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The Legend of "Poker Joe" Lean Elk

with Philip Burgess

poet and writer

Burgess tells the story of an often over-looked figure in the Nez Perce flight for freedom in 1877. Poker Joe was a mixed French and Nez Perce man named for his love of, and luck at, the white man’s game of poker. After the disastrous Big Hole Battle, the tribe turned to Poker Joe to act as their trail chief, and many sources describe him as the chief architect of the legendary retreat that ended in that final battle in the Bear Paw Mountains in which Poker Joe was accidentally killed by one of his own people. Burgess describes how the spirit of Poker Joe led him to his own confrontation with the flesh and blood consequences of the Nez Perce tragedy, and his own mother’s death, on a holy mountaintop on the Yakima reservation.