Great Spirit Chief. When I am gone, think of your country. You are the chief of these people. They look to you to guide them. Always remember that your father never sold his country. You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home. A few more years and white men will be all around you. They have their eyes on this land. My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your father’s body. Never sell the bones of your father and mother.’
I pressed my father’s hand and told him that I would protect his grave with my life. My father smiled and passed away to the spirit land. I buried him in the beautiful valley of winding waters. I love that land more than all the rest of the world. A man who would not love his father’s grave is worse than a wild animal.