Sotheby’s Catalog Note
Edward Curtis’s direct and unsparing study of Chief Joseph (1840 – 1904) is one of the definitive portraits from the photographer’s oeuvre. Taken in 1903, less than a year before the Nez Percé chief’s death, Curtis’s photograph captures both the dignity and sadness of the tribal leader who had tried, and ultimately failed, to lead his people to safety in the 1870s. This large-format print of the image, signed in red crayon and mounted to deckle-edged brown paper, is characteristic of Curtis’s presentation style in the early 1900s. As of this writing, it is believed that the platinum print offered here is the largest print of this image ever to appear at auction.
Joseph was chief of the segment of the Oregon Nez Percé tribe that refused to sign an 1863 treaty granting them a reservation in Idaho. In the 1870s, the incursion of settlers and prospectors onto Nez Percé land led to ever increasing tensions. While Chief Joseph strove to maintain peace between his tribe and the newcomers, it became increasingly difficult. In 1877, the tribe was threatened with forced removal from their land by the United States Army. Unwilling to resettle to a reservation or to fight a superior force, Joseph opted instead to lead his tribe to relative safety across the Canadian border. The tribe traveled 1300 miles through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, alternately skirmishing with and retreating from the U.S. Cavalry. After a five-day battle in the Bear Paw Mountains in the Montana Territory which further depleted the already exhausted tribe, Chief Joseph surrendered. They were only 40 miles away from the Canadian border.
Though defeated, Joseph remained a defiant advocate for the Nez Percé for the remainder of his life. Frustrated in his attempt to convince lawmakers in Washington, D. C., to grant his people freedom and land, Joseph said of the government officials:
‘. . . they all say they are my friends, and that I shall have justice, but while their mouths all talk right I do not understand why nothing is done for my people. I have heard talk and talk, but nothing is done. Good words do not last long unless they amount to something. Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country, now overrun by white men. . . You might as well expect the rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented when penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases. If you tie a horse to a stake, do you expect he will grow fat? If you pen an Indian up on a small spot of earth, and compel him to stay there, he will not be contented, nor will he grow and prosper. I have asked some of the great white chiefs where they get their authority to say to the Indian that he shall stay in one place, while he sees white men going where they please. They cannot tell me. I only ask of the Government to be treated as all other men’ (‘An Indian’s View of Indian Affairs,’ North American Review, Vol. 128, 1879, p. 417).