Chief Joseph watches a University of Washington football game and gives a speech in Seattle on November 20, 1903.

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 1/01/2013
  • Essay 10286
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On November 20, 1903, Chief Joseph (1840-1904) and his nephew Red Thunder watch a University of Washington football game in Seattle. Later that evening Joseph speaks to a crowd of people at the Seattle Theatre, located downtown at the corner of 3rd Avenue and Cherry Street.

A Respected Leader

Chief Joseph was a leader of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce Tribe who achieved fame during the 1877 Nez Perce War by leading his people in a fighting retreat from the U.S Army, which had forced them off of their ancestral land in Northeast Oregon. After his surrender, Joseph and his tribe were taken to a reservation in Oklahoma, but were later sent to the Colville Reservation in North Central Washington.

Joseph's political skills and his steadfast resistance to abandon his native land earned him much admiration from his military opponents and from the American public. Over the years, Joseph made several trips to Washington D.C. to plead for his tribe's return to the Wallowa Valley. He gave talks elsewhere, hoping the public would rally behind his cause.

Welcomed by Three Knives

Joseph came to Seattle by invitation of the Washington State Historical Society, and was asked to speak to its organization. Interest in the Nez Perce Chief was strong, and the historical society promoted his talk by offering two tickets to the event for two dollars, which also paid for a year's membership in the society.

Chief Joseph arrived in Seattle by train on the night of November 19, accompanied by his nephew Red Thunder. Joseph spoke almost no English, and Red Thunder acted as his interpreter. The two men were met at the depot by Professor Edmond Meany (1862-1935), who escorted them to the Lincoln Hotel. Meany -- who communicated with Joseph in Chinook jargon -- was close friends with the chief, having written his master's thesis about Joseph two years earlier.  During that time, Joseph had given Meany the Indian name "Three Knives."

Meany arrived back at the hotel the next day at 1:00, eager to escort his guests to a University of Washington football game. Upon greeting them, Meany pulled out three cigars to share with his friends. Joseph didn't seem to like his cigar much, and Red Cloud noted that the chief usually preferred smoking a pipe.

Off to the Game

The men made their way to Yesler Way to grab a streetcar to the University of Washington. There was a breakdown on the James Street line, so the Yesler Way car was packed. Meany jostled his way in, his guests in tow. Joseph inched through the crowd of football fans and squeezed into a seat.

They arrived at Athletic Field and made their way to the sidelines. When the undergraduates saw the chief, they lifted their megaphones and began cheering, "Rah! Rah! Rah!" Joseph turned in their direction, and Meany told him that the cheers were for him. The chief had been quite stoic up until that moment, but now looked noticeably pleased.

Tom McDonald (1881-1937), star tackle for the University of Washington team, was called over to meet Joseph. The young man, padded in leather, his hands wrapped in tape, grabbed Joseph's hand with a mighty grip. Joseph eyed the young man approvingly, and when McDonald trotted back to his teammates, Joseph turned to Red Thunder and said, "Him skookum," a Chinook word meaning strong or powerful.

"I Had a Good Time"

The football teams took to the field and the University of Washington players began battling it out in the mud with the young men from the University of Nevada. Chief Joseph showed little emotion, and seemed puzzled by the game. Meany, on the other hand, was very excited and jumped up and down during some of the more exciting plays. Eventually, Joseph made his way to the right field bleachers to find a seat.

At one point, a little boy came up to Joseph and extended his hand in greeting. Joseph looked at the lad and held out a single finger for the young child to shake. The boy, thinking that this was some form of Indian gesture, stuck out his own finger and touched fingertips with Joseph. The Chief smiled at this.

The University of Washington won the game 2 – 0, scoring only a safety. In Chinook, Joseph dictated his opinion on the game to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. As translated by Meany, Chief Joseph said, "I saw a lot of white men almost fight today. I do not think this good. This may be all right but I believe it is not. I feel pleased that Washington won the game. Those men I would think would break their legs and arms, but they did not get mad. I had a good time at the game with my white friends."

The End of a Long Day

They returned to the streetcar line, and Meany recommended that they go to the last car in line, so as to get a good seat.  Unfortunately, that car dropped them off downtown on 2nd Avenue, which meant a steep climb up Madison Street to the Lincoln Hotel. Joseph, who was bowlegged and suffered rheumatism in his knees, was winded by the time he got there and could only say, "Tired," as he walked inside.

Still slightly fatigued, Joseph showed up late for his speech in front of the Washington University State Historical Society at the Seattle Theatre. He and Red Thunder arrived in street clothes, carrying carpet bags and blankets. While they dressed backstage, Meany stepped up to the podium and briefly explained the delay. Some of the college boys in the balcony bided the time by singing songs.

When Chief Joseph and Red Thunder finally stepped out on stage, they were dressed in traditional buckskin clothing and wore large feathered headdresses. Both men took a seat as Judge Cornelius Hanford (1849-1926) opened the meeting with a few short remarks. Then, Chief Joseph took to the podium with former Indian Agent Henry Steele at his side as interpreter.

Chief Joseph's Speech

"I feel very well on account of meeting my white friends. I am glad to meet all the men, all the women, and all the children. I am glad to be here today. I had lots of pleasure, lots of fun. Today, my heart is way off from here, far away. Today I would like to be back in my old home in Wallowa Valley. All my friends are there. My father is buried there. Some of my children are buried there. I like the white people, but they have driven me out of my home. I have friendly feelings for the for all that. My blood is the same that flows in the veins of the white men. We will all die just the same, but I have one grievance, that is because I am not allowed to go back to my old home. My only hope of my declining years is that I may go home and die among my friends.

"When I went to Washington and met President McKinley, the President told me he would help me a good deal. I am sorry I cannot go. I would like to have all my friends help me to go back to my old home. When in New York I met Commissioner of Indian Affairs Jones. He promised to send out commissioners to deal with me and to send me back to Wallowa. That is another case where the government has broken its promises. I think they may come New Years, but I don’t expect they will.  It ain't good to have them lie like that. They are big liars.

"I fought for my land and lost it at that time. They have told me time and again for the last few years that I might go back, but I have not had an opportunity.  I am going to keep on asking the government to go back to my old home. Colville is not my home. Other Indians are there. They are not like me. It is not a good territory. I am sick all the time. Today I have a very kind feeling toward the white people. I am glad to meet them all, glad to meet my friends (The Seattle Times, November 21, 1903)."

Handshakes and Photos

After Joseph finished his speech, Professor Meany stepped up and gave a vivid talk about the chief's history. Afterwards, audience members came up to the stage to shake Joseph's hand.

The next day, Meany accompanied Chief Joseph and Red Thunder to Edward Curtis's photography studio to have their portraits taken. Meany sat in on at least one photograph, and seemed very pleased to be captured on film with his friends.

Chief Joseph and Red Thunder remained in Seattle for a few days, finishing their trip with a talk in Denny Hall at the University of Washington. They returned to the Colville reservation, but Chief Joseph would journey no more. He died and was buried in Nespelem less than a year later, never to return to his home land of the Wallowa Valley.


"Chief Joseph," The Seattle Times, November 18, 1903, p. 4; "Joseph Continues His Fight," The Seattle Times, November 20, 1903, p. 8; "Joseph Has a Hard Day," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 21, 1903, p. 1; "Joseph Tells His Story," The Seattle Times, November 21, 1903, p. 7; "Joseph Goes to His Home," The Seattle Times, November 24, 1903, p. 7; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Chief Joseph (1840-1904)" (by Jim Kershner), (accessed December 29, 2012).

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