Chief Joseph–Idaho Governor Otter is wrong!

Idaho Governor Butch Otter is dead wrong in quibbling over Chief Joseph’s ties to Oregon and Idaho and questioning Oregonians’ choice of him for a Washington D.C. monument.

Joseph was the leader of a band of Nez Perce Indians that lived for millennia in the valleys and canyons of the Wallowa Country in what is now Northeast Oregon. In 1855, Old Joseph, the father of the chief who became a national figure during and after the War of 1877, along with leaders of many bands of Nez Perce and other plateau tribes, went to Isaac Stevens’ Walla Walla Treaty Council, where Joseph and most Nez Perce band leaders signed the Nez Perce Treaty of 1855. He returned peacefully to the Wallowa homeland, which was included in its boundaries.

The Nez Perce fared well in that first treaty, being the only tribe not to be “confederated” with neighboring tribes, and retaining a substantial amount of land that stretched from the Wallowas in the south and west far into what is now Washington and Idaho north and east. But in 1861 gold was discovered in Idaho, and in 1862, 18,000 illegal white miners were working it. In 1863 a new treaty, which reduced Nez Perce lands by almost 90 percent, was engineered and the tribe—numbering about 3,000–5,000 then—split into treaty and non-treaty bands. Joseph did not sign what Indian heirs and some historians call the “liars’ treaty,” which excluded the Wallowas.

He did return to the Wallowas—where no gold had been found, and for some years life went on as before. But the Homestead Act of 1862 and a dry grass year in the nearby Grande Ronde Valley a few years later brought settlers in. Whites and Indians tried and for the most part did get along for several years, but a few local incidents, a rabble rousing newspaper man in Union County, the Modoc Wars, Indian affairs in the wake of the Civil War, President Grant’s failed attempt to rescind the 1863 Treaty and give half of the Wallowas to the Joseph Band, and Custer’s debacle all combined to force young Joseph (his father had passed in 1871) to move his people toward the reduced Idaho reservation in the spring of 1877.

In the move, while in Idaho, killings occurred, war broke out, and it ended 1400 miles later with Joseph and the non-treaties 40 miles short of Canada and Sitting Bull’s camp. Although promised a return to the Northwest by those they surrendered to, the Nez Perce spent years in exile in Kansas and Indian Territory. When they returned, in 1884, Idaho and Oregon did not want Chief Joseph or any Nez Perce of warrior age, and Joseph and those close to him ended up on the Colville Reservation in Washington. He tried continually to come back to the Wallowas, but was always rebuffed. On his last trip, Federal money in hand to purchase land, he was “made sport of” by the locals, according to the papers.

Joseph died “of a broken heart” on the Colville Reservation in 1904. We in Oregon and Idaho can take no pride in the way we treated him and the Nez Perce—or other tribal peoples for that matter—in that time, but we can admit our errors and make his descendants welcome again. There is now a “Nez Perce Homeland Project” of 320 acres near the Oregon town of Wallowa. There is an annual powwow; there are naming ceremonies and giveaways and burials.

Idaho—and the Northwest and the Nation—can embrace Chief Joseph now, but it is the privilege and job of Oregonians to do so first, and identifying him nationally with his ancient homeland with this small gesture of an Oregon State statue in the nation’s capitol is a first step. There will be many more.

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Another Indian statue

We have a new statue of Chief Young Joseph, or Young Chief Joseph as he is now mostly called, on Main Street in our town of Joseph—the town is named after him of course. It’s all irony, as he was of course hounded out of here in the War of 1877, and not allowed to return when he and his band came back from Indian Territory in 1895. He and most of them ended up in Nespelem, Washington, among Indians of other languages and cultures. He is said to have died there of a “broken heart” in 1904.  

But his picture is on the masthead of our local newspaper, and, in addition to the town, the annual rodeo celebration and a day camp for local children are named after Chief Joseph.  (Another irony is that Joseph probably gave up that Christian name along with the religion it represented as his people went to war with the United States. He would have been Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, a less likely name for a town.)

On the plus side, Nez Perce Tribal Fisheries out of Idaho is now active here in restoring salmon and steelhead runs. For several years the annual Chief Joseph Days rodeo has hosted an encampment with Nez Perce and related Plateau tribes from Lapwai in Idaho, Colville in Washington, and the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon. And the Nez Perce Homeland Project near the town of Wallowa welcomes Nez Perce and other Indians home for the annual Tamkaliks celebration and is building a longhouse on the 360 acre grounds. The site is envisioned as a living interpretive center, a place for powwows, namings, celebrations of foods and cultures, and even burials.  

The new statue in Joseph is the work of Medford, Oregon artist Georgia Bunn. It was cast at Valley Bronze Foundry in Joseph, and funded, I understand, by Walmart heiress Christy Walton. The money was given to the city, and then went to artist, foundry, and the local technicians who installed the statue.

I don’t know the artist—or Christy Walton, for that matter. I don’t know whether the artist found the funder or the funder found the artist. I don’t know who “found” the Nez Perce story and Chief Joseph. I don’t know whether any Native artists were considered or whether Indians were consulted.  But the statue now joins dozens of images of Joseph in paintings, photos, and statues here in Wallowa County, in other Oregon places, and on public display throughout the country. Try googling “Chief Joseph Statues” for a quick look at the range of images and places. (Here is the connection for a look at the new statue here:

As I move on with Alvin Josephy’s work, trying to find ways to put Indians back into American history, reminding Americans that Indians and their cultures have survived and have things to teach us still, I am constantly reminded of the many ways in which Americans memorialize Indians. And how all too often the statues, books, and images seem ways of remembering and capturing a faded past—like Curtiss pictures of Indians climbing out of poverty blankets and putting on old regalia from better times—rather than celebrating and joining with remarkable tribal people who have survived disease, war, broken treaties, and assimilation to live and work in the Americas of today.

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