Youthful misunderstanding and misplaced pride caused a lifetime of regret for a man who had the chance to make the final years of Chief Joseph’s life happier. His descendants rectified the error after his death in an attempt to bring together two cultures historically at odds.
It began in 1877, when Chief Joseph and his band of Nez Perce had led the U.S. Army a merry chase to within 30 miles of the U.S./Canada border, where the tribe was attempting to find sanctuary from a government determined to sequester the Nez Perce to a reservation in Oklahoma, far from their ancient homeland in the Wallowa Valley in northeast Oregon. The battered tribal band finally surrendered with Chief Joseph’s vow to “fight no more forever.”
An aide de camp to the general who finally stopped Chief Joseph’s flight, Charles Erskine Scott Wood, kept a diary throughout the running battle, and came to respect the Nez Perce chief. Wood’s efforts helped bring Chief Joseph and other Nez Perce tribal members back to the Pacific Northwest, though not to their original lands. The two men struck up a friendship and, in 1889, Wood asked if his son Erskine could spend a summer on the reservation near Nespelem, Wash. Erskine was taken in to Joseph’s own teepee, and given the Indian name Yellow Porcupine.
In 1893, at the age of 14, Erskine Wood returned to the reservation for a second summer. His father, wanting to thank the chief for his generosity, directed Erskine to ask the chief if there was anything he could do to repay him. When Joseph said he wanted a stallion, Erskine was stunned.
“I looked on Joseph as such a great man,” Erskine wrote in his diary. “... I revered him so that I though his request for a stallion was too puny — was beneath him. I thought he ought to ask if my father could do anything to repair the great wrongs done him, perhaps get him back a portion of his Wallowa Valley or something like that. ...”
The request went unanswered, and the next year Erskine went off to school, and the stallion was forgotten. Then Chief Joseph died, and Erskine was consumed by guilt. “A fine stallion which would have upbred Joseph’s herd of ponies would have been a wonderful thing for him,” he wrote. “But just because I exalted him so high, I deprived him of it. ...”
When Ken Burns’ 1996 documentary “The West” ended with Wood’s story of a promise unfulfilled, the Wood family was galvanized into action. Erskine Wood Jr.’s daughter Mary met with representatives of the Nez Perce tribe, and Keith Soy Red Thunder, Chief Joseph’s great-great-grandson, was selected to receive the gift that had been promised, but never given, on behalf of his tribe.
The three-year-old Appaloosa stallion was purchased from a Utah ranch after a nationwide search, financed by $22,000 in donations from the Wood family and their friends. On July 27, 1997, the Wood family and Nez Perce tribal members gathered at Wallowa Lake to commemorate the gift.
Tribal member Lucinda Pinkham, who lived near the Lapwai Nez Perce reservation in Idaho, said she hoped the gift would bring members from the three Nez Perce reservations together as one people. Bobbi Conners, a Nez Perce living on the Umatilla Indian Reservation near Pendleton, echoed her statement. “We’ve had enough that has caused us to be divided,” Conners said.
Red Thunder told those gathered that the horse signified more than just a promise fulfilled, but a way to unite “white man and red man.”
“We need occasions like this to bring our people together,” he said.