Thursday, June 23, 2016

Western History, 1960-1980

I graduated from high school in 1960. We didn’t know where Vietnam was, and automatic draft deferments for college and the Peace Corps allowed me to skate by that evolving war easily until I turned 26, in 1968. By then, I was on Peace Corps staff, and, after Tet, fighting with only limited success to keep Volunteers in the field from being drafted. And fighting, without success, to keep the Peace Corps in Turkey amid the anti-American sentiments unleashed by Vietnam

Skip Royes was a few years younger.  He came out of high school in eastern Oregon when the Vietnam mill was gobbling up recent graduates and college students who hesitated. Skip went to Vietnam, where he apparently was “good at war,” and came home to a world of alcohol, drugs, alternative cultures, and madcap college. He quickly left the whirlwind for horses and solace in Snake River Country.

Pam Severson was a few years younger than Skip, restless in North Dakota and then Ashland and Eugene during the tumultuous late 60s and early 70s. A fast 1976 trip to the Wallowas in her VW bug to visit high school friends, and a backpack trip to the Snake River introduced her to that big country—and to Skip.

Pam’s written a memoir about their four years together in Snake River Country. It’s called Temperance Creek, after a sheep ranch they worked on, and it is wonderful—honest, bold, and chock-full of memory triggers for those of us who spent any part of our 20s and 30s in those years. Who didn’t know someone home—or not—from Vietnam? Listen to the music? Think you were or wanted to be called a “hippie”? Get a letter from a friend urging investment in a commune in British Columbia? Search for a soul-mate as free and easy, or radical and committed, as were we?

It’s all here: the Dakota Norwegian heartland, Vietnam, Eugene, hippies, dude ranch, back-to-the land; and some of the most gorgeous and challenging country in North America. And, for good measure, throwbacks and reflections on other times, when sheep ranching was big, when herders were local misfits and societal escapees—and Spanish Basques. A time when environmental concerns, the wilderness movement, and a more urban, technical workforce were making livestock a tough business. Agriculture, like the rest of the economy and the country, was changing. And we—the baby boomers and Vietnam vets, college protestors and followers of the Grateful Dead, were trying to make sense of it all.

I came to the Wallowas in 1971 on a one-year contract with the Oregon State University Extension Service. In 1976, along with wife Judy, I opened the Bookloft, and, eventually, Judy’s Kitchen. For 45 years I’ve watched people come and go, read the country’s books, listened to stories from “old-timers,” and tried to grasp what it was like 100 years before my time, when Chief Joseph and his band of Nez Perce Indians wintered along the Snake, Grande Ronde, and Imnaha rivers and roamed the headwaters and the Wallowa Valley in summers.

Pam arrived the year the bookstore opened. I remember her running in and out with small children, using the phone on trips to town, I remember listening to her sing—she and Kathy Josephy and June Colony did some entertaining at the first Fishtrap—and have square danced and swapped stories with her and Skip around beers and potlucks ever since. This book’s kind of like that—strong stories of love and loss, dogs, sheep, horses, mules, friends and bosses, sheepherders and dudes. I told Pam it’s the best since Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight storied me past English imperialism and through the civil war in Zimbabwe. And this one is home turf, and for the last couple of years I’ve got to watch her sell the book to Counterpoint and live through the editing. It’s been a joy.

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Pam will be at Eliot Bay Books with David Laskin on Monday, June 27 at 7:00 p.m. And at Powell’s in Portland on July 19. Go say hi!

Friday, June 10, 2016

Eske Willeslev: Listening to science; listening with science

Eske Willeslev, the Danish geneticist who led the team that explored the DNA of the Ancient One, aka Kennewick Man, is the director of the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen.  Dr. Willerslev and the Center are using ancient DNA to reconstruct the past 50,000 or 70,000 years of human history. His career and mission is outlined in a recent NYT article-- http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/17/science/eske-willerslev-ancient-dna-scientist.html?ribbon-ad-idx=3&rref=science&module=ArrowsNav&contentCollection=U.S.&action=click&region=FixedLeft&pgtype=article&_r=0

To remind, the Ancient One was found along the Columbia River in 1996, and the remains, or how to handle the remains, was contested by tribes and some members of the academic community for years. Early attending academics thought that Kennewick man looked, in skull shape particularly, more European than Native American, which brought a rush of theorizing about pre-Bering corridor, European or even Pacific Island, arrivals to the Americas. Northwest American tribal leaders—Umatilla, Colville, Nez Perce, Yakima, and others—argued ancestry and advocated reburial. After much wrangling, the academics won a legal victory and instructions to the Corps of Engineers, which held the bones, to proceed with DNA testing.

I’ve not followed the process at every step, but know from a good source, then Oregon U.S. Attorney Kris Olson, that the wrangling was tough and the Indians were patient. And I understand that initial DNA testing done in this country was too crude to make determinations. And that Willeslev and colleagues at the University of Copenhagen recently stepped in with newer and better techniques and made the determination that the Ancient One’s near relatives were American Indians, not Europeans.

Willeslev’s personal history, as outlined in the NYT article, is fascinating, but what is more fascinating is his philosophical conversion from a scientist whose view was “that human history belongs to all of us because we’re all connected, and no people have a right to stop our understanding of human history” to a scientist-humanist willing to listen to contemporary relatives of ancient peoples with their own histories and concerns about scientific inquiry.

He once proudly showed off a collection of ancient Danish skulls to Native American visitors, only to find them upset by the sight. ‘How can you treat your ancestors like that, so disrespectfully?” he recalls them asking.

But the philosophical conversion actually occurred when he was working with ancient Australian DNA. On discovering that there was resistance from some of the aboriginal people, Willeslev decided to travel to Australia to meet with them. He was shocked to learn of the history of “scientific” research on aboriginal Australians. Victorian anatomists—not unlike their US Smithsonian counterparts—had plundered burial grounds and carried off bones to put in museums. Years of such exploitation had left many aboriginal Australians suspicious of scientists. In The US, it led to passage of the “The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)” in 1990.

In Denmark, it led to a rethinking on Eske Willeslev’s part. He’s still the scientist. And the Australians were delighted to learn of links from the continent’s dwellers of 70,000 years ago to them today—this is certainly one of the longest continuous DNA records constructed by scientists to date.

In America, as things played out with the Ancient One, only one tribe stepped forward to provide DNA to the Danish researchers; other tribes clung to their beliefs that the bones were theirs and should be put in the ground without the new DNA science. The one tribe was enough for Willerslev and colleagues—and for the critics—and in the end, I am sure that our Plateau tribal people were glad to have “scientific confirmation” that the Ancient One is related to them.  Like the Australian aborigines are proud of “scientific truth” linking them to 70,000 year-old ancestors.

But the story also tells us that science—and scientists—come and go. That there is always something provisional about even the “best” science. Willeslev’s good work does not make up for past abuses. This is what I take not only from the Indians, the Australian aborigines, and their experiences, but from Dr. Willerslev. A chastened scientist, he says now of the Ancient One, “it means I regret that important material is getting reburied… But when you find that these remains are genetically Native Americans, it’s not our call anymore.”

He’s working now with some Crow Indians, and suggesting that genetic work might help with the tremendous diabetes problem on their reservation. They are interested; Willeslev is listening to them and his science is at their service.

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Saturday, May 28, 2016

Geneticists, Linguists, and American Indians

There’s an interesting piece in today’s NYT about genetic testing African Americans. The researchers covered in the article calculate that “the ancestors of the average African-American today were 82.1 percent African, 16.7 percent European and 1.2 percent Native American.”

More interesting than that, by examining the length of matching DNA strands, they claim that the Native American genes got into the African American mix very early, as slaves were first brought from Africa, and that the European genes got into the mix later—primarily during the time just preceding the Civil War.

Furthermore, by tracing X and Y chromosomes—Xs come only from mothers; fathers can pass on Xs or Ys—and the fact that the X chromosome of contemporary African-Americans shows more African ancestry than do the Y, leads them to the conclusion that the 16.7 percent European ancestry is primarily due to white slave owners fathering the children of their black slaves.

Here is a link to the story: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/28/science/african-american-dna.html?emc=edit_th_20160528&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=66175474

This is all very interesting, but haven’t historians been telling us most of this for a long time—if we were listening? Linguists too, and folklorists have traced languages and cultural patterns, and thus the movements of peoples across time and geography.

* * *

I always introduce Library visitors to Alvin Josephy’s Indian Heritage of America (published in 1968) by pointing out that he begins with languages. Although scarcely 50 years ago, this was a time before the “human genome.” But common sense and Josephy tell us that we can trace people’s movements, and to some extent the development of their cultures, through language. Josephy found early that one of the gifts left by missionaries, furmen, and adventurers is a chronicle of Indian languages.

Speaking of gifts, a donor recently left the Josephy Library a copy of John Wesley Powell’s 1891 report to the Smithsonian. This Powell—the same who floated the Colorado—sent a team of a half dozen researches across the country gathering language information for two years. He then analyzed and classified the Indian language information they brought back in his annual report. Powell broke them into 46 major language groups—I believe this was the first classification of North American Indian languages.

Josephy had later research to work with. But it has always struck me as a mark of his genius that he began a book intending to paint a broad picture of the Indian heritage of North and South America by talking with linguists. And it occurs to me that his advantage in being a journalist was that he was not discipline-bound—he reached out to linguists, archeologists, anthropologists, and others who were, often quietly and for an audience limited to their own field, building pictures of the past.

There are a dozen ways to go with this: genetics is incredibly interesting, but let’s not forget the human stories of slavery, the “Great Migration” of African Americans out of the south, and, always, the Indian presence in all subsequent “American” history. How do we make sure the human stories don’t get lost in the science?

Or, we can celebrate the new emphasis on tribal languages across the country. One of my early Peace Corps language memories is a Turkish saying that where there is “one language, one man; two languages, two men.” Taking away the gender issue, the point is that language is intricately tied to culture, and the loss of language is a loss of culture and history. So good for the tribal language programs and linking tribal peoples to history and culture.

We’ll continue to get stories from geneticists, but let’s also remember and thank those missionaries and adventurers for their roles in preserving languages. And let’s remember the stories that language, oral history, and culture tell us about the past as we keep them alive in the present.

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Thursday, May 12, 2016

Loving the Game, the Rez Game

I’ve not followed professional basketball—or even college basketball—much over the past few years. The “posting up” business is boring, and the spectacle of who might be the most athletically talented individuals in the world running up and down a court that seems too small for them, dunking basketballs in a hoop that seems too low for them, just didn’t stir me.

Mary Stewart of Nixyaawii Golden Eagles (credit: East Oregonian)
But I have watched a lot of high school basketball, where the size of the court and the height of the rim seem to be in proper proportion. And this year I’ve taken special interest with my freshman grandson playing at Joseph High School. One of the treats has been watching Nixyaawii Community School, the boys and girls teams from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation. Both beat Joseph handily, with great ball control and great three-point shooting, and both went on to take third place in the state small schools tournament. It was fun watching the shooting, passing, and ball control—“they’ve been playing together since elementary school,” we were told. And, when we played at Nixyaawii, it was fun sitting in a small gym with the parents, and the grandpas and grandmas, aunties and uncles, watching the game, soaking up the joy, pride and community.

* * * *
As a sports junkie since my own playing days who doesn’t watch much of it on TV, basketball interest started growing this year with my grandson playing and news stories about the Golden State Warriors and a new kind of pro basketball. So I watched some pro ball, including almost all of that last Golden State game, when Steph Curry and the Warrior crew tore up the record books. The way that Golden State moved the ball, and the long threes that opened up alley-oop dunks was different from a big man posting up and backing down another Goliath. And it looked like the whole team and coaching staff—and the fans of course—were having fun as they wrote their way into the record books—for most wins, most three pointers, most most most. It was, I thought, a bigger version of Nixyaawii.

* * * *
I ran across another basketball piece in the New York Times this week. It was about Baron Davis and a documentary film—The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce—the former NBA all-star made about this thing that has been going on in South Central Los Angeles since the 70s called the “Drew League.” In the heart of the ghetto, where Davis grew up, and started playing at the age of 13, a bunch of hoopsters from high school and up play basketball for the camaraderie and the love of it.

Yes, most of the young black players in the Drew League want do be like Davis, go from Drew to UCLA to the NBA, But the Drew also catches players like Davis after they’ve been to the top and, with injury stopping careers, still need the game. It catches players on the way up and the way down, makes a place for high school and college players, old pros and aspiring ones to play the game for gain—and for the love of it. Right there on the “home court” in South Central.

* * * *
Not many rez players make it to the NBA—or the WNBA, but if you hang around tribal people at all, you know that basketball is the rez game. When you sit in the stands at Nixyaawii, you hear pride in the next generation and stories of uncles and cousins who played the game well. You get a sense of community that spreads across ages and genders, pride when a full scholarship to Stanford is announced for one of the girls. You know that the people on the court, on the bench and in the stands all love the game that’s brought them together that night.

Schimmel sisters at Louisville (Indian Country Today)

Which reminds me that the Schimmel sisters, Shoni and Jude, started on the Umatilla. I remember watching the 2013 NCAA women’s final when the Schimmels and Louisville took on Connecticut—hoops were rattling and nets swishing into early morning hours on the rez—and probably on rezes across the country—that day in 2013.   They lost—Connecticut has been almost unbeatable for years—but they lost well, and Shoni played her way into professional basketball.

Googling “Native American professional basketball” players will only get you a handful, but you’ll also be introduced to “Indian Country Today,” and some great stories of basketball in Indian Country, where, like the Drew, there are aspirations for the college and pro games, and a whole bunch of love for the game.

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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Westerner

Walter Brennan and Gary Cooper in “The Westerner”
We celebrated the life and work of actor Walter Brennan this weekend at the Josephy Center. Grandpa McCoy of TV’s “Real McCoys” bought a ranch in Wallowa County in 1940, long before he played on television, but well into an acting career that stretched from the silents to “Rio Bravo,” “The Westerner” to “The Over the Hill Gang.” Brennan was a political conservative who admired the Actors Guild, and a WW I vet who’d suffered mustard gas (and said later that if offered the chance to volunteer again he would decline). He built and owned a motel and movie theater in Joseph, was in on the founding of a rodeo named Chief Joseph Days, and walked Main Street, ate at the Gold Room, and in general saw himself as another resident of Wallowa County.

Some local wags have it that he came to Wallowa County as a friend of silent film star Eugene Pallette, a notorious right winger who feared apocalypse and built a heavily armed and provisioned retreat far up the Imnaha River. Pallette, it is said, planned to blow the Imnaha Canyon shut if the bad guys—communists, Asians, whoever—came to get him.

In contrast, Brennan bought a working ranch, and worked it. He moved here because son Mike’s North Hollywood agriculture teacher (yes, Hollywood had ag teachers and the Brennans had chickens in the yard) had taught in Enterprise, and when Walter said he was looking for a ranch and thinking about Jackson Hole, the teacher steered him to Wallowa County.

Son Mike carried on the ranching and farming, and grandchildren and great grandchildren still live and work here. A gaggle of heirs—some of them coming from California for the event, joined biographer Carl Rollyson and actor Kevin Cahill for our three-day celebration, which included watching “The Westerner” and a one-man play of the “Old Character,” crafted by Rollyson from Brennan’s own words and played by La Grande teacher and actor Kevin Cahill.

What did we learn? That Brennan started in New England, didn’t much like school, worked hard at many things, volunteered for service in WW I, where he saw heavy action, was gassed, and from which he later suffered from what we now call PTSD. After the War he worked for a time in a bank, which he hated, and married Ruth, a local sweetheart, quit the bank, and headed West. In California, Brennan made a fortune in real estate—then lost it. He had done some acting in the East, and in California found work as a stuntman and extra, finally finding speaking roles in “Barbary Coast” and “Fury,” and soon winning three Oscars for best supporting actor. He is thought of as the quintessential character actor, a man who worked at his craft, his accents and his appearance (“do you want me with teeth or without,” he would ask directors). In all, Brennan appeared in over 200 motion pictures and scores of TV shows.

Why did he buy a ranch? “Doesn’t everybody want to be a cowboy?”

And here he could be a kind of cowboy, shoot squirrels, eat lunch, and promote Chief Joseph Days with cowboy neighbors. I suspect that some of Walter’s Wallowa County friends shared his right wing political views, but when he was here being a local attending to local things seemed more important. It’s also worth noting that he named his motel The Indian Lodge to honor, he said, Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians who were wrongly kicked out of the Wallowas.

I guess for white folks the West has always been a place to create and recreate the self. And movies have been vehicles to review history and human story—and to explore the issues of the day.

Or, as writer friend Molly Gloss would say, of telling and retelling the same story—stranger comes to town to resolve some kind of dispute and save the schoolmarm or barroom floozy.

But the nature of the disputes is interesting. We watched “The Westerner,” in which Brennan plays Hanging Judge Roy Bean and Gary Cooper is the stranger who comes to town to resolve the dispute between cattlemen and sodbusters and ends up with the sodbuster’s daughter. What an interesting reminder that all of agriculture was not—and is not today—on the same side of an issue.

My thought is that, in time, Walter Brennan realized that sodbusters and cattlemen were all operating on land that had been lived on and with by Indians for millennia. “The Westerner” did not address the issue—not an Indian to be seen in that version of post Civil War Texas. It was years before “Little Big Man” and “Dances With Wolves” took Indians seriously…

but decades after Walter Brennan had become a Westerner, found the Wallowa Country, and named his motel The Indian Lodge.

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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Life on Joseph Creek

Joseph Canyon USFS photo
Alvin Josephy talked about Indians’ relationship to land, and how, from the get-go, Europeans did not understand it. Europeans saw land as an economic resource, not just a “home” place to live on and live with.  In fact, the Book of Genesis in pocket and mind, Christian Europeans thought themselves lords and masters of the land, with Biblically ordained dominion over it and all of its non-human inhabitants.

After a long slog through feudalism, during which most Europeans worked the land to the benefit of a ruling class, Euro-Americans saw opportunities to be their own lords and masters. A few years of indentured servitude and then Indian lands theirs for the taking. Thomas Jefferson legitimized it, promoting the idea of a nation of self-sustaining small landholders, free men who would forward humanity’s march towards democracy.

No one paid much attention to Indians’ relationships to land—except to take it. Well, Europeans did pick up the many crops Indians had developed over millennia in the “new” world, and shipped potatoes, corn, chocolate, tomatoes, manioc and dozens more around the globe. They also shipped gold—enough of it to change world economies, and tobacco, enough to start a new European rage. And they enslaved Indians and brought in African slaves to dig the gold and farm the tobacco.  Etc.

The world changed, continents “exchanged,” as Charles Mann recounts so well in his two books on the subject, 1491 and 1493.

But not all of America changed immediately, and the Indians in many parts of the country, after suffering diseases and wars, losing buffalo and land, being chased or “removed” from one place to another, held onto little pieces of earth, where many of them still live. These “reservations” (lands “reserved” from much larger areas of life and influence) are cruel reminders of how much land was taken from Indians, but their existence has also been a bulwark against total assimilation. That is what Alvin said—reservations, however small and humble, have allowed some Indians to maintain tradition and culture that is intrinsically tied to land.

The “better” lands—most not reserved for Indians—were generally lands most suitable to agricultural production. And, although it is another strand in this long story of land and lost lands, the notion that “ownership” of land should somehow be tied to its “improvement” is a recurrent theme in the homesteading tradition and the takeover of Indian lands.  God, said settling pioneers and their preachers, had ordained men to make the best use of the land; God, retorted Plateau tribesmen, did not want mother earth scarred with a plow.

* * *

The land on Joseph Creek in the Wallowa Country was homesteaded late in the 19th century. The Tippetts arrived there in 1916 or 17.  Thirty years ago Biden Tippett, who grew up there and went to country school there, took Alvin Josephy and a tape recorder on a tour of the area. Biden told me about this “lost” tape a year or more ago, and a month ago Ann Hayes brought in a box of cassette tapes, one marked  “Alvin Josephy—Biden Tippett 1986.” We had it digitized, and I listened my way to Portland with it on Saturday.

There is nothing earth-shattering, nothing that is going to change the reading of local history, but it is another chunk in my own understanding of the difference between improving land and living with land, owning land and being part of it, European and Northwest Plateau Tribal notions of relationship to land.

The Tippetts of course are of European stock, but something drove them from the Midwest to Heppner, Oregon, and then to the Chesnimnus Country in Wallowa County, and then took one of them, Jidge Tippett, to Joseph Creek, deep in the canyons of Snake River Country.

His son, Biden, born in 1926, said there were three or four other families on Joseph Creek at the time, enough to make the school and to help each other through calving, haying, and hard times.

What comes out of the interview is how self-sufficient the canyon dwellers were. They were good neighbors, and they all grew a little food, had their beef and wild berries, and traded for most everything else. Cows for a pig, and, Biden remembers, hides—wild and domestic—that the kids collected and traded to the Indians for gloves and moccasins.

Trading was one of the things that American Indians excelled at, and one of the most underreported in standard histories. The Nez Perce dried salmon and traded it in buffalo country. The Tippetts traded for gloves and bacon, and, like the Indians, ate the salmon and steelhead, game and berries. Like the Indians, they gaffed steelhead at the “narrows” on the Grand Ronde River.

Like the Indians, they traveled with seasons, wintering along Joseph Creek, summering in the high country, and moving cattle through the breaks in spring and fall. At one point on the tape, Alvin says “you lived like Indians.”  And Biden pretty much agrees, though he says that ranchers today (meaning 1986) make use of some modern conveniences. But he describes the way he sees wild animals—as “part of the habitat,” the way he travels horseback on narrow trails, the way he visualizes a day’s work and travel, reads sign, and lives with and loves the land, as the probable ways of its the old inhabitants.

Alvin asked him if he’d ever been lost in the canyons. “No,” Biden says, but he did get lost one time in Spokane.

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Friday, April 1, 2016

Another painting/statue/book of Chief Joseph?

Fouch photo of Joseph in Bismarck 1877
This week a sculptor who is having bronze work done at the local foundry came into the library looking for pictures of Chief Joseph. He has it in mind to do a bronze of a young Chief Joseph on a horse. He’d seen a picture of a Nez Perce—not Joseph—on a horse that had inspired him, and had seen photos of Joseph as an older man. He wanted pictures of hairstyles and clothing that might help him portray a younger Joseph.

We found his horse photo online, and when he mentioned the Nez Perce and Appaloosas, I pointed out the lack of spots on this photo. And sent him away with the Harry and Grace Bartlett and Alvin Josephy material from the New York Brand Book magazine of 1967. I also suggested a couple of books he might read.

We have two statues of Young Chief Joseph in Wallowa County, both done by non-Indian artists, and there are hundreds of Joseph likenesses standing big and small across the whole country. Add to that a huge number of drawings and paintings of the famous Nez Perce Indian…  and of course the books—new ones appear regularly as a new person, more than likely a white Euro-American, finds and is smitten by the Nez Perce story, or maybe only by a few words from the surrender speech: “I will fight no more forever…”

From my perch in the Josephy Library I see some of these people, and sometimes am asked, as I was this week, to help with research so that the artist or writer can get on with the dream novel, biography, painting or bronze likeness. Each person has a different starting point— a book they have read, owning an Appaloosa horse, meeting a Nez Perce person, crossing the Nez Perce Trail someplace between the Wallowas and the Bears Paw, seeing a movie or a picture fly by on Facebook, a general and often romantic notion of cowboys and Indians, maybe even feelings of guilt about the way Indians have been treated, astonishment at the story of the Nez Perce fighting retreat and near escape to Canada—and I generally try to gauge that place and see what I can add, or how I might push the artist or writer a little this way or that.

But it is uncomfortable territory. What should I tell or emphasize? More basically, should I encourage or discourage? What right or duty do these mostly white Euro-Americans have to tell a Nez Perce story in words or images?

The issue recently came up between states, as Idaho Governor Butch Otter wrote to Oregon Governor Kate Brown that his state has more claim to Chief Joseph than does ours, and that Oregon should not have a statue of Joseph as one of two Oregonians in its niche in the Hall of Statutory in the United States Capitol because of this Idaho connection. Otter obviously did not know his Nez Perce history. Actually, he did not know his American history! There is a Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho, and Joseph and his band were trying to get there when the Nez Perce War broke out, but Joseph’s time in Idaho was always passing through from his Wallowa homeland.

It’s easy to get confused by history. Chief Joseph was early—while the Nez Perce War was going on—dubbed by writers of Eastern newspapers the “Red Napoleon,” and one of the early books on the War was called War Chief Joseph. Later editions of the same book became The Saga of Chief Joseph. The mistaken notion that Joseph was a war leader was overtaken finally by evidence that others led warriors; Joseph was the one who led the people of his small band of Nez Perce before the War, and who, during the war when many bands were involved, deferred to others on military decisions and managed the affairs of camp.

In my readings, Joseph comes of real prominence as the talented leader during captivity and after, the diplomat who held people together during a very difficult exile, and with deft and creative effort on both national and local fronts, gained their return from Indian Territory—what Nez Perce call the “hot place”—to the Northwest. And of course tried unsuccessfully through the rest of his life to return to the Wallowas.

The earliest photos of Chief Joseph were apparently taken in Bismarck in 1877; there are three images taken by two photographers, John Fouch and Jay Haynes. One Fouch photo has him in a fancy shirt that some say was not Nez Perce, possibly Sioux. But that “war shirt” sold at auction recently to William Koch for $877,500!

And the Appaloosa horse story has been used in one way and another by artists and writers from the foundation of the Appaloosa Horse Club in the 1930s. Bartlett and Josephy stepped into a bee’s nest with their comments and research in the 1960s, which showed that the Nez Perce, who did selectively breed horses for speed and endurance, did not collectively breed for spots. But Alvin often said that this is another historical inaccuracy that might well become “fact” with the years.

In other words, the real story of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce is a very complicated one, and anyone non-Indian who wants to work with it in art or words should, I think, do so with humility and clear and good intentions as well as curiosity.

Some questions to ask yourself:

Why Chief Joseph and not some other Nez Perce Indian; or why Indians at all?

You can read Yellow Wolf’s account of the War and find other remarkable Nez Perce men and women. Yes, Joseph in his photos is handsome and very expressive, and Joseph is of course a name we can pronounce and relate to. And the Nez Perce story and Joseph’s role in it are tragic and captivating. But there are hundreds, thousands of Indian stories that are tragic and heroic. Look at Josephy’s Patriot Chiefs. Think about why you are choosing this story and this man.

What is your own relationship to the Nez Perce? And what story do you feel compelled to tell? 

I think of Alvin Josephy finding the story. He was immediately captivated by it—he was a journalist, had just returned from war in the Pacific, and immediately saw it as a great AMERICAN epic—but then found that the Indian side of things had not been adequately told. He set out to find that, and found it first in Yellow Wolf, and then with survivors of the War, and with visits to Colville with people from Joseph’s own band. He thought that the non-Indian world and the Indians themselves deserved a telling that was more than the words of white missionaries who had worked among the Nez Perce in early days, and white military men who had fought them in the War. It took over 600 pages and scores of footnotes for him to do that work. If you have a mind to do something with Joseph and/or the Nez Perce, The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest is a good place to start. And then ask yourself about your own talents and your relationship to the Nez Perce story. That might be the story in itself, and an easier one for you to paint or tell.

Have you talked about this with tribal people? 

You will of course get different answers, but tribal people have feelings about non-Indians using their stories. There are even laws about it. You can talk with people from cultural resources departments at all three of the reservations where Nez Perce people now live: Lapwai in Idaho, Umatilla in Oregon, and the Colville in Washington State. Or talk with resource people on other Indian reservations across the country to get information about non-Indians doing research among Indians. It can be tricky territory, but also can be rewarding and will help you make decisions about your own work.

Listen to their stories/ideas/suggestions.

I guess what follows on talking with Indians is listening to them. A non-Indian friend came to me with a Nez Perce story he was pursuing. He had begun to feel uncomfortable about it. I suggested that he talk to an elder that he knew. He did and on the elder’s advice dropped his research.

There is something consistent in the way Indians talk about Alvin Josephy. “He listened,” they almost always say. Cliff Trafzer, who holds a chair in Indian Studies at UC Riverside, says that in the 1950s, Alvin took the “unusual step” among historians of listening to Indians. Which reminds of a story Alvin told about going to a Western History Association meeting after publishing Patriot Chiefs in 1961. “Why are you writing about Indians,” one historian asked him. “No one cares about Indians.” Ten years later the same man asked Alvin how he knew to write about Indians at the time. I guess the lesson here is to not be a slave to the fashions of the day in pursuing your work with Indians.

Artists and writers I know often have trusted readers or artist friends who they consult before publishing (making public). I suggest that in dealing with Indian stories this is true in a special way. You might have to add some tribal people to the list of your trusted advisors.

Approaching your own work.

No one can stop you from painting or writing what comes out of your own experience and imagination. I would hope that these few words will not discourage anyone completely—I take that back; there are some who should be discouraged from taking on this painting or book of Indians, and might go on to subject matter more suitable to their talents and personalities—but I do hope that whatever comes of your work will be stronger for asking yourself these questions at the outset.

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