Chief Joseph and American Pioneers

Race and Racism
Ongoing Activity
Grades 6–12
History, Language Arts, Art
Analysis, Small Group, Large Group


  • Students will view the westward expansion of the United States from the perspective of the American “pioneers” and from the native peoples.
  • Students will gain a greater understanding of the differences between memory and history, between myth and reality.
  • Students will improve their document analysis skills.


In Part Three of Travels with Charley, Steinbeck passes through Montana and the Dakotas, areas he called “memory-marked as Injun country” (122). He goes on to describe a very non-traditional view of Native Americans when he relates a story about Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indians.

Until recently, westward expansion was portrayed as courageous pioneers fighting the elements and Indians – the civilized world clashing against the savage world. The historian Patricia Nelson Limerick in her book The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West broke away from this traditional mold to show the history of American westward expansion as one of conquest and violence, not just heroic pioneers. Walter Nugent in Into the West: The Story of its People gives another view of the West, this time as the clashing and melding of populations and cultures from the time of the Spanish to the modern West. These new approaches give a more complete view of the history of the West and its people, one with heroes and villains on both sides.

Through the use of primary sources, students can examine the old pioneer story from the perspectives of peoples who have been traditionally left out.

Materials Needed/Preparation

Copies of the following to distribute:

Estimated Time

2 class periods


Day One

Journal/Discussion topic

What was it like crossing the Great Plains and coming west in the nineteenth century?

  • Give students time to write/think about their responses.
  • The aim is to determine what students already know/think they know.

Discuss student responses.

  • As misconceptions and myths arise, address them. Consider having students “make a note” for discussion after the activity has completed.
  • Consider listing student responses on the board or on butcher paper (for use later).
  • Teachers should maintain a list of responses, particularly misconceptions/myths.

Distribute handouts (see “Materials Needed/Preparation” above).

  • Begin with “American Progress.”
  • ~Ideally, project a copy of the image on an overhead projector, smart board, or LCD projector screen.
  • ~Have students analyze what they see in the image. (See Document Analysis.)
  • ~For classes that are not yet ready to perform the full document analysis on their own, take the time to walk through the process with the class as a large group.
  • ~Students should notice some of the following (this is not an exhaustive list) from left (West) to right (East):
  • ~~Indians and wild animals fleeing/heading away (symbols of the wild and the savage)
  • ~~Pioneers on horseback and covered wagons heading West (symbols of the courageous adventurers, breaking into the wilderness)
  • ~~Farmers and stage coaches (symbols of the beginnings of civilization)
  • ~~Telegraph lines, a permanent house, the railroad (symbols of civilization taking hold). Note that the telegraph line is being strung by an angelic American carrying a book.
  • ~~A river with riverboats (symbol of connection to the East and to the broader world)
  • ~~The goal is for students to see this image as the memory of westward expansion that has been passed along for decades. This will be contrasted to other documents later.          
  • ~Discussion or journal topic: Based on what you have read in Travels with Charley, how would Steinbeck feel about the “progress” of America?
  • In preparation for Day Two:
  • ~Assign students to read “Crossing Over the Great Mountains by Ox-Wagons” and “Chief Joseph Speaks: Selected Statements and Speeches by the Nez Percé Chief.”
  • ~~Depending on what students are able to do, consider having them take notes on the documents or simply to do a read- through in order to be familiar with the documents.

Day Two

  • Split students into two large groups (the large groups can work together, or each student can work individually).
  • ~Assign each group one of the two documents (“Chief Joseph Speaks: Selected Statements and Speeches by the Nez Percé Chief” or “Crossing Over the Great Mountains by Ox-Wagons”).
  • Depending on student skill levels, consider:
  • ~Have the group (or individual) do a document analysis for their assigned document. (See: Document Analysis.)
  • ~Break the documents into smaller pieces and have students use the jigsaw method (see: Jigsaw for more details).
  • Allow groups (or individuals) approximately half the class period to work their way through the documents.
  • ~The aim is to see westward expansion of American men from the perspective of Native Americans (through Chief Joseph) and women (through Harriet Scott Palmer).
  • For the second half of the period, have student groups present their findings.
  • ~How do these experiences compare to what was seen in “American Progress”?
  • ~How do these experiences compare with what Steinbeck says about Chief Joseph on page 122?
  • ~How do the experiences of Harriet Scott Palmer compare with Steinbeck’s view of pioneers and pioneering?

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up

Post Activity

  • Have students write about the similarities and differences between “American Progress,” “Chief Joseph Speaks: Selected Statements and Speeches by the Nez Percé Chief,” and “Crossing Over the Great Mountains by Ox-Wagons.”
  • ~How does their new knowledge compare to what they knew/believed prior to the activity (see Journal/Discussion Topic from Day One)?
  • Have students imagine that Steinbeck met a Nez Perce descendant on his travels through Montana. Have students write a dialogue between them.


  • Students should gain a broader understanding of westward expansion.
  • hey should see it not only as a tale of progress led by heroic pioneers.


  • These findings can be incorporated into a quiz or a cumulative exam on the novel.
  • Watch selected portions of the PBS/Ken Burns documentary series New Perspectives on the West.


  • How well did students work in their assigned groups?
  • Monitor student note taking to ensure individuals are following along and understanding.
  • ~Students should be understanding both the content being discussed as well as the process being used.
  • Quiz students on what groups have presented.
  • Use student findings and discussions in a cumulative exam.

California State Content Standards Met

  • History-Social Science Content Standards 6-8
  • ~Research, Evidence, and Point of View: 1, 4
  • History and Social Science Content Standards 4
  • ~Students describe the social, political, cultural, and economic life and interactions among people of California from the pre-Columbian societies to the Spanish mission and Mexican rancho periods: 3, 7, 8
  • History and Social Science Content Standards 8
  • ~Students explain the economic, social, and political life in California from the establishment of the Bear Flag Republic through the Mexican-American War, the Gold Rush, and the granting of statehood: 2
  • ~Students analyze the divergent paths of the American people in the West from 1800 to the mid-1800s and the challenges they faced: 5
  • Visual Arts: Content Standards 6-12
  • ~Artistic Perception: 1
  • ~Creative Expression: 2
  • ~Connections, Relationships, Applications: 5

Common Core State Standards Met

  • Reading Standards for Literature 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4, 5, 6
  • Reading Standards for Informational Text 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4, 5, 6
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 9
  • Writing Standards 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 1, 2
  • ~Research to Build and Present Knowledge: 8, 9
  • Speaking and Listening Standards 6-12
  • ~Comprehension and Collaboration: 1, 2, 3
  • ~Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas: 4
  • Language Standards
  • ~Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: 5
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2, 3
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4, 5, 6
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 8
  • Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 1, 2
  • ~Research to Build and Present Knowledge: 8, 9

Additional Information

Related Lesson Plans for this Work