Joe Redthunder, the oldest descendant of Chief Joseph, went to the hereafter Thursday with a ceremony that drew about 700 mourners from all over the Northwest.
The 87-year-old Redthunder, whose Nez Perce name was Hin-mat-ilp-ilp, was memorialized with four hours of drumming, bellringing and songs in ceremonies at the Nespelem Community Center and the Chief Joseph Cemetery. The colorful and stirring services followed the traditions of the Seven Drums, or Dreamer - a religion Joseph and his Nez Perce bands clung to while others adopted Christianity.
Seven men with thin hand-held drums filled the center with powerful native rhythms to open the funeral.
Redthunder died Monday of natural causes at his home in Nespelem.
Redthunder, whose great-grandfather was Joseph’s brother, followed Joseph’s example of statesmanship as well as his religion. Redthunder devoted his latter years to lobbying Congress on behalf of the Nez Perce bands Joseph attempted to lead to freedom. He was familiar with Washington’s late U.S. Sens. Warren Magnuson and Henry “Scoop” Jackson.
A reluctant warrior, Joseph humiliated the U.S. Army in numerous skirmishes as his 750 vastly outnumbered followers - two-thirds of them women, children and the elderly - in a 1,200-mile long flight toward Canada in 1877. Joseph’s bands had been ordered to leave their native Wallowa country in northeastern Oregon and settle on the Nez Perce Reservation at Lapwai, Idaho.
Through brilliant military strategy, the fleeing Indians got within spitting distance of the Canadian border in central Montana before they were hopelessly trapped. Joseph is remembered by all as the humanitarian who spared his people with the words, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
Joseph and his followers were exiled to the Colville Indian Reservation when they refused to join their kinsmen on the Nez Perce Reservation in adopting Christianity.
Redthunder, widowed in the late 1980s, fought efforts to “terminate” the reservation system, which became a last refuge. He also asked the National Park Service to memorialize Joseph’s grave in Nespelem, and was instrumental in getting Congress to establish the Nez Perce National Historic Trail along the 1,200-mile route of Joseph’s celebrated flight from captivity.
A retired equipment operator for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Redthunder also loved rodeo and had the broken bones to prove it.
“He was a wonderful father, uncle, grandfather and statesman,” said Councilman Bill Burke of Oregon’s Umatilla Tribe.
During a burial service at the Chief Joseph Cemetery in Nespelem, Redthunder was laid to rest between the graves of his wife, Lucy, and one of his sons, Morris. The spot is about 50 yards from Joseph’s grave.
Men and women were separated at the funeral in the community center and the graveside service. Women, on the left side of the casket, waited for the men on the right to go first in viewing the body at the funeral and in filing past the grave to toss in a handful of dirt.
Russell Jim, a member of the Yakama Tribe who led the services, urged people to hurry while viewing the body. “We can’t afford to hold this one back,” he said. “He’s getting ready to go.”
People turned themselves around as they passed the casket and at other times when respect was due. The gesture symbolizes the turning of the world. It signifies leaving past sorrows behind and a commitment not to turn back on a pledge.
After the last handful of dirt was tossed onto the reed mat over the white pine coffin in Redthunder’s open grave, Yakama Tribal Council Chairman Jerry Meninick explained the mourners’ duty to sing one last song.
“When that song has been sung and we have said ‘ay’ for the last time and turned around, and only then, can we be sure that we are truly alone and we have left somebody behind,” Meninick said. “When we go back to the longhouse, there will be an empty table and an empty plate.”
A few minutes later, as people were leaving, a thunderstorm that had been building all morning broke with a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder.