The long journey of Chief Joseph’s war shirt continues.
The blued-beaded buckskin shirt has returned to Montana, where it will go on display at the Yellowstone Art Museum on Dec. 12.
This may be the first public viewing of the shirt, which was worn by the legendary Nez Perce leader. Chief Joseph eloquently surrendered to the U.S. Cavalry on Oct. 5, 1877, less than 40 miles south of the Canadian border near the town of Chinook. He had led his people on a 1,170-mile trek across the Northwest including Montana to avoid being placed on a reservation. His surrender speech, including the phrase, “I will fight no more forever,” is one of the most famous speeches in American history.
Chief Joseph was photographed in the shirt with frostbitten fingers from battling in the snow, but sitting proud after a forced, 400-mile march to Fort Keogh near Miles City.
The shirt is a significant piece of American history and its sale to an anonymous buyer in July at the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction in Reno, Nevada, for $877,500 created a stir.
William I. Koch, a generous art collector who has been loyal to the YAM for years, bought the shirt and has loaned it to the museum. It will be on display in the museum’s upstairs Montana Gallery through Jan. 12, when the museum staff will move it to a downstairs gallery to make room for the annual art auction.
The YAM’s senior curator, Bob Durden, said he believes this is the first public viewing of the shirt. It will be displayed with no protective glass around it. Durden said because it has been so long since anyone has seen the shirt, he wanted to let people get as close to it as possible. The gallery already has a security guard on duty because the exhibit includes several significant pieces, including a Picasso and a Monet.
Durden has been in touch with members of the Nez Perce tribe, including Charlie Moses, a descendant of Chief Joseph’s brother, and the tribe historian. Interest in viewing the war shirt is high.
“I hope the general public realizes what an important piece of their history this is, whether you are Nez Perce, Native American, or a Montanan,” Durden said. “This is a people story. Here’s a leader that puts his pride aside and knowing his people are hungry and freezing to death in an early Montana winter, surrenders.”
Along with the war shirt, the exhibit “Uncommon Ground” includes a beaded Sioux war shirt and 12 paintings from the American West by notable artists including Thomas Moran, Frederick Remington and C.M. Russell.
Durden said it is believed that Chief Joseph’s shirt was in private hands for many years, until resurfacing in the 1990s when it was sold twice, once at a Native American relic show. It has since been authenticated, partially because Chief Joseph was photographed wearing the war shirt and he sat for a portrait wearing it in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The 1878 painting by Cyrenius Hall of the disheartened leader hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The painting also appeared on a 6-cent stamp in 1968.
Durden said the shirt is historically and aesthetically important.
“It is in spectacular condition,” Durden said. “The beadwork is intact and the other embellishments, the hair and the fur, are also intact. The hide itself is in spectacular condition, which says a couple of things. One, it was an honorable garment that would only be worn by Joseph on special occasions. Two, it was a significant object and it was well maintained over the years.”
Durden said that a Montana museum hosting the first public showing of the shirt is a significant occurrence.
“It gives us another opportunity to recall that tragic event in our time, but also an opportunity to honor Chief Joseph and the sacrifices he made for his people.”