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CHIEF JOSEPH’S WAR SHIRT

A light penetrated the past with the recent recognition of a beaded and fringed war shirt pictured in the earliest known photograph of Chief Joseph. The shirt surfaced at an Indian relic show in the 1990’s and was sold without any attribution or collection history. It changed hands again before the connection with the historic photo was discovered.

Joseph was the name given by a missionary in the 1830s to Tuekakas, chief of a Nez Perce band living in the Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon. The two sons of this chief were also called Joseph as if it were a family name. One of these sons was Hinmahtooyahlatkekt, Thunder Rolling In The Mountains, born about 1844. In 1871 he succeeded his father as Chief Joseph of the Wallowa band.

The treaty of 1863, by which the government established a reservation for the Nez Perce bands in Idaho, was neither recognized nor signed by Joseph and his followers. They continued to dwell in their Oregon valley despite increasing troubles between the Indians and white settlers. A reservation was established there for the band in 1873 but two years later the government order was withdrawn again. The murder of several settlers by vengeful Indian warriors in June, 1877 forced the dignified young chief of the Wallowa band into a hopeless war he never wanted. The first days of the outbreak were marked by a series of battles pitting the Nez Perce against the U.S. Army and local volunteers. In the following four months Chief Joseph led his people on an epic flight of 1,700 miles across the mountains into Montana and northward toward freedom expected in Canada. The band consisted of some 750 people, including 500 women and children, with all their camp gear, as well as a huge herd of horses. In an incredible display of perseverance and military skill they stood off the American army in eighteen engagements, including four major battles, in which the Indians lost at least 120 of their people. After a siege of five days in the snow-swept Bear Paw Mountains, forty miles short of the Canadian border, Chief Joseph was forced to surrender to General Oliver Howard and Col. Nelson Miles on October 5, 1877. His eloquent surrender speech became famous: Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have in my heart. 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 on the young men 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. (1)

Their heroic retreat won the Nez Perce unstinted praise in American newspapers. Chief Joseph’s speech was widely quoted and it remains the most enduring symbol of their long ordeal. It can be argued that it is second only to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as the most famous speech from that era.

Following their surrender the captives were marched 400 miles to Fort Keogh near present day Miles City, Montana where they arrived on October 13, 1877. Shortly thereafter, John Fouch, the post photographer, took the first portrait of Chief Joseph.(2) Joseph is seated in the photo and his hands appear frostbitten. Yet, his hair is pushed up in a proud warrior pompadour and he is dressed resplendent in his shirt. Examination of details in the photo leaves no question that the shirt in the Fouch photo is one and the same as the shirt here under discussion. Note and compare the varying lengths of quill wrappings on the hair locks under the neck flap, the short fringe cuts at the end of the sleeves, and the alignment of bead decoration on the neck flap, shoulder and sleeve strips. (Color values of the orthochromatic film used in the 1870’s do not always appear as they do in the later panchromatic film.)(3) Several of the red wool wrapped ermine skin fringes have been secured with pericardium and match up from photo to shirt, especially on Joseph’s left shoulder.

We can date the Fouch photo to a fairly narrow time period for the prisoners left Fort Keogh on October 13, 1877, barely two weeks after their arrival. New orders from General William Tecumseh Sherman directed the Nez Perce to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The prisoners were transported by flatboat and train arriving on November 27, 1877. They would remain at Fort Leavenworth under deplorable conditions – inadequate sanitation, lack of supplies, and poor rations until July, 1878. However, it was during their stay at Fort Leavenworth that Joseph’s shirt is again noted. Cyrenius Hall painted the chief’s portrait in June, 1878 wearing the same shirt John Fouch photographed him in. Hall’s portrait was later used on a U.S. postage stamp and is now in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. The artist took care to reproduce an accurate coloring of the beadwork details. This painting adds further confirmation that the shirt here discussed is indeed Chief Joseph’s shirt.

In July, 1878 Chief Joseph and his people were moved to the Quapaw Indian Agency near Baxter Springs, Kansas and then to the Ponca Reservation in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) a year later. The Nez Perce would suffer in exile for seven long years. Chief Joseph petitioned the government for return to his native land throughout his period of confinement. Sympathetic government officials and private citizens took up the cause. Chief Joseph and his people were returned to the Pacific Northwest in 1885, settling at Nespelem on the Colville Reservation in Washington state.

Chief Joseph would remain on the Colville reservation until the end of his life. He longed to return to his beloved Wallowa valley in northeastern Oregon but permission to do so was never granted by the government. He died peacefully at Nespelem on September 21, 1904. The following summer a stone monument was erected over Chief Joseph’s grave with all attendant ceremony. There were numerous speeches and a huge give-away by Joseph’s widow. “The Chief Joseph potlatch took place Friday. It was one of the greatest affairs of the kind we have any record of. The huge council lodge was filled. At the head of the lodge were gathered heaps of the worldly possessions of the late Chief Joseph. ... After dinner speeches were made, the crowning of which was made by Chief Yellow Bull. The speech was made on horseback while the old chief rode slowly three times around the outside of the big council lodge. He rode Chief Joseph’s faithful old horse and besides that dignity he wore all of Chief Joseph’s war clothes, including the famous eagle feather war bonnet. His speech related almost wholly to the greatness of the man whose clothes he was wearing.” After Yellow Bull’s speech the Indians gathered in the lodge. “Then followed the giving away of Chief Joseph’s property. Nearly every Indian present was given something. The great war bonnet and war clothing went to the three nephews.” (4) We can speculate that the shirt here discussed was part of this giveaway, to be kept in some family’s trunk for almost a century.

The shirt is of the classic sleeved poncho type, made of two soft thin skins, probably deerskin. The skins were cut in two behind the front legs, and the two back halves were joined at the shoulders to form the front and back of the shirt. The two front halves of the skins were folded to make the sleeves, with the forelegs retained below the open armpits. Thus, the natural shape of the animal skin was preserved as much as possible in the design of the shirt, thereby honoring the animal’s spirit. Sewn onto the front and back of the neck opening is a hide flap or bib covered with red wool trade cloth and partially beaded. Provided by family or friends were the long tassels of human hair, their quill wrappings attached to the base of the neck flap. Though symbolic of personal war experiences they are not “scalp locks.”

Martial symbolism is also associated with the fringes of white (winter) weasel fur tipped with the black fur of jack rabbits; referring to the fierce aggression of the weasel and the speed of the jack rabbit. In addition to the red wool wrappings some of these weasel fringes were secured with pericardium skin, taken from the skin bag around the heart.

The shirt owes much of its visual appeal to the beadwork, sinew sewn on separate strips of hide, crossing the shoulders and running down the sleeves. The geometric designs of solid blocks of color, framed with finger- width lanes of darker color, are characteristic of the “Transmontane art style.” As indicated by its name this art style was shared by the Nez Perce and their Plateau neighbors with the Crow Indians across the Rocky Mountains. Its development in the late 1850’s was a side-effect of the intermediary role of the Crow Indians in the native traffic between the Missouri River trade centers and the Plateau tribes. Beautiful garments made by the Crows and horses raised by the Nez Perce played an important role in this trade. Bold geometric designs resulted from the interaction of the Crow and Nez Perce women, to become popular among both tribes. Many Crow and Nez Perce shirts become all but indistinguishable from each other, and the shirt here discussed is an excellent example of this art style. The more simple beaded patterns tend to be attributed to the Nez Perce, but several very similar shirts were apparently acquired from the Crow Indians. (5)

Warriors kept such prestigious garments clean in a saddle bag on their horse or carefully stored while in camp, to be worn only on suitable occasions. The fine quality of this shirt makes it a desirable acquisition in any collection. However, it is the surprising discovery of the shirt’s role in history that reveals its true importance.

– Theodore Brasser
Theodore Brasser is an international authority on the clothing and culture of Native American People. He was the curator at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, Netherlands, and at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. He was also a Professor of Art History at Carleton University and a Professor of Native Art History at Trent University. He has written extensively on Native American peoples and their art, including articles for American Indian Art magazine, publications of Smithsonian, and most recently authored Native American Clothing, An Illustrated History.

Footnotes:
1. West, Elliott, The Last Indian War, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 283, 284.
2. Brust, James S., “John H. Fouch”, Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Spring, 1994, pp. 3 – 17.
3. Holm, Bill, “Old Photos Might Not Lie, But They Fib A Lot About Color”, American Indian Art Magazine, Autumn, 1985, Volume 10, Number 4, pp. 44 – 49.
4. Gidley, M., Kopet; A Documentary of Chief Joseph’s Last Years, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981, pp. 80, 81.
5. See shirts illustrated in:
Penney, David W., Art of the American Indian Frontier, Detroit Institute of Arts, 1992, Figure 86, p. 158.
Taylor, Colin F., “The Crow Ceremonial Shirt” Figure 15, p. 50 in Feest, Christian F., Studies in American Indian Art, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001.
Wildschut, William and Ewers, John C., Crow Indian Beadwork, New York: Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, 1959, Figure 4.

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