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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