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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 493


This is the grave of Josiah Red Wolf.

I had never heard of Josiah Red Wolf before stumbling upon his grave. But I want us to imagine his life, or at least the best we can, because it’s the life of so many Native people who lived through the genocide against them. He was born in 1872, somewhere near modern-day Asotin, Washington. His grandfather was Chief Red Wolf, who led the Alpowa Band of the Nez Perce. His parents had joined the Looking Glass Band. This was a very bad time to be born into the Nez Perce. Since the 1850s, whites in the Northwest had attacked them, killed off the game so central to their diet and trading network, had murdered many, killed others with disease, made demands on their lands, etc. By 1872, Chief Joseph (Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt in Nez Perce) was the most important chief of the Nez Perce and the tribe was desperate. In 1877, they decided to flee their homelands and try and fleet to Canada after some warriors under Chief White Bird killed some white settlers. Recognizing the genocidal writing on the wall, they started out in one of the most famous moments in Native American history.

Josiah Red Wolf would be the last living survivor of that journey that killed so many. Troops under General O.O. Howard attacked the Nez Perce at the Big Hole, in southwestern Montana. Red Wolf’s mother was holding his hand as she was shot and killed by the same bullet that also killed his baby sister. Being four years old, he was old enough to remember this. In 1965, Red Wolf told his story to writers for Montana: The Magazine of Western History. The whole thing is so heavily dominated by the way that western history was written at that time that Red Wolf’s real feelings don’t often come through, but you can read it if you want.

But genocide against Native Americans didn’t end with their surrender. No, it was just getting started. First, the Nez Perce were sent to live with the Ponca in modern Oklahoma. Then, young boys such as Red Wolf were rounded up and sent to the Carlisle Indian School to be stripped of everything Indian about them. “Kill the Indian and Save the Man” said the vile founder of Carlisle, Richard Henry Pratt. Well, plenty of Indians were outright killed there too, but the idea was to make them forget their languages (using violence to enforce that), make them dress like white people, train them in skills that would often be useless on the reservations, convert them to Christianity, and otherwise end what it meant to be Native. Pratt attended Carlisle between 1890 and 1893 before returning to Idaho. Red Wolf later claimed that even before he was at Carlisle that he met Herbert Hoover while the latter’s father was in Indian Territory and that Red Wolf taught the future president how to shoot. Take a story like that with a serious grain of salt, though Hoover did spend a year in Oklahoma in the early 1880s with an uncle who was an Indian Agent so it is actually possible.

Upon his return from Carlisle, Red Wolf worked at a bank and served as a sort of liaison between the white community in Idaho and his people now living on a reservation there. He was trained as a cobbler at Carlisle and worked that trade at the Indian School on the Nez Perce reservation in western Idaho, a small slice of their former lands. He also learned the saxophone at Carlisle and led a band in Idaho. He married a Nez Perce woman named Frances Raborn. They had seven children. Six died in infancy.

The National Archives and Records Administration has placed the files of Carlisle students online. You can read Red Wolf’s here. It isn’t all that illuminating, but includes a picture and a few of his own words.

Red Wolf died in 1971, at the age of 98. The man lived nearly a century, from experiencing the defeat of his people as a boy to living through Carlisle and a century of racism, which is very hard to find and document in records, lost six children, and did what he could to help his people as he aged, including telling the stories of his youth to the public.

Josiah Red Wolf is buried in the Lapwai Mission Cemetery, Spalding, Idaho.

If you would like this series to cover other Native Americans, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Chief Joseph is in Nespelem, Washington and Sitting Bull is probably in Fort Yates, North Dakota, though there are claims that a town in South Dakota later stole his body, so it’s hard to know. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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