“Let Me Be a Free Man”

Chief Joseph on Freedom

Brian Tubbs


Photo of Joseph taken in November 1877 by O.S. Goff in Bismarck — photo courtesy of Dr. James Brust (retrieved from Wikimedia Commons)

Chief Joseph, also known as Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, led the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce tribe in the late 19th century. Among his many profound words, I am fond of this gem:

“Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think and act for myself — and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty.”

There is much to commend in this earnest appeal for individual freedom.

It’s tempting to use his quote as a jumping-off point to condemn U.S. government policy in the 19th century. That was admittedly the context of Chief Joseph’s remarks. He repeatedly denounced the hypocrisy and moral failings of the U.S. government in its conduct toward Indigenous Americans during his time.

Let me pause and state the obvious:

I agree with that critique.

I also agree with his endorsement of individual freedom, and that’s my focus here. Hence, my question to you…

Like Chief Joseph, do YOU believe that each individual should be free to think, work, travel, trade, believe, worship, and act according to how that person sees fit?

If so, do you agree that this freedom should extend to everyone regardless of race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, or other such considerations?

Of course, when individuals come together and form communities, a balance must be struck between the freedom of the individual on the one hand and the welfare and security of the community on the other.

Chief Joseph himself understood this. Hence, his commitment to “obey every law and submit to the penalty.” But let’s be clear. It was a commitment to obey those laws that were made with freedom as the end in mind.

He understood — as any sane and reasonable person does — that there are times when individual freedom must be curtailed in favor of the safety and security of others. But let’s be clear that that is indeed the object in view.

As 19th-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill observed:

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

It’s a sentiment that Chief Joseph would agree with.

How about you?

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