A Tale of Two Shirts

Nez Perce collectors get the chance to own a shirt off Chief Joseph’s back


On June 20, 1905, “one of the greatest affairs of the kind” took place, a potlatch feast-giveaway of the belongings of Nez Perce Chief Joseph, who had died on September 21 in Nespelem, Washington, on the Colville Reservation.

“Nearly every Indian present was given something,” reported the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “The great war bonnet and war clothing went to three nephews.”

This year, 135 years after Chief Joseph famously surrendered 40 miles from the Canadian border and freedom, two war shirts with claims to the Nez Perce leader have made their way to the auction block.

One has sold at Sotheby’s New York, on May 16, for a $400,000 bid. The other will be up for sale at the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction in Reno, Nevada, this July 21. Its reserve price is $800,000 to $1.2 million.

The variance in value relates to how the provenance connects each shirt to the chief. The Sotheby’s shirt carries a letter of support from Stephen D. Shawley, the first curator of the Nez Perce National Historical Park. He stated Peopeo Tholekt received the shirt during the funeral giveaway, and that it was last seen in the possession of Jesse Redheart, Tholekt’s nephew.

Tholekt was likely among the potlatch attendees in 1905. Under the leadership of Looking Glass, he fought for the Nez Perce cause in 1877, dismantling the U.S. Army’s mountain howitzer during the Big Hole Battle and fighting near Bear Paw before the chief gave his surrender speech on October 5, discouraged by the deaths of Looking Glass and others, concluding: “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

Even more, Tholekt accompanied Chief Joseph in 1899 and 1900, when the chief unsuccessfully...

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