CLARKSTON — For Clarkston artist Jo Proferes the 20 museum-sized oil paintings depicting the Nez Perce War were some of the saddest works she ever did.Now 81, Proferes no longer paints, but she remembers how the light fell across Bear Paw Battlefield in the early 1970s when she visited on the same October day that the tribe surrendered on in 1877, “so the shadows would be right,” she says.
When Idaho marked the country’s bicentennial in 1976 the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Council requested that the bicentennial commission purchase the paintings and show them as part of the commemoration.
“They wanted to show the world they didn’t have anything to celebrate,” Proferes says.
The paintings, many depicting scenes of strife, struggle and sadness, went on display in the Idaho Statehouse and in Lewiston and Spokane and were used in PBS documentaries and elsewhere. They can be seen again in the new book, “Be Brave, Tah-hy, the Journey of Chief Joseph’s Daughter,” recently published by Washington State University Press.
In one of Proferes’ paintings a 12-year-old girl looks up into her father’s eyes as horses stampede behind them under a darkening sky. The man is Chief Joseph, Heinmot Tooyalakekt (Thunder Travelling to Distant Mountains). The girl is his daughter, Tah-hy, his only child that would survive to adulthood. The story is told through her eyes and begins when the government orders the Nez Perce bands to the reservation. It follows her through the war; to the agency school where she is given the unpronounceable name of Sarah; to her marriage, where she is wed in Christian and Dreamer ceremonies; to her death, when her father is finally allowed to see her again for her funeral.
“Be Brave, Tah-hy” was written by Jack R. Williams, the first superintendent of Nez Perce National Historical Park at Spalding. Williams worked at the park from 1969-75. He writes that while he was there tribal elders told him they feared their youth were losing not only their language but their culture and history. With the help of elders like Angus Wilson, Williams collected information to write a book that could be used in schools. He and Proferes became friends, and she drew pen-and-ink illustrations for the work. They didn’t know it would take decades to publish. Williams, now 89, lives in Florissant, Colo., and was unavailable for interviews because of poor health.
The book contains highly detailed descriptions of Nez Perce daily living — from legends, weapons, weddings and games to traditions such as the sweat lodge and the way to bake camas root in an outdoor pit. Told from Tah-hy’s perspective, the story comes to life as she relates the old ways and struggles to grasp a new reality. Many of the stories come from first-hand accounts of the war passed on to relatives.
“I thought it was historically accurate. I like that it’s from a different angle,” says Vivian Wilson, a ranger at Spalding park and a member of the Nez Perce Tribe. “It was meant to be a young-adult book. It’s written in a way that will keep their interest without jeopardizing the historical interest.”
The book is available at the Visitor’s Center at the park and through WSU Press by calling (800) 354-7360 or online at http://wsupress.wsu.edu/.
George and his folks had already gone to the place where the wedding was to be, and where the gifts were to be exchanged. It took some doing to get my aunt’s spring wagon, with all the gifts piled on it, through that camp which was alive with kids and dogs. Behind us came two cousins driving me-tah-tipt sikem (30 horses) which would be given to the Moses family.
After we got to the wedding place, Swan Woman went with me to a tipi close by where I could dress. She had my clothes bundled in a blanket. First from her bundle came the dress. I gasped when I saw she had covered almost all of it with elk teeth. She grinned and said, “How do you like the tusks from pee-lahp-tit waah-wak-yah (400 elk)? I had to trade, buy, and beg from lots of people to get them. Close your mouth child, and put it on.”
“Be Brave, Tah-hy, the Journey of Chief Joseph’s Daughter,” by Jack R. Williams, illustrations by Jo Proferes, WSU Press, $29.95, 144 pages.