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        Montana | Activity 7.3: The Nez Perce War of 1877

        Students watch a video that explains the events leading to the 1877 war between the United States and the Nez Perce. They learn about Chief Joseph’s role in the conflict, and analyze his famous surrender speech.

        Lesson Summary

        Students watch a video that explains the events leading to the 1877 war between the United States and the Nez Perce. They learn about Chief Joseph’s role in the conflict, and analyze his famous surrender speech.

        This lesson is part of "Great States: Montana | Unit 7: Conflict" where students will learn about how building tensions led to violent combat between Montana’s American Indians and the US government.

        Time Allotment

        20 minutes

        Learning Objectives


        2.5: Identify and explain the individual’s responsibilities to family, peers, and the community, including the need for civility, respect for diversity, and the rights of others.

        4.4: Identify and describe famous people, important democratic values (e.g., democracy, freedom, justice) symbols (e.g., Montana and U.S. flags, state flower) and holidays, in the history of Montana, American Indian tribes, and the United States.

        6.5: Identify examples of individual struggles and their influence and contributions (e.g., Sitting Bull, Louis Riel, Chief Plenty Coups, Evelyn Cameron, Helen Keller, Mohandas Gandhi, Rosa Parks). 



        1. Explain to students that the Nez Perce War of 1877 was a conflict between the US army and several bands of the Nez Perce people and their allies who resisted a treaty confining them to a much smaller reservation than had been previously agreed upon. From June through October of that year, the so-called “non-treaty Indians” fought many battles with US soldiers as they tried to make their way 1,400 miles to Canada. After many hardships, the American Indian resistance surrendered. Chief Joseph was not permitted to return to his family. He and 400 of his people suffered in prison for two years, and those who survived were relocated. Chief Joseph died in 1904.

        2. Introduce the key players to students.

          1. Gen. Oliver Howard – in charge of enforcing the treaty

          2. Chief Joseph – one of several Nez Perce leaders who refused to leave their homeland

          3. Chief Looking Glass – leader of a Nez Perce band

        3. Tell students they will be watching a video that sets up the conflict between the Nez Perce and US army and introduces them to Chief Joseph.

        4. Play the video, Sacred Journey of the Nez Perce - Montana: the Second Century. [4:31]

        5. Have students answer the following questions as a class discussion:

          1. Some American Indian leaders honored unfair treaties with the United States, and some did not. What reasons might an American Indian leader have for obeying? What reasons did Chief Joseph have for disobeying?

          2. How might the situation have worked out differently if the US army had shown more respect for the rights of the Nez Perce?

        6. Explain to students that following the events in the video, 700 American Indians embarked on an arduous 1400-mile journey toward Canada. The men fought a US force of nearly 2000 soldiers along the way. Chief Joseph was in charge of the women, children, and horses. Another Indian leader, Looking Glass, although reluctant to join the fight at first, led them across the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana and proved to be a masterful warrior and strategist, winning battles. But, after four months, the people were exhausted and reduced to just 87 fighting men. The “non-treaty” Nez Perce and their allies surrendered – just 40 miles from the Canadian border.

        7. Tell students that on October 5, 1877, Chief Joseph delivered a famous speech at the surrender. Project, read, or hand out the transcription of his speech.

          Tell General Howard 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, Ta Hool Hool Shute is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on 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, and see how many of them 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.1

        8. Ask students: Based on his words, what did Chief Joseph care about most? Why do you think this speech became famous?

        1 Source: Chief Joseph, Chief Joseph's Own Story. North American Review, 1877.


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