Friday, October 17, 2014

What I forgot to say!

So last week I gave a little talk at the Hells Canyon Preservation Council’s Portland fundraising event on the Nez Perce in the Wallowa Country. Board Chair Pete Sandrock told me I had 30 minutes—and that he was a tough timekeeper!

There is no way to summarize the Nez Perce story in a half hour, so the job was to pick out some high points and connect them well enough so that newcomers to the subject would get something to whet appetites, and people with some knowledge of the business might get something new.

On the way home I kept thinking of high points I’d missed—and determined to send a message out apologizing and righting my wrongs. Alas, a week has gone by, and many of the “urgent” corrections have faded, but there are still a couple….

Alvin Josephy at war
Number one, I meant to mention how important I think Alvin Josephy’s wartime experience as a journalist in the Pacific was to how he met and handled the Nez Perce story. He was only a few years away from horrendous experiences on Guam and Iwo Jima when Time Magazine sent him to Idaho and he first learned about the Nez Perce. He knew about war first hand, and he knew to trust the warriors’ accounts of things (and not rely on the generals and politicians). Previous, pre-war experience in radio journalism had honed his ear. As Indian historian Ciff Trafzer says, Alvin Josephy knew how to listen.

So two things came together immediately for Alvin. First, he saw that the Nez Perce Story was a “great American Epic,” a noble people and a fighting and tactically brilliant retreat and near escape to Canada and an alliance with the legendary Sitting Bull. Second, most of the available material on the tribe and on the War was from the White man’s point of view. But there were Indians’ accounts out there in the records of a courageous and eccentric Indian friend named Lucullus McWhorter, who walked the fighting retreat trail with Indian participants and wrote down their accounts; and in family memories and the words of four veterans of the War still alive.

Alvin of course determined to tell the bigger story of the Northwest and the Nez Perce, which took him back to Hudson’s Bay Company records, to the reservation at Colville where many descendants of the non-treaty Nez Perce still lived in exile, and to original accounts scribbled by fur traders, sketched at the Walla Walla treaty council by Gustav Sohon; notes, letters, and maps hidden and obscured in libraries and state historical societies across the country.


I think Alvin Josephy’s experiences in World War II are a big part of what he saw and how he proceeded with the Nez Perce story.

Number two. I know that I touched briefly on the discovery of gold on the Nez Perce Reservation in 1861, and the subsequent flood of white miners—some 18,000 had crowded onto the rez by 1862. I talked about the importance of the concurrent Civil War—Lincoln needed the gold and the country was still pressing irrevocably West during the great conflict. What I skimmed over was the War’s aftermath, when President Grant, listening to some of the liberal critics of how Indians had been treated during the War, turned over the administration of Indian reservations to the churches (in what Josephy says was the biggest abrogation of the line between church and state in our history). The Nez Perce Reservation was given to the Presbyterians to administer as part of Grant’s “Peace Policy.” (The Presbyterians become important in later Nez Perce history as well, but that is for another day.)

Fortunately, Presbyterian Agent Montieth was sympathetic and worked on the Indians’ behalf. President Grant eventually, in 1873, signed an executive order designating roughly half of the Wallowa country to the “roaming Nez Perce.” Assessments were made to make ready for buying out the white settlers’ improvements, but by 1875 there were too many settlers, there was too much in the balance, and Grant rescinded the 1873 offer.

What I am sure that I failed to mention is that one of the screwy bits of history, and certainly a killer of any serious effort to give Wallowa land to Indians, is that Grant’s reservation gave the Indians the half of the Wallowa Country that had been settled by whites—roughly the north half of current Wallowa County, including the lower valley and town of Wallowa! The whites would get land that they largely had not settled.

Historian Grace Bartlett examined this closely, and determined that it was most likely “bureaucratic error,” mix-ups in communication between the field and the head office.

History has turned on less.


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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Nez Perce and the Columbian Exchange

In preparation for my Portland presentation on the Nez Perce in the Wallowa Country tomorrow night, and thinking about this ecosystems/ Pacific NW tribes class I am teaching in La Grande, I got to wondering about which elements of Alfred Crosby’s Columbian Exchange had the greatest impact on the Nez Perce.

The first one that comes to mind is the horse, because the Nez Perce became noted for their horse breeding and horsemanship. But they probably didn’t get the horse until the early 1700s, over 200 years after Columbus and his crew landed with them in the Caribbean. Late in the history of a people that had been here forever.

It was diseases, and specifically smallpox, that got Crosby to thinking about what all had crossed the ocean and united the two worlds so long divided. And the impact of diseases that the Europeans had developed some immunities to over centuries on indigenous Americans was in all ways catastrophic. In 1491—or maybe his later book, 1493—Charles Mann explains their roles in assisting the conquistadors in overwhelming central and south American civilizations, and in presenting a ghost landscape for immigrant Puritans on the Northeast Atlantic coast. Abandoned Indian gardens and food caches were more important in staving off Puritan starvation than were the pluck, courage, and Christian faith usually credited.

The impacts of diseases on the Nez Perce and other Plateau tribes were again decades—maybe centuries—removed. But diseases did creep in from the Pacific Coast to decimate Willamette Valley Indians in the late 1700s, well before the white men who carried them traveled that far inland. And we know that Indian trade routes took tribal people and commodities from the Pacific Coast to the Rockies—and probably beyond. And we know that the fur trade sent diseases off ahead of it as it moved across the North Country. Allen Pinkham, a Nez Perce elder and co-author of Lewis and Clark among the Nez Perce, thinks that there were about 5,000 Nez Perce in the country at the time of Lewis and Clark—but imagines a pre-Euro-disease population of some 20,000. That would jibe with Crosby and Mann’s thoughts on the impacts of diseases.

Treaties and broken treaties led to war, and Bobbie Conner, director at Tamastlikst, reminded several of us talking about the Stevens treaties one day at the Josephy Center that one must start any discussion of Indian treaties with the “Doctrine of Discovery.” It started with the pope and the Spanish and the Portuguese, but the English picked up on it, and by the time the Oregon Territory came into that crazy “joint occupancy” status, the notion that Indian lands were somehow both occupied but unoccupied (by “civilized” peoples) had taken hold. And Plateau lands were ripe for the plucking—the fight was on between the British (largely through Hudson’s Bay Company actions)  and the upstart United States about which civilized country could claim these Indian lands. Treaties were the tools.

But then I reread the Introduction to Alvin Josephy’s 1492, and he tells us that with all of the things the Europeans brought, all of their diseases, animals, steel and guns, religious righteousness and notions of private property, their Eurocentric view of the world, and the corresponding denigration of other world views, was the lethal blow. It allowed for the enslavement of Indians, the takeover of lands, the destruction of artifacts, and the erasure of languages and cultures that continued on for over 500 years! 

It echoed all the way to Alice Fletcher and Jane Gay “allotting” Nez Perce tribal lands in the 1880s. The solution to the Indian problem was to make them farmers, to assimilate them. Fletcher was kinder than most of her predecessors and contemporaries, thinking that the languages and cultures of Indians should be preserved in books and museums, but she was adamant in the belief that they must join the superior, Euro-American culture to survive.

“Kill the Indian to save the man”—or some version thereof—was long the standard on the “liberal” side of those dealing with Indians.


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Monday, August 11, 2014

Fire--and arrogance


We’re engulfed in smoke in the Wallowa Valley, more smoke than I can remember in my forty plus years living here. I think there have been bigger fires—Freezeout and the Canal Fire come to mind, but there seem to be fires on all sides of us now: fires in the Imnaha country, up Hurricane Creek and the Minam, and some further west and north. Smoke made the super moon more beautiful last night—and the mountains were just a fuzzy outline over gray. This morning we awoke to smoke.
At the fair this week I heard someone say that they should have been able to put out the Hurricane Creek fire when it was five acres, what with helicopters and hand crews. I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t know the particulars of that fire, but I have been up Hurricane Creek enough to know how convoluted and wild the place is. Have climbed over sprawling debris left by wind and snow driven avalanches, seen streams change their course. The place seems aptly named.
But the remark stays with me. I think about the Fishtrap session we did on fire some 20 years ago. Stephen J. Pyne told the history of the world in fire, then explained how fire policy in America changed after WW I, when we “made war on fire.” We thought we’d found a moral equivalent of the real war we’d just endured and vowed to put everything out by 10 a.m. the morning after a fire was spotted.
And I think about the University of Washington foresters (sorry I don’t have their names at hand, but can find if someone wants to follow up on this) who have pieced together a history of fire in the Wallowa country that goes back thousands of years. They work with tree rings and cored lake deposits; I recall them discovering 15-year fire cycles in at least part of the country.
We know that the Nez Perce—and most Plateau tribes and many tribes across the continent—burned regularly. They managed an open forest that facilitated growth of roots and berries and game, and later, horses. Nils Christoffersen and Larry Nall at Wallowa Resources are examining the earliest white reports of local forest conditions, trying to decipher those Nez Perce practices with an eye to species and spacing and rebuilding a resilient forest that will serve human needs and accommodate the swings of natural forces.
What was so different about Indian land use practices might not have been the details, but the attitude, theirs being one of accommodation rather than dominion, nudging the spirits and forces that bring rain and snow, wind and fire, wet and dry. As Alvin Josephy and others have said, the most destructive attitude of the Europeans on confronting the Americas was the idea of dominance, that Biblical notion that the rest of everything was put here for the benefit of and at the disposal of good humans.
It seems that scientists were not—are not—immune to that Biblical notion of dominance. The 10 o’clock policy didn’t work, but there is some kind of ingrown belief that trickles down from forestry schools through the general population, that someone, someplace, has a key to make fire policy “correct”—and to put out that five-acre flare-up on Hurricane Creek.
One might even strike a larger note—I love to generalize!—and say that our big cultural failing, our tragic flaw, is the notion that everything has AN answer, as if the world, natural and human and personal, is not one of ambiguity and constant change.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

Desperation


At the Fishtrap Gathering this weekend, writer Luis Alberto Urrea talked about the border. He’d written a non-fiction book, The Devil’s Highway, about 26 from Vera Cruz who crossed the border in 2001—twelve made it, and fourteen died in the trying. The book was a Pulitzer finalist and has just been reprinted in a tenth anniversary edition. The story is lauded by many, even by border patrollers, but there is no political purchase or acknowledgement.
He’s followed it with a novel called Into the Beautiful North, which deals somewhat playfully with Mexican villages where mass exoduses of men have left villages of women, young children, and oldsters. Is it an easier way of looking at things?
In seriousness, in a panel on the multi-cultural future, Luis asked the audience to imagine how desperate parents in El Salvador or Honduras must be to gather last resources, give them to a smuggler, and hope that a child makes it to the beautiful north. We’re talking, he said, not about an immigration problem, but about desperation and a refugee problem of major and international proportions. 
All of which reminded me that in my reading of early European settlers among the Indians of North America there is always an undercurrent of desperation. We think and talk of rugged and heroic individuals, but the reality was more often young, scared, and hungry men being chased by circumstances to find something better.
They came to the new world—fleeing the Little Ice Age they couldn’t name but the drought and hunger they felt—as indentured servants, brought to the dock by desperate parents who signed them over to ships’ captains to be auctioned for servitude in Virginia or Massachusetts. With time—two years or five or seven—they might get freedom and a purchase on land or property of their own. The women, chained by marriage and children and living in fear of death by childbirth and death of children, followed on.
And their children, not indentured, but often poor, would push further West. And the companies—fur companies, railroads, charters—would tell them that “rain followed the rails,” that beaver were as thick as cats, that there was gold to be had, that there was “free” land—land stolen from Indians that could be “pre-empted” by Oregon Country settlers beginning in 1841, or homesteaded across the West after 1862.
The men who sold the furs in Europe, made the Levis in California, and owned the railroads everywhere made the money. But the rest of us—our parents and grandparents—at least many of us, hung on and created a country.

And now the rest of us—many of us at least—want to shut the door that opened for our hungry grandparents. How often do we think about those parents who sent our grandparents—or great grandparents—off to an unknown, but just maybe better, future? How do we forget so easily?
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Saturday, June 28, 2014

Chester Nez, Indian Patriot



The last of the original 29 World War II Navajo code-talkers, Chester Nez, passed just weeks ago at the age of 93. The cruel ironies in his story are many, but the greatest of them haunted Nez to the end: “All those years, telling you not to speak Navajo, and then to turn around and ask us to help with the same language,” he told USA Today in 2003, “It still kind of bothers me.” 
I’ve known for years that the enlistment rates for American Indians in the armed forces are higher than for any other definable group, and that the standard interpretation is that “warrior culture” still flourishes in the tribes. Maybe true—though it seems we’ve made a bad habit of lumping all Indians together without considering historical realities of some tribes being more war-like and some tribes being known for peace-making skills. And we haven’t taken into account gender roles in tribal cultures—another area of great diversity—that might also influence warrior behavior and enlistment rates.
This thinking brought me back to Alvin Josephy’s first “Indian book,” Patriot Chiefs, published in 1961. In the Foreword, Josephy says that “from the first coming of the Europeans to America, the Indians were faced with the gravest threats that men face: challenges to freedom, right of conscience… and life itself.”
“There were some cowards,” he continues, “some weaklings, some bargainers, some appeasers and compromisers; some were confused and frightened, some confused and very brave, and many were strong and unwavering patriots.”
When traveling with Alvin on his last book tour in 2001 (A Walk Towards Oregon), he always looked to see where his books were shelved. In the early days, he said, “they were hidden with books on insects and dinosaurs.”  Indians, in other words, were not a part of history and didn’t have biographies. Indians knew different, and in 1961 they told Josephy that no one had ever called them “patriots,” no one had recognized that they were always fighting and struggling for their land and their ways of life. 
Chester Nez again: “when joining the Marine Corps, I thought about how my people were mistreated, but then I thought this would be my chance to do something for my country.” So Chester (his Indian name is lost; Chester given him by whites after President Arthur) and 28 other young Navajos, at the instigation of a WW I vet and son of missionaries on the Navajo reservation named Philip Johnson, used their once forbidden language to build a code that the Japanese never cracked. (Navajo was the basis, but the code was sophisticated enough so that regular Navajo speakers could not understand it.) By War’s end some additional 400 Navajos had joined the original 29, and, Indians from other tribes had used their languages as codes in the European Theater as Chester and tribe toiled in the Pacific.  
I discovered the business about other tribes and codes in Chester Nez’s NYT obituary—another case of Indians lost in our history—and heard again how at War’s end they came home unwanted and mistreated in their own lands. 
Late for sure, but the Navajo code-talkers have entered American history now in books and film: the New York Times headline on Chester Nez announced that a “Native Tongue Helped to Win the Pacific War.”
I wished that Alvin had lived to see that headline. “Some of the Indians’ greatest patriots,” he said in 1961, “died unsung by white men, and because their peoples also were obliterated, or almost so, their very names are forgotten” Alvin’s Patriot Chiefs—Hiawatha, King Philip, Pope, Pontiac, Tecumseh, Osceola, Black Hawk and Keokuk, Crazy Horse, and Joseph—“were big men, as much a part of our heritage as any of our other heroes, and they belong to all Americans now, not just to Indians.”
And Chester Nez was a big man—and a patriot. He didn’t die forgotten, but embraced by Indian and white alike. He helped to win a war, and maybe to make it possible for his heirs to speak their own language again. 
Patriotism might be the real key to understanding the Indians’ high enlistment rates and their readiness to die for land and culture. In ways that white immigrants may never understand, this is Indian country still, and Indians are patriots still. And maybe, ever so slowly, they are entering “American history” as well. Alvin would like that. 
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