The story behind this photograph is a long one. It involves ownership and secrets, legacies and histories. Who has the right to tell this story? Who has the right to publish this photograph? Is Chief Joseph‘s legacy only safeguarded by his people, or a larger circle who care about his people’s story of leadership, exile, pain, loss, and conquest? I do not have the answer.
Chief Joseph was born in what today is the Wallowa Valley of Oregon. He and other Nez Perce warriors led his band of just 700 men, women, and children on a 1,400-mile march that even received taciturn praise from their military pursuers seeking to place them in reservations. The group held off more than 2,000 U.S. soldiers and Indian auxiliaries in four battles and numerous skirmishes, before surrendering in 1877. His speech at his band’s surrender is among the most famous of all made by Native American leaders in response to their subjugation by the young United States and its people:
I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say, “Yes” or “No.” He who led the young men [Olikut] is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are — perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.
The Nez Perce were relocated and broken. Half, including Joseph, were taken to a non-Nez Perce reservation in central Washington, becoming one of the bands of the Confederated Colville Tribes. Today the area is known as the Colville Reservation, where I shot this photograph in August 2014 when passing through. I found his final resting grounds to be a serene place.