Preserving the Past to Learn in the Future: Chief Joseph’s Memorial


Project in eastern Oregon builds relationships while enhancing a landmark

One of eastern Oregon’s most well-known figures in history is Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Tribe. This past summer, our Highway Region 5 crew teamed up to improve the rock wall at the Old Chief Joseph Gravesite Memorial so future generations can continue to learn from the past and honor those who played a role in it.

Chief Joseph, or Joseph the Younger, inherited a volatile situation in the 1870s, as white settlers continued to arrive in the Wallowa Valley, where his memorial gravesite is located. Eventually, the Nez Perce were forced onto a reservation in Idaho, but not before tribe members resisted in what military leaders called an admirable display of “…scientific skill.” Chief Joseph is often remembered for the last phrase of his surrender speech, when he said, “From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”*

The Chief Joseph Gravesite Memorial is a National Historic Landmark along Highway 351 at the north end of Wallowa Lake, about a mile south of the town of Joseph. The four-foot-high wall was built by the Indian division of the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1938 and 1941.

In 2017, we built a new multi-use path near the site, and community members expressed concerns that the new path might negatively impact the 80-year-old structure; these concerns prompted our funding of the repair project.

Partnerships help do it right

Working with local tribal leaders, we brought in experts from the National Park Service to assess the condition and provide guidance on making repairs.

“The restoration was really birthed out of an intention to preserve the wall and to draw more attention to it,” said Architectural Historian Larissa Rudnicki. “We’re in the proximity of a sacred site and the project will help mitigate any potential impacts from the pathway project.”

The National Parks Service sent us several preservation experts to help finish the project in August and September. Work included cleaning the stone of moss and debris, repairing cracked and damaged areas, re-grouting joints, and other delicate tasks.

The restoration team’s matched the original tri-colored mortar scheme. Red, white and yellow mortar represent the Umatilla Tribe’s medicine wheel.

Local artisans, including tribal member interns Cecilia Alvarez and Shannon Nicholai with the Nez Perce National Historical Park in Spalding, Idaho, helped out on the project, while also learning some of the same crafts that were used when the wall was first built.

“I like it,” Alvarez said. “It’s kind of tedious, but I enjoy it and am having fun right now.”

Brian Griffin of the National Park Service Historic Preservation Training Center in Frederick, Maryland coordinated the restoration work, following a specific set of standards to preserve as much of the historic fabric as possible.

“Our mission is to preserve these things for future generations,” he said. “It’s quite an honor.” 

A great use of time and money

About $100,000 was budgeted for the restoration team’s travel, lodging and fieldwork, which included matching the original tri-colored mortar scheme. Red, white and yellow mortar representing the Umatilla Tribe’s medicine wheel are also present in sections of the memorial.

One of the interesting aspects of the wall at the Old Chief Joseph Gravesite Memorial is the various metal objects used to reinforce the concrete. Machinery scrap iron, bolts, barbed wire, tools and what appear to be leaf springs from a car or wagon are imbedded in the exposed sections of the concrete cap. These items tell part of the history of the wall. Since they show minimal signs of corrosion after eight decades, some of the artifacts will be left exposed for visitors to discover as they explore the site.  

“I’m very excited about this project,” Rudnicki, our architectural historian, said. She noted the importance of taking into account the voices of other people on something like this.

“They made this project so much better than it ever could have been,” she said. 
“We have formed relationships that we hope to have for years to come.”

*Excerpt from The West Film Project, copyright 2001, PBS.

About Author

Tom Strandberg is the Oregon Department of Transportation's Highway Region 5 Public Information Officer.

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