|Fouch photo of Joseph in Bismarck 1877|
This week a sculptor who is having bronze work done at the local foundry came into the library looking for pictures of Chief Joseph. He has it in mind to do a bronze of a young Chief Joseph on a horse. He’d seen a picture of a Nez Perce—not Joseph—on a horse that had inspired him, and had seen photos of Joseph as an older man. He wanted pictures of hairstyles and clothing that might help him portray a younger Joseph.
We found his horse photo online, and when he mentioned the Nez Perce and Appaloosas, I pointed out the lack of spots on this photo. And sent him away with the Harry and Grace Bartlett and Alvin Josephy material from the New York Brand Book magazine of 1967. I also suggested a couple of books he might read.
We have two statues of Young Chief Joseph in Wallowa County, both done by non-Indian artists, and there are hundreds of Joseph likenesses standing big and small across the whole country. Add to that a huge number of drawings and paintings of the famous Nez Perce Indian… and of course the books—new ones appear regularly as a new person, more than likely a white Euro-American, finds and is smitten by the Nez Perce story, or maybe only by a few words from the surrender speech: “I will fight no more forever…”
From my perch in the Josephy Library I see some of these people, and sometimes am asked, as I was this week, to help with research so that the artist or writer can get on with the dream novel, biography, painting or bronze likeness. Each person has a different starting point— a book they have read, owning an Appaloosa horse, meeting a Nez Perce person, crossing the Nez Perce Trail someplace between the Wallowas and the Bears Paw, seeing a movie or a picture fly by on Facebook, a general and often romantic notion of cowboys and Indians, maybe even feelings of guilt about the way Indians have been treated, astonishment at the story of the Nez Perce fighting retreat and near escape to Canada—and I generally try to gauge that place and see what I can add, or how I might push the artist or writer a little this way or that.
But it is uncomfortable territory. What should I tell or emphasize? More basically, should I encourage or discourage? What right or duty do these mostly white Euro-Americans have to tell a Nez Perce story in words or images?
The issue recently came up between states, as Idaho Governor Butch Otter wrote to Oregon Governor Kate Brown that his state has more claim to Chief Joseph than does ours, and that Oregon should not have a statue of Joseph as one of two Oregonians in its niche in the Hall of Statutory in the United States Capitol because of this Idaho connection. Otter obviously did not know his Nez Perce history. Actually, he did not know his American history! There is a Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho, and Joseph and his band were trying to get there when the Nez Perce War broke out, but Joseph’s time in Idaho was always passing through from his Wallowa homeland.
It’s easy to get confused by history. Chief Joseph was early—while the Nez Perce War was going on—dubbed by writers of Eastern newspapers the “Red Napoleon,” and one of the early books on the War was called War Chief Joseph. Later editions of the same book became The Saga of Chief Joseph. The mistaken notion that Joseph was a war leader was overtaken finally by evidence that others led warriors; Joseph was the one who led the people of his small band of Nez Perce before the War, and who, during the war when many bands were involved, deferred to others on military decisions and managed the affairs of camp.
In my readings, Joseph comes of real prominence as the talented leader during captivity and after, the diplomat who held people together during a very difficult exile, and with deft and creative effort on both national and local fronts, gained their return from Indian Territory—what Nez Perce call the “hot place”—to the Northwest. And of course tried unsuccessfully through the rest of his life to return to the Wallowas.
The earliest photos of Chief Joseph were apparently taken in Bismarck in 1877; there are three images taken by two photographers, John Fouch and Jay Haynes. One Fouch photo has him in a fancy shirt that some say was not Nez Perce, possibly Sioux. But that “war shirt” sold at auction recently to William Koch for $877,500!
And the Appaloosa horse story has been used in one way and another by artists and writers from the foundation of the Appaloosa Horse Club in the 1930s. Bartlett and Josephy stepped into a bee’s nest with their comments and research in the 1960s, which showed that the Nez Perce, who did selectively breed horses for speed and endurance, did not collectively breed for spots. But Alvin often said that this is another historical inaccuracy that might well become “fact” with the years.
In other words, the real story of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce is a very complicated one, and anyone non-Indian who wants to work with it in art or words should, I think, do so with humility and clear and good intentions as well as curiosity.
Some questions to ask yourself:
Why Chief Joseph and not some other Nez Perce Indian; or why Indians at all?
You can read Yellow Wolf’s account of the War and find other remarkable Nez Perce men and women. Yes, Joseph in his photos is handsome and very expressive, and Joseph is of course a name we can pronounce and relate to. And the Nez Perce story and Joseph’s role in it are tragic and captivating. But there are hundreds, thousands of Indian stories that are tragic and heroic. Look at Josephy’s Patriot Chiefs. Think about why you are choosing this story and this man.
What is your own relationship to the Nez Perce? And what story do you feel compelled to tell?
I think of Alvin Josephy finding the story. He was immediately captivated by it—he was a journalist, had just returned from war in the Pacific, and immediately saw it as a great AMERICAN epic—but then found that the Indian side of things had not been adequately told. He set out to find that, and found it first in Yellow Wolf, and then with survivors of the War, and with visits to Colville with people from Joseph’s own band. He thought that the non-Indian world and the Indians themselves deserved a telling that was more than the words of white missionaries who had worked among the Nez Perce in early days, and white military men who had fought them in the War. It took over 600 pages and scores of footnotes for him to do that work. If you have a mind to do something with Joseph and/or the Nez Perce, The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest is a good place to start. And then ask yourself about your own talents and your relationship to the Nez Perce story. That might be the story in itself, and an easier one for you to paint or tell.
Have you talked about this with tribal people?
You will of course get different answers, but tribal people have feelings about non-Indians using their stories. There are even laws about it. You can talk with people from cultural resources departments at all three of the reservations where Nez Perce people now live: Lapwai in Idaho, Umatilla in Oregon, and the Colville in Washington State. Or talk with resource people on other Indian reservations across the country to get information about non-Indians doing research among Indians. It can be tricky territory, but also can be rewarding and will help you make decisions about your own work.
Listen to their stories/ideas/suggestions.
I guess what follows on talking with Indians is listening to them. A non-Indian friend came to me with a Nez Perce story he was pursuing. He had begun to feel uncomfortable about it. I suggested that he talk to an elder that he knew. He did and on the elder’s advice dropped his research.
There is something consistent in the way Indians talk about Alvin Josephy. “He listened,” they almost always say. Cliff Trafzer, who holds a chair in Indian Studies at UC Riverside, says that in the 1950s, Alvin took the “unusual step” among historians of listening to Indians. Which reminds of a story Alvin told about going to a Western History Association meeting after publishing Patriot Chiefs in 1961. “Why are you writing about Indians,” one historian asked him. “No one cares about Indians.” Ten years later the same man asked Alvin how he knew to write about Indians at the time. I guess the lesson here is to not be a slave to the fashions of the day in pursuing your work with Indians.
Artists and writers I know often have trusted readers or artist friends who they consult before publishing (making public). I suggest that in dealing with Indian stories this is true in a special way. You might have to add some tribal people to the list of your trusted advisors.
Approaching your own work.
No one can stop you from painting or writing what comes out of your own experience and imagination. I would hope that these few words will not discourage anyone completely—I take that back; there are some who should be discouraged from taking on this painting or book of Indians, and might go on to subject matter more suitable to their talents and personalities—but I do hope that whatever comes of your work will be stronger for asking yourself these questions at the outset.
# # #
Again, Rich, you have "hit the nail on the head"! Great advice
to serious artists, to be sure they have their facts straight.
You might be interested in that essay I wrote about the First Foods for Clackamas Literary Review and read at Fishtrap and the Josephy Center–you are invoked in it!
Such a great, thoughtful piece, Rich. Thank you.
Thanks, Rich, for your clarity and the reminder, especially in this political season, how complex history is and how we don't just observe it but are implicated in it.
I claim very little knowledge short of research of the occasional paper. It is refreshing to this white man to read an essay of clarity.
Illuminating. Maybe Chief Joseph art has indeed become a trope. Hope this encourages folks to take a broader view of historical events and consider other important people as well as cultural sensitivities. Thanks for sharing your perspective on this Rich!
Comments are closed.