folk art archive // WA State Folk Arts

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May 26

Chief Joseph, 1840-1904


Grave of Chief Joseph, Nespelem, WA, photographed by Jens Lund, 1994, #OOHC-ph000583

Known also as Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, Chief Joseph is buried in Nespelem, Washington, on the Colville Indian Reservation. A member of the Nez Perce people (Nimi’ipuu), Chief Joseph resisted the United States Government’s repeated attempts to displace his people and force them onto reservations. The Nez Perce inhabited what is now southeastern Washington, northeastern Oregon and western Idaho.

In 1877, due in part to the discovery of gold in the area and the sudden influx of white settlers, the United States rescinded on an agreement that allowed the Nez Perce to remain on their land (in the Wallowa Valley of present day Oregon), and threatened military attack if they did not relocate to a small reservation in Idaho. The killing of several white settlers by a small group of Nez Perce warriors ignited a military attack on the entire tribe and, over the next four months, Chief Joseph helped to lead 600 Nez Perce in a 1,400 mile retreat towards Canada. Although they outmaneuvered the US Army in several battles, by October of 1877, only 40 miles from the Canadian border, the Nez Perce were surrounded and Chief Joseph delivered his famed surrender speech. The Nez Perce were forcibly moved to a reservation in Oklahoma, then eventually to another reservation in northern Washington, but never back to their native land.

Chief Joseph was an eloquent advocate for the rights of his people. He spoke against the injustices the United States perpetuated until his last days. Legend has it that he died of a broken heart, still exiled from his homeland.

According to Reverend Frank Andrews, great-nephew of Chief Joseph and caretaker of his grave, people from around the world visit the gravesite to show their respect and admiration for the great leader. The site of Chief Joseph’s grave is documented along the Othello to Omak Heritage Tour, which you can learn more about here.


Grave of Chief Joseph at Chief Joseph Cemetery, Nespelem, WA, photographed by Jens Lund, 1994, #OOHC-ph000584




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