Washington State History

Grave of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce

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.


Fort Spokane, a mixed legacy


This month I visited Fort Spokane, a former U.S. military base that is located where the Columbia and Spokane rivers join. Today those waters are dammed in what is now the Lake Roosevelt National Scenic Area. The fort was built in 1880 to keep “the peace” between white settlers and Indian residents on the Colville Reservation. (Click on each photo to see larger pictures on separate picture pages.)

The National Park Service notes, “In many ways, the Indian experience at Fort Spokane is a microcosm of the Indian experience across the United States.” In 1900 the fort become an Indian boarding school, one of the most controversial legacies of the treatment of American Indians. Children were forcibly moved here from their families from the Colville and Spokane reservations, leading to major protests by Indian leaders, including Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. The school was then closed in 1908.  (See the display from the visitor center below.)

Click on the picture of a display at the Fort Spokane Visitors Center entrance to read the description about the Indian boarding school controversy surrounding the boarding of more than 200 American Indian children here at the start of the 20th century.

Spokane Historical, published by Eastern Washington University, describes this controversial era, which was followed by having the fort become a tuberculosis sanitarium after 1909: “The idea behind Indian Boarding Schools was that the children would benefit from learning skills that would help them integrate into the white population. It was the general consensus among the white government agencies, at the time that this was far superior to the education that they would have received at home. As Capt. Richard H. Pratt said on the education of Native Americans, the cruel philosophy was, ‘Kill the Indian, and Save the Man.'”

After much of the fort was removed prior to 1930, a few remaining buildings were saved, such as those captured in my photographs and incorporated into a cultural site to be administered in the area surrounding the newly created reservoir that filled the river canyon after the Columbia River was dammed in Coulee City. I highly recommend anyone traveling to eastern Washington visit to the fort and lake and enjoy the beautiful scenery (I heard coyotes when I camped there). Also take the time to learn about the area’s history. This location truly is a microcosm of the state’s development in the last two centuries.