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Native American Photographs


One hundred and twenty-five years ago, hordes of journalists and photographers were traveling west to get stories and pictures of Native Americans in the news. But it was a little known Bismarck photographer who got the first pictures ever taken of two of the country’s most famous Native Americans.

126 years ago on this day, Chief Joseph surrendered with the words, “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.”

Joseph was chief of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce tribe. He had tried to live peacefully with the whites in his Oregon homeland, but he refused to confine his people to a reservation as ordered by the government. Settlers coveted the tribe’s fertile Wallowa Valley, and trouble soon followed. In the spring of 1877, the government broke their treaty and forced the Nez Perce out of Oregon toward a reservation in Idaho.

The journey was dangerous, and swollen rivers killed many of the Indians’ cattle and horses. Joseph’s warriors were enraged at being forced from their homeland, and on June 12th, several of them stole away to seek revenge. When the young warriors returned to him, eighteen whites had been killed, and Chief Joseph knew that a bloody retaliation would follow. Thus began one of the great retreats in American military history – nearly 1300 miles – as 750 Nez Perce headed for Montana to seek refuge with friends among the Crow.

Newspapers from all over the country followed the Nez Perce retreat, especially when they entered the new national park, Yellowstone, which was being visited by about 25 tourists. Nine of the tourists were actually captured, but even though all were freed or managed to escape, Americans demanded revenge.

The Crow Tribe refused to help them, so Joseph turned north toward Canada in hopes of joining Sitting Bull, who was in hiding since Custer’s death the year before. The Nez Percé battled and evaded an army of more than 2,000 soldiers the entire distance, but just 40 miles short of the Canadian border, the tribe was cornered. Left with only 86 men to protect his remaining 230 women and children, Chief Joseph finally surrendered.

A little-known Bismarck photographer, Orlando Scott Goff, had set up a studio at Fort Abraham Lincoln and had been taking pictures for the railroad west of the Missouri River. He was the one who took the last pictures of General Custer and his men, and he was also the first to get a picture of Chief Joseph shortly after the Nez Perce surrendered.

Four years later, Sitting Bull left his hiding place in Canada and surrendered at Fort Buford. >From there he was put aboard a steamer to be taken to the Standing Rock Reservation. When they reached Bismarck, Sitting Bull was taken off the boat, put up in a hotel room for the night and given dinner.

Orlando Goff once again saw his chance and asked Sitting Bull if he could photograph him. But the chief didn’t trust cameras and refused. After some haggling, Goff finally offered Sitting Bull fifty dollars, which persuaded the old man to cooperate.

When they got to Goff’s studio, Sitting Bull posed stiffly with his long pipe held in his arms. He allowed Goff to take only one picture, and then he stalked out.

Thus it was that a Goff scooped a host of national photographers by getting the first pictures ever taken of Sitting Bull and Chief Joseph.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

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