photo by Jack McNeel

Nez Perce Unveil Chief Joseph Statue

Jack McNeel
June 04, 2013

A major sculpture of Chief Joseph, the famed Nez Perce leader, was unveiled at a public ceremony at the Clearwater River Casino & Lodge in Lewiston, Idaho, on May 29. The statue is 11 feet tall and is a replica of the statue which stands in the Smithsonian Museum permanent collection in Washington, D.C.

“A momentous occasion,” tribal chairman Silas Whitman remarked.

“He was a great leader, a great man,” tribal elder Horace Axtell said.

Chief Joseph was certainly that and more. The tribe has produced many great leaders but none who attained and retained the prominence of Chief Joseph. He was one of the primary tribal leaders during the tribe’s war in 1877 although he was not considered a war chief. His role was to look after the people, and his diplomatic skills and tact both inspired his tribal people and won the respect of his enemies.

Tribal Chairman Silas Whitman speaks at the unveiling of the statue of Chief Joseph. Photo by Jack McNeel.

Chief Joseph’s statement, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever,” has probably been repeated more often and by more people than perhaps any quotation in Native American history. After that surrender, he continued to lead as the tribe was sent on to Kansas and later Oklahoma. In 1879, he traveled to Washington, D.C. to plead his case before President Hayes and fight for his people.

His tribal name was Hinmatóowyalahtq’it, “Thunder Rolling to Higher Areas.” Born in 1840, he died in 1904 and was never allowed to return to his homeland in the Wallowa’s of Oregon. He is buried on the Colville Reservation in Washington.

Chairman Whitman said at the unveiling, “Looking out for families. Preserving what was left. Continuing on with hardships, trials and tribulations, everything that happened to us as a people happened through him and his people at that time. The magnitude of his commitment was such that we live on. Everything that we are is what he was. He has shown us all what your spirit can bring. His legacy is all of us.”

The statue of Chief Joseph stands 11 feet tall. Photo by Jack McNeel.

Nakia Williamson works in the cultural resources department for the tribe and it will be his responsibility to provide an inscription which will sit beside the Chief Joseph statue for all to read. He spoke of that terrible period of the war in 1877 when many tribal members were forced from their homeland and forced into a war they didn’t want.

A portion of that inscription will read as follows: “Chief Joseph is well known as the leader of his people during the Nez Perce War of 1877 marked by many military experts and scholars alike as some of the most tactical achievements in history. The maneuvers by the young leaders of the Nez Perce were executed with skill and shrewdness. … After five months of a fighting retreat toward Canada, the Nez Perce were caught the early morning hours at the Bear Paw Battlefield after traveling some 1600 miles with 700 men, women and children, only 30 miles from the Canadian border. …This is when Chief Joseph gave his surrender speech.”

The statue will remain in the Clearwater Casino and Lodge in the area described as the Cultural Walk which adjoins the restaurant and hotel, readily available for visitors and tribal members alike.

Doug Hyde is the nationally recognized artist who crafted the sculpture. It’s particularly important and pertinent to recognize that he is also a member of the Nez Perce Tribe, grew up on the reservation and began his art instruction in classes offered by the tribe before eventually attending the Institute of Native American Art in Santa Fe, NM. He opened his own studio in 1973 after serving in Viet Nam and has been a noted major artist for his sculptures of Native American subjects ever since.

He writes that doing the bronze of Chief Joseph, “was just a matter of time. Working from 28 photos of Chief Joseph taken at different times of his life was very challenging, but over the course of three months, the sculpture of Joseph at the surrender at Bear Paw was finished. His likeness will always be one of my best achievements.”