A Promise To Chief Joseph -- Heirs Honor 104-Year-Old Request For Horse

WALLOWA LAKE, Ore. - On a bluff overlooking the Columbia River in Central Washington, a 14-year-old Portland boy asked the legendary Chief Joseph if there was anything the boy's father could do for him.

Chief Joseph, in exile from his Wallowa homeland in northeastern Oregon, had one request: a stallion to improve his pony herd.

That was 104 years ago, and the wish remained unfulfilled.

The boy never conveyed the request to his father, Charles Erskine Scott Wood, a former Army lieutenant who 15 years before had pursued the Nez Perce into Canada.

The boy, Erskine Wood, assumed his father would rather give Chief Joseph something like the return of his Oregon homelands.

It haunted Erskine Wood, who died at 104, said his granddaughter, Mary Wood. "That was his major regret in his life."

Yesterday, near the shores of Wallowa Lake, members of the Wood family presented the long-delayed gift - a 3-year-old, black-and-white Appaloosa stallion - to descendants of Chief Joseph.

The horse is not just a gift, says Keith Soy Redthunder, Chief Joseph's great-great-grandson. It's a promise kept, hope for the future of a people who still feel exiled.

"If there is a promise that can be fulfilled after 104 years, surely you have to have hope," said Redthunder, who received the gift on behalf of the 250 or so descendants of Chief Joseph on the Colville Reservation.

During the Nez Perce war of 1877, C.E.S. Wood was aide-de-camp to Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, leader of the troops pursuing the Nez Perce toward Canada.

He recorded the surrender in October 1877 at Bear Paw, Mont., including Chief Joseph's famous speech in which he promised to "fight no more forever."

After the war, Wood became a prominent Portland lawyer and friend to Chief Joseph.

Wood's family says he watched with dismay as the Nez Perce who surrendered with Chief Joseph were sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., then Oklahoma. Wood and others lobbied Congress to allow Chief Joseph to return to the Northwest.

In 1885, the Nez Perce were allowed to return, but not to Oregon.

Some went to the Nez Perce reservation at Lapwai, Idaho, while Chief Joseph and others settled near Nespelem on the Colville reservation in Washington.

In 1889, C.E.S. Wood asked Joseph to allow Erskine to stay with the chief at Colville. The boy spent two summers with Chief Joseph, hunting, riding and fishing. He recorded his experiences in a published diary, and the story of the unfulfilled gift was passed down.

In recent years, his granddaughter, Mary Wood, a law professor at the University of Oregon and an Indian-law scholar, had talked with her father, Erskine Wood Jr., about fulfilling the request.

Then last fall, N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa poet and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, recounted the story of the horse in filmmaker Ken Burns' 1996 documentary, "The West."

Unknown to them, Erskine Wood Jr.'s 82-year-old cousin, Katherine S. Livingston, a granddaughter of C.E.S. Wood, had the same idea. Early this year, Livingston sent fund-raising letters to 55 Wood family members.

Although Mary Wood had never met Livingston before, they raised more than $22,000 for the purchase and delivery of the horse.

Livingston, like Wood, was inspired to make good on the gift because of her devotion to her grandfather.

"If he knew this, if he had ever gotten that message, there would have been a horse there the next day," Livingston said.