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Chief Joseph's War Shirt by Jim Thorn

Photos courtesy of the Yellowstone Art Museum, from the exhibition "Uncommon Ground: Selections from the William I. Koch Collection” unless otherwise noted

Be sure to visit the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, Montana or their website.

Chief Joseph War Shirt

Setting the Exhibit at the Yellowstone Art Museum

This photo of Joseph wearing the shirt was taken in October 1877 by John H. Fouch. Photo courtesy of Dr. James Brust

The Yellowstone Art Museum, located in Billings, Montana, has the privilege of displaying a wonderful piece of Nez Perce history from Dec. 1, 2012 through Mar 24, 2013. Part of the William I. Koch collection, Chief Joseph’s war shirt is a rare public setting.

The story behind Joseph's shirt is remarkable and the road it took to reach Billings is nothing short of amazing. Sent to Fort Keogh, Montana Territory after their surrender at Bears Paw in 1877, the Nez Perce arrived on Oct. 13. Shortly after their arrival, Chief Joseph sat for John H. Fouch, who was Fort Keogh's first photographer. The Fouch photograph of Chief Joseph is regarded as the first ever taken of the great Nez Perce leader. Chief Joseph is seen wearing this most famous shirt.

The Nez Perce were relocated to Fort Leavenworth, on November 27, 1877. The following June, Cyrenius Hall painted Chief Joseph adorned in the same shirt. Hall's painting was used as a model for a postage stamp issued by the U.S Postal Service. The painting is displayed in the Smithsonian.

Conditions at Leavenworth were deplorable for the Nez Perce. Their journey was far from over when they were again moved to the Quapaw Indian Agency near Baxter Springs, Kansas. One year later, they again moved to the Ponca Reservation (Oklahoma) where they would remain for seven years.

After petitioning the government, with the help of sympathetic officials and private citizens, the Nez Perce were returned to the Pacific Northwest in 1885, settling at Nespelem on the Colville reservation in Washington State.

Chief Joseph remained on the Collville Reservation until the end of his life, never to return to his beloved Wallowa Valley in northeastern Oregon. He died at Nespelem on September 21, 1904. The following summer, during a ceremony of speeches and a huge giveaway by his widow, a stone monument was erected over Joseph's grave. His headdress and war clothing went to three nephews.

In the 1990’s, the war shirt surfaced and was sold at auction without full knowledge of its significance. It changed hands again before the connection to the painting and photograph was discovered. In July 2012 during an auction in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho, William Kock made the highest bid to become the current owner of the shirt.

The shirt is a classic sleeved poncho type made of two soft thin skins, probably deerskin. The shirt was made to preserve, as much as possible, the natural shape of the animal and to honor its spirit. The hide flap or bib is covered with red wool trade cloth and partially beaded; it is sewn onto the front and back of the neck opening. The long tassels of human hair would have come from family or friends, their quill wrappings attached to the base of the neck flap. Marital symbolism is associated with the fringes of white (winter) weasel fur tipped with black fur of jackrabbits. These are also symbolic of the weasel's fierce aggression and the speed of the jackrabbit.

The quality of the shirt is amazing considering it is at least 135 years old; it is not known when it was sewn. The shirt owes much of its beauty to the beadwork, in addition to the sinew sewn on separate strips of hide that cross the shoulders and down the sleeves. Warriors kept such prestigious garments clean in saddlebags or carefully stored while in camp. They were only worn on special occasions.

Chief Joseph’s war shirt is an incredibly well preserved part of our history. It was a true honor to be able to view it and remember this great man. The photographs do not do justice to the beauty of the shirt or its artisanship.

Hall portrait of Joseph

U.S. postage stamp

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