It’s Never Too Late to Give Away a Horse

David Liberty is Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla and is a descendant of the Nez Perce leader Old Chief Joseph on his father’s side. He was born on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in northeastern Oregon, where he lived for the first twelve years of his life. He is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and is currently employed by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission in Portland, Oregon. In 1997, he was involved in an important ceremony involving descendants of Chief Joseph and C.E.S. Wood. This is his personal account of that event.

I was a kid living on the Umatilla Indian Reservation when I first heard about a white boy who stayed with Chief Joseph on the Colville Indian Reservation in north-central Washington. Chief Joseph’s Indian name is Hinmatooyalatkekt, fairly interpreted as “thunder rolling over the mountains.” Hinmatooyalatkekt is my great-great-great-great-uncle. I remember thinking how lucky that boy was to live in Joseph’s teepee, to hunt with Joseph’s friends and family, to live life close to the earth in a traditional way even if it was only for a brief time. Joseph was one of my first heroes, and I would have given anything to be that boy. I understood at the time that the boy was still alive and living in Portland, Oregon.

Tommy Waters and Soy Redthunder with the stallion Zip’s Wild Man, which Erskine Wood’s family presented to satisfy the Woods’s debt to Chief Joseph

© 1997 Suzanne Lewis. Reprinted with permission.

Many years later, after I had a son of my own, my mom gave me the book Land of the Nez Perce, by Bill Gulick. Near the end of the book, Gulick recounts the story of Erskine Wood, the boy who stayed with Chief Joseph at his camp for two autumns in 1892 and 1893. Young Erskine was the son of Charles Erskine Scott Wood, a prominent Portland attorney. C.E.S. Wood was also the former aide-de-camp to Gen. Oliver O. Howard, the officer in charge at Joseph’s surrender in the cold northern plains of Montana in November of 1877. Lieutenant Wood accompanied General Howard throughout the campaign to capture Chief Joseph and his band of Nez Perce, and he recorded Joseph’s well-known surrender speech. Wood and Joseph later became friends.

Many know the story of the flight of the Wallowa Valley Band of Nez Perce (also known as Walamatkin’s band) and its tragic ending, but my story brings young Erskine’s experience full circle to a beautiful closure.

Erskine, who was twelve and thirteen at the time, kept a journal during his two autumns at Joseph’s camp. Unfortunately, the first year’s journal was lost. The other was used to produce Days with Chief Joseph, a small book published by Binfords and Mort for the Oregon Historical Society (1950), which told the story of his time in the Nespelem Valley in northern Washington state. Though seen through the eyes of a young boy, this is a valuable record of the last days of a man and his people adapting to the influence of a dominant and domineering culture but holding on to the values and life-styles that had been their tradition for thousands of years.

Chief Joseph, from a photograph taken by Erskine Wood in about 1893

Erskine Wood, photographer, OHS neg., OrHi 86031

Joseph had two wives and an adopted son. Erskine lived as one of the family and was a good hunter who brought home his share of game. He recorded interesting details of daily life. For instance, while on a deer hunt he recounted a bathing practice I had not heard of before. Instead of the more traditional sweat in a sweathouse, taken before the hunt to get rid of human smell, Joseph and his hunting partners diverted river water into a side channel they had dug and heated it with rocks from a fire. This was truly a hot tub the old Indian way!

Another incident that impressed me was the time Erskine shot a duck that landed in the middle of a pond. He built a fire, took off his clothes, swam out to retrieve his dinner, dried off by the fire, got dressed, and went on his way. It made me appreciate my hunting dogs a lot more. They do all the swimming for me without complaint.

Nearing his final days with the chief, Erskine received a letter from his father telling him to ask Joseph if there was anything C.E.S. could give him in return for helping raise his son those two autumns. As the two of them were riding horses to the Columbia River where Erskine would disembark, he asked Joseph if there was something his father could give him for taking Erskine into his home. After some thought, Joseph said yes, he would like a good stallion to improve the breed of his pony herd. Erskine thought that gift was way below the needs of such a fine man as Chief Joseph and said, “No, that was not what my father meant.” He never passed on that request to his father and lived with regret most of his life for not having done so.

C.E.S. and Erskine Wood

OHS neg., OrHi 74717

It occurred to him later that a fine stallion would have been a perfect gift for his friend. Indeed, it would have been, and it was well within his father’s means. I was raised around horses and have always loved them. What a fine gift it would have made, I thought as I read Gulick’s account. What a fine gift it would make, even today. An offer had been made long ago. It was clear to me that the offer could still be reconciled. At the age of twenty-five, I made a personal commitment to find a descendant of Erskine and tell that person what a fine gift a horse would make.

Young men have many dreams. I was no exception.

Eight years later, I met a woman who knew the Wood family. She told me that Erskine’s son was living in Vancouver, Washington, and drew me a map showing the location of his house. I didn’t tell her my dream but was encouraged and felt one step closer to my goal. I didn’t follow up right away because I was hoping the right time to act would reveal itself.

In 1990, I quit my job and went back to college at Oregon State University to study archaeology out of my concern for preserving the burial remains of my ancestors. I graduated with honors in 1993. In 1995, I began my Ph.D. studies at the University of Oregon in Eugene. I wanted to take a class in the law school called Indian Law. The brilliant and beautiful Professor Mary Wood teaches that class, and we met on a few occasions to discuss my interest. Wood is a common surname, and it never occurred to me that she might be related to Erskine. I missed the start of law school that year and had to wait until the next year to take the class. Unfortunately, the next fall I had a conflict with a class I needed for my doctorate, and I was able to attend the Indian Law class only half-time.

After the class ended, I was discussing my experience with George Wasson, a fellow doctoral student and a friend from the Coquille Tribe. He mentioned that Mary was a descendant of the white boy who had lived with Chief Joseph. I shook with excitement upon learning this and made plans to talk to Mary as soon as classes started winter term. I felt so fortunate to find this out. I had known Mary for over a year, and she had given no indication that she was descended from Erskine, but, then, it had not occurred to me to ask.

I must back up just a little here and mention a congruency that affected this series of events. In September 1996, the film producer Ken Burns had completed The West, a series on the history of U.S. expansion in the West. The capstone at the end of the series is the Erskine Wood story, retold by Kiowa Tribal member and Pulitzer Prize-winning author N. Scott Momaday. Scott had met Erskine shortly before his death, and they had discussed his time with Chief Joseph. I did not have a television at the time and had no idea that the series existed, let alone that it was being shown on PBS in the winter of 1996–1997.

When classes started in January 1997, I went to visit Mary Wood. I walked into her office and greeted her by saying, “Hi, Mary. It’s never too late to give away a horse.” Her mouth dropped open, and when she gathered herself together she was squealing with excitement. The West had been on just the night before, and she was wondering if there was anything she could do so long after the offer had been made by her great-grandpa. She said many in her family felt guilty about it, especially after the whole country saw the story on TV, and didn’t know what they could do. I told her about my relationship to Hinmatooyalatkekt and that it was likely Chief Joseph adopted Erskine as his son for those two autumns, so I adopted her as my cousin. She could hardly believe what was happening and decided then and there that she would find a descendant of Chief Joseph and give that person a fine stallion. Our conversation was brief that day, but the seed was planted, and I was there to nurture it and watch it grow.

At our next meeting, we discussed the details of how one could go about reconciling this long-unpaid debt. I would contact a Nez Perce friend, Horace Axtell, who I trusted to make a good recommendation as to who the most appropriate recipient of the horse should be. Mary decided that she would get in touch with all her relatives and start a fund to buy a good stallion. I proclaimed, “I want to be the first family member to donate to the fund” — we are cousins after all — and with exaggerated fanfare I handed her a quarter (student budget). That turned out to be a significant number. Incredibly, in the next six months the family fund grew to over twenty-five thousand dollars.

N. Scott Momaday, Rebecca Biddle Wood Hardesty, Mary’s twin sister, and David Liberty at the giveaway

Courtesy of David Liberty

Throughout that spring, more and more details fell into place. It meant so much to me to be a part of the developments. My personal life was totally in the dumps. I was suffering from severe depression over the breakup of my seventeen-year marriage and the exhumation of Kennewick Man from my tribe’s ceded lands. Both had happened the previous summer. I was in counseling for most of that school year, and “the gift,” as Mary had begun to call it, was a strong buoy that helped put some meaning into my life and kept my head above water.

One of the many highlights leading up to the consummation of the gift was meeting Dr. N. Scott Momaday. During spring term, I was taking a 600-level English class on the writings of Vine Deloria, Jr., and my professor, Sidner Larsen, was organizing a Native American Writers Conference for the coming May. Scott was scheduled to be one of the featured speakers, so I told Professor Larsen about the gift. Naturally, he was moved. Mary and I wanted Scott to be present at the giveaway to say a few words, and I had the duty and privilege of inviting him.

The big day arrived, and Dr. Larsen and I went to the airport to greet the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of House Made of Dawn. Scott is a large man and strikes an imposing figure, but his gentle spirit and soft-spoken manner put us all at ease. After introductions, we indulged in some small talk, and I told him a little about my studies and Kennewick Man. As we were driving back to campus, I briefed him on the gift developments so far. When I got around to asking Scott if he had any plans for the third weekend in July, he responded, “I’m going to the Wallowa Valley for a giveaway.” No invitation was necessary. I almost cried.

I quit school at the end of spring term. After dedicating eight years of my life to intense study, it was one of the hardest decisions I ever made. I went to my stepsister’s cattle ranch in the Blue Mountains near La Grande and stayed in her extra house, helping out where I could and riding horses and tending the herd. I was a good ranch-hand and was hoping she would offer me a job. No offer came, so I ended up living in a teepee I built from scavenged local materials next to Indian Lake at the south end of my reservation. I felt at the time as if I had no direction and little purpose and was living on credit in one of the most beautiful places on earth, totally depressed. I clung to the prospect that I had an appointment to witness a giveaway at Wallowa Lake. With as much anticipation as I could muster, I awaited the consummation of the gift. Mary and her extended family had found and purchased one of the finest appaloosas in the country, if not the finest, and were going to give it to Keith “Soy” Redthunder, a descendant of Chief Joseph who lived at Nespelem, Washington.

I arrived in Joseph on the Thursday before the giveaway and set up camp in my car. With little to do the next day, I hiked from the rodeo grounds up the rim of the glacial moraine that created Wallowa Lake, all the way to the tram (six miles uphill) and back. The unmatched beauty and serenity of that place helped give me the strength I so desperately needed.

David Liberty, Tommy Waters, Mary Wood, David Evans, and Rudy Shebala with the stallion

© 1997 Suzanne Lewis. Reprinted with permission.

Saturday was the parade for the annual Chief Joseph Days Rodeo. The parade always begins with a lone rider, a tribal member who rides out ahead as a scout to ensure that the route is safe for passage. To my surprise, Horace Axtell appointed me to be the lone rider. I felt very honored. When my duties ended, I changed out of my regalia and went back to Main Street to watch the rest of the parade. Some old friends from John Day had shouted to me as I rode by, and I wanted to find them. Instead, I ran into Mary. We had been out of touch since I had left the university, and she wasn’t sure if I would even be there. Since all our conversations had centered on Joseph’s request, she didn’t know that the gift had been my main source of strength for the past seven months. I met her father, also named Erskine, and we hung out a while discussing the next day’s events. That was when I realized we had very different feelings about what was going to happen. Mary wanted me to be a part of the receiving, and I had thought all along that I would be a part of the giving.

That evening, the Wood family gathered for a picnic at the park on the south end of Wallowa Lake. Everybody was so thrilled anticipating the next day’s event. I was soaking it all in. I needed to feel all the positive energy I could. What I had wished for long ago would soon come to pass. While I felt happy on the outside, I knew I had to go on afterward and somehow overcome my inner sadness.

Mary Wood with her father, Erskine Biddle Wood The receiving line

© 1997 Suzanne Lewis. Reprinted with permission.

The next day, July 27, 1997, was bright and beautiful. The Wood family and friends met at the Joseph City Park so we could go together to where the giveaway would take place. Scott Momaday showed up, and I introduced him to Mary. Everyone found a ride, and we all went to a private spot provided by a generous local. I had jumped in Mary’s car with Erskine, and the excitement level made it feel as if the car was shaking. We walked onto the property and met Soy Redthunder’s contingent. They had already conducted a ceremony in preparation for receiving the horse. As I walked over from the Wood family, to the side where all the tribal members were, as Mary had requested, I suddenly felt out of place. I would have much rather stayed on the Wood family side. I was pulled both ways and there was no middle, a common feeling for me as a half-breed. It mattered little in the scheme of things. What I most wanted to see was the Wood family make good on an offer made 104 years ago, and it was about to happen right in front of me.

The appaloosa was absolutely gorgeous, high-strung, and full of energy. Speeches were made, songs were sung, and everyone knew this was a very special moment in our lives. We made a receiving line, and everybody shook hands, many taking photos, with much laughter and a few tears. I was there to bear witness that dreams can come true.

Mary, Erskine, and I drove back into Joseph on cloud nine, among the last to leave the hallowed site.

Then we heard thunder rolling over the mountains.

The receiving line

© 1997 Suzanne Lewis. Reprinted with permission.

The Gift

Soy Redthunder agreed to accept the Wood family’s gift on the condition that Mary Wood memorialize the gift, its history, and its purpose in a short writing so that future generations would understand its significance. She did so, and the Wood family and Redthunder approved the wording. Below is an excerpt, which is included here with the permission of Mary Wood.

Until the day he died at age 104, Erskine Wood enjoyed recounting his Days with Joseph to his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and friends. In each storytelling his respect for Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce culture, traditions, and way of life was manifest — as was his sense of privilege for having experienced this for two seasons.

But Erskine Wood’s sense of gratitude and privilege also carried a deep, life-long regret of not transmitting Joseph’s desire for a stallion to his father, C.E.S. Wood. As he wrote in an account given at 90 years old:

[T]he regret that has lived with me the longest occurred at our saying goodbye…. Joseph and I sat on our horses on the bluffs of the Columbia overlooking the river. It was time to part. My father had written me to tell Joseph that if there was anything my father could do for him he was, through me, to let my father know. I gave this message to Joseph, and he said that he would like a good stallion to improve the breed of his pony herd. I looked on Joseph as such a great man, a noble chief driven out of his ancestral home, I revered him so, that I thought 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, so that when Joseph asked for a mere stallion, I shook my head and said, “No, that was not what my father meant.” Joseph accepted this calmly and we said no more. But I always regretted my utter stupidity. A fine stallion which would have upbred Joseph’s herd of ponies would have been a wonderful thing for him. Just the kind of thing in his Indian life that he needed, and of course well within the ability of my father to get for him but just because I exalted him so high I deprived him of it, and it is something I shall always regret.
Erskine Wood

By memorializing the words surrounding the gift, Erskine Wood passed along to the generations of C.E.S. Wood’s descendants Chief Joseph’s desire for a stallion. The C.E.S. Wood family today makes the gift of a stallion to honor these words spoken over a hundred years ago.

Though much has changed in Nez Perce Country with the passage of 100 years, the family wishes to carry out the intent of the words spoken as faithfully as possible. The Nez Perce Indians, as a people united by common heritage, now live on the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho, the Colville Reservation in Washington, the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon, and places in Canada and elsewhere. Today they answer to different tribal governments. We embarked on the quest to fulfill the words of a hundred years ago by resolving to learn more about Nez Perce life today. While we recognize that we cannot begin to understand the full richness and meaning of Nez Perce society, government, culture, and religion, we still hoped to gain an appreciation for the complexity of these life dimensions and enough wisdom to guide us through this journey. Wood family members traveled to Nez Perce Country in Nespelem, where Erskine Wood had lived with Chief Joseph, and Lapwai, Idaho, the seat of Nez Perce Tribal government, and the Wallowa Valley, where Joseph’s homeland is. At these various places we spoke with tribal elders, leaders, and individuals dedicated to restoring the role of the horse in modern Nez Perce life. We found that while all of these individuals approach their lives with different perspectives, allegiances, and spiritual callings, nevertheless there was a unifying vision of an opportunity to honor the words spoken a hundred years ago by consummating the gift on a family-to-family level. The deep inspiration gained from these visits is itself an enriching gift to us.

The Wood family wishes to consummate the gift in a manner which honors the historical context in which the words were spoken a hundred years ago. This was a family-to-family context, reaching from Portland, Oregon to Nespelem, Washington. The 1877 campaign relentlessly pursued by the U.S. Government had pitted Indians and whites against each other in a conflict stained with injustice and coercion, but the relationship between C.E.S. Wood and Chief Joseph after the war was as families engaged in a mutual and respectful bond of friendship. While respecting the sovereign role of tribal government in today’s world, the family believes that the gift today is most appropriately consummated in a context framed not by a government structure, but simply by the sanctity of the words themselves. We believe that a family-to-family gesture offers the greatest opportunity of reciprocity of hearts and, by transcending tribal jurisdictional boundaries and sovereign obligations, invites all Nez Perce to celebrate in the fulfillment of these words.

Erskine Wood perceived that Joseph had a strong interest in raising and breeding horses. We believe that a “good stallion to improve the breed of his pony herd” would have been used for communal benefit by Joseph, a man whose generosity of spirit towards his people was an inherent aspect of his leadership.

We feel that it is this dimension of sharing — of gift-giving — that should imbue the custody of the stallion. The stallion’s value is enhanced when it breeds, and the breeding creates the gift of progeny which accrues to the benefit of people not only in this generation, but in future generations as well. In this sense, the gift of a stallion today is not only the fulfillment of words spoken 100 years ago, but the beginning of a line of horses which carry the words, their symbolism, and the power of gift into the future.

Soy Red Thunder conditioned his acceptance on a request that the family memorialize the story of the gift, its meaning, symbolism, and purpose, so that all who celebrate in the gift today and in future generations can know its historical and spiritual context. This memorialization was penned to fill that condition. The family asks that this written story be provided to all who breed horses with the stallion and its progeny. In that way the symbolism of this gift becomes a part of the pedigree and bloodline of the stallion.

Mary Christina Wood
Portland, Oregon
March 28, 1997