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An Officer’s Son With Chief Joseph

July 2024
4min read

In the decade before the turn of the century Charles Erskine Scott Wood—the army officer who had participated in the subjugation of the Nez Perces and had recorded the speeches of their famed leader, Chief Joseph—sent his young son Erskine to spend two autumns with the chiefs band on the Colville Reservation, near where the Grand Coulee Dam, in the eastern part of the state of Washington, is now situated. The boy, who ordinarily attended private school in Portland, subsequently went on to Harvard and the Oregon School of Law. Today, as he nears his ninety-seventh birthday, he still practices law in Portland on a semiretired basis. At the request of A MERICAN H ERITAGE , Erskine Wood wrote the following memories of his visits with Chief Joseph as a teen-ager:

When you ask me to describe the family life of Joseph and his culture, please remember that I was only a boy thirteen and fourteen years old when I spent the nine months with him, on two separate visits in 1892 and 1893. In this way I participated in the two fall deer hunts of those years when we laid in our supply of venison and smoked it on racks over the tepee fires. Those hunts occurred in November in the mountains whither we moved from the pleasant little Nespelem Valley, where was our main camp. The band would split up into groups of four or five families, hunting in different parts of the mountains, and I, of course, always was with Joseph’s group, where I participated in the arduous work of the hunt along with the men.

We used to get up long before daylight each morning and take a sweat bath to get the human scent off our bodies so the game we were hunting could not smell us. Joseph always took part in these along with the rest of us. I only mention this to show that Joseph mingled freely in all that his men did. Soon after daylight we would be off hunting.

Of course, all the menial housework was left to the squaws. Joseph’s life was occupied in handling any of his band’s affairs with the agency, such as issuing rations, clothing, etc., or any special matters. As I remember it, he had a little grain patch and threshed the grain by spreading it out and walking the horses round and round through it to thresh it out onto the canvas spread beneath their hooves. But there wasn’t too much of that. Of course, he would moderate and settle any possible disputes, of which there were very few.

He kept a calendar. It was a bunch of ten or twelve little white, smooth sticks, each the size of a pencil, and on each stick, for whatever current month or year it was, he would file a little mark for that day, and on Sundays he would bore a little hole and color it with red. This calendar, since each stick was four-sided and eight or ten inches long, must have carried perhaps two or three years.

I have not mentioned Joseph’s family. He had two wives. The elder was Wawin-Tip-Yay-La-Tal-E-Cotsot, and the younger was lyat-Too-We-ANet-En-My. They slept together with Joseph and lived in perfect harmony, the two women doing all the household work like cooking, mending clothing, making moccasins, taking down and putting up the tepees when on the move, and all such necessary chores. There also lived in our tepee a boy about a year older than I named Cool-Cool-Smool-Smool. He and I together had the job of looking after Chief Joseph’s pony herd of perhaps fifty horses, driving them to water hemmed in by a pool in the Nespelem River and there catching fresh horses for the next day’s use and turning the others back into the herd. And, of course, we and the other boys played games together, but we never had much to do with the girls that I saw—maybe I was too young. I should add in describing tepee life that Joseph shared his tepee with another family.

You ask me to speak of Joseph’s culture. Of course, you cannot expect a boy of fourteen to penetrate an Indian’s inner beliefs and feelings, but this much I can say well and truthfully: Joseph, when I knew him, was about fifty years old and was a very handsome man with noble features, a beautiful forelock rising from his forehead and then falling a little off to his left side, fine eyes, and a pleasant voice; and as even I could tell from the minimum knowledge of his language that I picked up, he was an eloquent man with an eloquent voice. Two heavy braids of black hair hung down his shoulders, one in front of each. In speech he was moderate but clear and unmistakable, and whatever he said was respected and listened to. He disliked obscenity and on one occasion reproved it. He was unquestionably looked up to by his people as their chief.

By the way, they never called him Joseph; they always referred to him as Hin-Mah-Too-Yah-Lat-Kekht, meaning Thunder Rolling in the Mountains. His advice, his decisions had always proved right. His advice in 1877 had been not to go to war with the whites, for he knew their might and that they were too strong; and yet when this advice was ignored, he made the important decision of his life: to remain with his people and lead them, not desert them in their extremity; and all through the bitter following years he continued their chief because there was no one like him, and they knew it. And so on, back to their old place in the north. They looked to him and trusted him as their chief. Why? Because of the integrity of his character.

My parting with Joseph was sad. It was sad anyway, but the memory of it is sadder because of two mistakes I made, and one in particular has haunted me. We were on the banks of the Columbia River waiting for me to cross in a dugout canoe to the other side, to the conveyance that was to take me back to civilization. I had with me some fishberries, a poisonous berry which when boiled in water produced a brown liquid that would kill lice. My father had given them to me in case I needed them (which I did). Joseph asked me to leave those berries with him, but I declined, fearing to leave an unknown poison in his unaccustomed hands. He said no more. I think I made a mistake.

The other was this: my father had written me to say to Joseph that if there was anything that he could do for him to let him know and my father would try to do it. I related this to Joseph, and I expected him to ask my father to prevail on the government to give back to Joseph part of his own original land or something of that sort. But instead, all Joseph asked for was a good stallion to improve the breed of his pony herd. I looked upon Joseph as such a great chief that I thought such a request was petty and that he ought to ask for a piece of the Wallowa Valley or something grand, so I simply said to Joseph, “No, that’s not what my father meant.” Joseph said no more, and I have reproached myself to this day that I was such a fool. A fine stallion would have been a magnificent gift to Joseph and would really have improved his breed of horses.

Here I will end. He took me—the son of his former soldier-enemy—and treated me as a son. What more can I say?

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