I Will Tell of My War Story
A Pictorial Account of the Nez Perce War
Chief Joseph's exhausted words of surrender, "Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever," are the accepted end of the Nez Perce War of 1877, in which several bands of Nez Perce attempting to find a new home outside their diminished Idaho reservation clashed with the U.S. military (and occasionally other Indians) along the Clearwater and Big Hole Rivers, and finally at the foot of the Bear Paw Mountains. However, a number of Nez Perce escaped transportation to Indian Territory with Joseph and continued their flight to Canada, with perhaps a hundred eventually joining Sitting Bull's Lakota. I Will Tell of My War Story reproduces, describes, and discusses a remarkable series of drawings by an anonymous Indian artist who fought with Chief Joseph and later reached Canada. The drawings, in red, blue, and black pencil, include portraits of principal participants in the war, battle scenes, and views of Nez Perce camp life and celebrations during the war and after.
The drawings are preserved in a small pocket ledger labeled "Cash Book" on the front, which was acquired by Indian Agent Charles D. Warner in the 1880s. It was willed by him to a family living in northern Idaho, and is now in the collection of the Idaho State Historical Society. Scott Thompson worked closely both with the owners and with members of the Nez Perce community in preparing his manuscript. Thompson's detective work and research methods to identify Nez Perce and other parties pictured in the Cash Book make fascinating reading. He is careful to point out what is speculation and what has been documented or attested to by experts on dress, weapons, ceremony, and other aspects of Native culture.
The Cash Book drawings are unique in several ways. They are one of very few firsthand pictorial records of the Nez Perce War, representing an even scarcer record of this war as seen from the Indian viewpoint. They contain invaluable historical and ethnographic information not only explicit in the form of military and Native dress, regalia, and quite graphic battle scenes, but also implicit. The drawings reveal an important stage of cultural adaptation as shown by the mixture of white and Native goods combined in Nez Perce material culture during the 1870s and 1880s, and by the artist's assimilation of white/European drawing techniques such as texture and perspective. The artist combined these drawing techniques with Native art traditions to make exceptionally effective pictorial communications.
Scott M. Thompson is an art teacher at Chase Middle School in Spokane, Washington.
160 pp ~ illustrated — ©2000