Friday, September 25, 2015

Rupert Costo, the Pope, and my friend Ray

Like many Americans—and people across the world—I have watched and listened to the new Pope with hope and wonder. A man of clerical power that extends over much of the world with Francis’s humility giving voice to the poor, the immigrant, the prisoner, is something new in our time, and something that is reaching beyond Catholics and even Christians. I chuckle when he rides in a Fiat, cheer when he derides consumption, and give thanks when he talks sensibly about climate.

But the canonization of Father Junipero Serra?

My friend Ray Cook grew up in Idaho, lived most of his life in California and worked for the State Highway Department. On retirement, Ray started coming to the Wallowas, where his grandfather had been a Methodist preacher and his grandmother was buried (Ray placed a tombstone for her in the Wallowa cemetery).

Ray once had to evict an elderly Indian lady to make way for a California highway, and the act has haunted him ever since. He came to Fishtrap events for several years, and over time has sent me letters he writes to newspapers and notes of events that he attends—most having to do with American Indians. Many of these things are colored by that experience, some by later stories he has read and heard.

One of the storytellers was a friend he gained at the Highway Department, an engineer named Rupert Costo. Costo was a Cahuilla Indian, a writer, publisher, and advocate for Indians. Ray sent me his autographed copy of a book Costo edited and published, The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide, for the Josephy Library. In it modern scholars write about California Indians and the brutal Mission legacy, and detailed and heart-wrenching Indian testimony that has been taken over the years is reprinted. The book, published in 1987, was an attempt to halt the canonization process of Father Serra.

Costo died in 1989, so he did not live to see Pope Francis’s embrace of Serra. He did live long enough to donate the extensive collection of books and artifacts relating to American Indians that he and his wife, Jeanette, who was Cherokee, had accumulated, to the University of California, Riverside, my alma mater!

And to donate $400,000 to the university to endow a chair in Indian Studies—a position now held by my friend, Clifford Trafzer! In fact, as I reached back for facts in this case, I find out that Costo, who was born in Hemet California, was an instrumental lobbyist for having a UC campus at Riverside. (I don’t remember hearing that story while I was a student there.)

We should, it is argued, not judge Father Serra—or the many priests, Spanish land grantees, and later American miners and farmers who enslaved, tortured, and sometimes sought to eliminate Indians—by the standards of today. So we should condone the throwing of babies into cactus patches to get parents to tell the whereabouts of runaway slaves, threatening and throwing babies off the “Crying Rock” to make Indians work, and collaring Indians to pull plows all as practices of their times?

What about the priests and lay people who did speak up? Alvin Josephy notes, in 500 Nations, a friar who spoke out against the brutal treatment of the Indians in 1799. He was declared insane and taken out of the country. If we canonize the brutalizers, what do we do with those who acted saintly in their times?

Alvin argued that “the treatment of California Indians was as close to genocide as any tribal people had faced, or would face, on the North American continent." I can’t put my hands on it now, but I believe Alvin knew Costo and his work, and I believe that he, like Costo, would now stand up against this new Pope on the canonization of Serra.

We admire Pope Francis exactly because he argues against many of the popular and expressed values of our times—unbridled capitalism and conspicuous consumption for example. If Costo’s book and Josephy’s work had found their ways into the Pope’s life, I have to believe that there would be a different story in the news today. Maybe we would learn the friar’s name, and maybe HE would be sainted and Serra relegated to the history books as a man of his times.

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Monday, September 21, 2015

The oldest story--more on refugees

The pictures and stories of refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Greece, Hungary, Croatia, Austria, Germany and more bring a brilliant image of mass migration into sharp and heart tugging focus. At first look and sound it seems like something new, and the proximate causes—wars and uprisings in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Libya, and the accompanying refugee crisis in Europe fill and refill the media and our brain space daily.

But migrations, invasions, expulsions, and other mass movements of humankind go back to the Israelites; to Persian, Alexandrian, Mongol, Hun, and Ottoman invasions; to the Inquisition and expulsion of Jews from Europe, to the Holocaust. In my short lifetime Jews fleeing Germany were denied entry into our country, and Jews, with Western guilt and support, made a new country and displaced Arabs; in my lifetime African peoples liberated from colonial oppression have risen up, killed, and chased each other from one place to another; and wars in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia have seen millions die and millions more scurry for new places to live.

These days I study American Indians, inheritors of a millennia-long migration—driven by weather, climate, oppression and opportunity—that began in Africa, crossed Asia, and put ancestors on these continents 20,000 or 30,000 years ago. Historian Alvin Josephy started the Indian Heritage of America, his book about what might have and must have happened before European arrival in the Americas, with languages. Those language maps tell stories of movements of Indian peoples before written history and the interpretation of artifacts—how did those Algonquin speakers get to the Pacific coast?

We mostly neglect these stories and tell stories of the coming of Europeans to the Americas. These are stories of “discovery” and competing European interests in “conquest.” We nod to “religious freedom” as a reason for Europeans leaving old homes, but talk less about weather, famine, small wars, crowding and inheritance, regime changes, and the Prussian draft that all played roles in putting long-time Europeans on small boats in frightful seas for the new world.

Once here, the Europeans began a long, four-century process of displacement of the people who were here before them. In some places it went quickly—people died in huge numbers and tribes disappeared. In North America generally there was a long, slow, slog of displacement, of indigenous people being pushed west and pushed onto reservations, forced to learn English and Anglo culture to survive.

Part of this old story is one of intermarriage, rape, and a mixing of peoples. Warriors and explorers didn’t bring their women along. This struck me first when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Eastern Turkey, assigned to a village of “refugee” Turks from Bulgaria and Greece. They had come in Balkan people trades made in the 1930s, between the two world wars. My Turkish friends were Moslem and spoke Turkish, albeit with their own peculiar accent, but they looked more Eastern European than Central Asian. It struck me then that the Ottomans traveled without women—all the way to the gates of Vienna in the 1500s. There had been plenty of time for the mixing of blood.

The Turks in Istanbul and Thrace and the Black Sea were sometimes light and blue-eyed; those south and west looked Mediterranean, and those to the south and east were darker and indistinguishable from Arab neighbors. Even the Romani—the Gypsies—who mostly traveled north and south with their caravans, spoke the languages of their immediate surrounding—along with their own Romani—and shared physical characteristics with their neighbors.

None of this lessens the pain of people fighting to get across borders or to stay in a homeland today. It does say that walls and borders are artificial and always breeched. Physical borders—rivers, oceans, mountain ranges—make crossings and the intermingling of peoples more difficult, but they too give way in time.

Unfortunately, wholesale death seems endemic to these mass movements. But there are minglings of cultures, and kindnesses, too, from the Egyptians who took in the Israelites to the Dutch who hid the Frank family and the Danes who wore Jewish armbands; from the French trappers who married Indians and created a new tribe, the Metis, to Americans who have taken “war brides,” refugees from Germany, Japan, Vietnam, and, one supposes, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Millions of refugees are suffering and dying now, but thousands—maybe millions—are coming to their aid. Along with the horror there will be exchanges of foods, languages, and cultures. More importantly, the people who rise to help are showing one of the oldest and most basic forms of right conduct—putting aside fear and the dark impulses of exclusion and embracing the outsider, the immigrant.

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Thursday, September 10, 2015

A Babel of languages

I’ve always thought that Alvin’s Indian Heritage of America, published in 1968, was extraordinary in its examination of the Americas before contact. He started with languages. Ironically, it was often missionaries, intent on Christianizing and changing people, who learned indigenous languages, intent from that day through today’s Moody Bible Translators on giving them back scripture.

But some missionaries were captivated by language itself, as were some army officers, adventurers, and a few academics who described themselves as “ethnologists.” In 1891, Major John Wesley Powell—of Colorado River fame but then Director of Ethnology at the Smithsonian—submitted the seventh annual report to the Secretary of the Smithsonian, in which he described attempts at learning the proper names of North American Indian tribes and the classification of their languages. The volume published the field work of 1885-86, including the first classification of North American Indian languages. (see for a current language map)

Alvin picked up their work, and began Indian Heritage with detailed maps and accompanying “updated” classification tables of language groups (Powell had grouped them into 56 linguistic families).  “The study of Indian languages,” Alvin said, “can be extremely valuable in the knowledge it provides of the backgrounds and historic origins, movements, and cultural developments of individual tribes and bands.” This, in a time before DNA analysis, was a remarkable way of marrying biology and history.

The number of languages—Alvin quotes one source suggesting over 2200 mutually unintelligible pre-Columbian languages in the Americas—was fuel in the debate over the length of habitation and the number of migrations from Asia. Some have proposed three major migrations related to three language parent stocks, but as far as I can tell, this is still an open field. Estimates on times of migration vary greatly as well, but increasingly, the first are thought to have been more than 30,000 years ago.

Language, for similar reasons, also enters into the argument between “long counters” and “short counters” as regards pre-contact populations (languages have “half-lives,” and linguists estimate the time it takes for languages to grow and change). According to Charles Mann in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, the gap on this score was huge: short counters arguing that there were probably fewer than 10 million people on the continents when Columbus hit shore; long counters suggested as many as 112 million.  In 1968, Josephy thought some high middle number the best current estimate; in a radio interview 30 years later he upped his numbers to 90 million or more.

And here we come to cataclysmic events—diseases, it is agreed, decimated huge numbers of indigenous Americans, often before the affected Indians saw a European. Slavery and violence took huge tolls on Indian populations as well—some Caribbean peoples were exterminated in Columbus’s quest for gold.

1492 was a signal year in the history of the planet, and the movement of its peoples and languages. Not too far on either side of that date were major disease epidemics in Europe—and climate change.  The Great Warming brought the Norse to Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland and multiplied Europe’s population; warming and drought killed civilizations and thousands of people in Africa and the Americas. The plague, poxes, typhus and a myriad of diseases hit and killed millions in Europe before they were brought to the Americas. Mann says that a world population of 500 million at the beginning of the sixteenth century might have been reduced by one-fifth by the early seventeenth century. Maybe the greatest die-off in human history!

History is full of such catastrophes. In recent memory, WW II and its fallout killed millions, created other millions of “stateless” people, and scattered refugees around the globe. The Little Ice Age and accompanying droughts and freezes sent Europeans to the New World; slavery sent Africans in all directions; the Inquisition scattered European Jews; the Potato Famine scattered the Irish. In all cases languages traveled, collided, morphed, and joined as well.

We might now be in the middle of something as significant as any of the above. The pretty plans of the WW I victors for nation states cooperating on oil and speaking English as a strong second language are fast disintegrating in the Middle East. The European Union is being stretched by African and Middle Eastern refugees as some of its members and member citizens cling to cultural and religious identities. Refugee camps bulge—old ones dating to the 1947 Palestinian War; new ones in Turkey, Jordan, and Africa.

And language is again a measure of movements and adjustments. There is little talk now of English as “the world language,” and Spanglish and Arab hip-hop are in the media. As Syrians, speaking in English to reporters, describe hopes of learning German, one is reminded of an older Middle Eastern dispersion, described in Genesis:

“Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”

Syrian refugees LA Times

Other Powells and Josephys will trace these movements 500 years from now.

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Monday, August 24, 2015

Another Nez Perce Book

William Vollman’s new novel, The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce War, is getting rave reviews. I have it, have glanced at the first few pages and looked at the extended notes and acknowledgements—and hoisted the 1350 page and what must be five-pound volume—but have not begun reading it. I am waiting for a five or six hour piece of time to take the plunge—seeing it and reading reviews having convinced me that I cannot do it justice or give myself an honest go at it in bedtime snatches.

But I have been thinking about it, and thinking about how the Nez Perce story captured Alvin Josephy 65 years ago and continues to capture writers and readers 138 years after the Nez Perce War put it on the front pages of New York newspapers. So this is a quick—pre-Vollman book-read—meditation on the enduring and captivating nature of the Nez Perce Story.

1. The Nez Perce came to national consciousness with Lewis and Clark, an iconic event in American history. And, according to accounts, they saved the Corps of Discovery—from wrong routes across the mountains and starvation—and impressed the Captains with intelligence, physical appearance and stature. According to the explorers, the Nez Perce also impressed with their horsemanship—European-Americans could not match the Indians with gelding technique and selective breeding.

2. Many of the Nez Perce did convert to Christianity, and they did not turn on their missionaries as the Cayuse and others turned on the Whitmans. (I credit this to chance: the Nez Perce got Eliza Spalding, the only one of the first four missionaries who invited Indians into her home and bothered to learn their language. Her husband, Henry Spalding had a temper in the name of the Lord, and the Whitmans, in my reading, were distant and mean. And of course measles visited the Whitmans and the Cayuse and not the Spaldings and their Nez Perce hosts.)

3. This conversion gave one band of Indians—what would become the lead non-treaty band—a Christian name, “Joseph.” It was a name the public could pronounce and relate to; it was not “foreign” like Toohoolhoolzote, and not an unlikely name translation like White Bird or Looking Glass. It was your brother’s or father’s name.

4. The Nez Perce were strong and smart. A lawyer friend says that a careful reading of the 1855 treaty, a treaty that resulted in only one tribe getting its own reservation, shows skilled negotiators. And Looking Glass’s arrival at the Walla Walla treaty site from buffalo country, which occurred after the other chiefs and tribes were assembled and is commemorated in the Gustav Sohon drawing, must have been palpable in its demonstration of power and dignity.

5. The Nez Perce War is recent; some call it the “last” Indian war. As Joseph discovered after the War in North Dakota, by 1877 trains and telegraphs moved people and messages across the land, and photographers documented events. The Nez Perce War was covered by the eastern press. And when Joseph passed away in 1904, New York newspapers announced the death of America’s “most famous Indian.”

6. Nez Perce Country. The lands of the Nez Perce, from the Wallowas north and east, across the Grand Ronde and Snake River canyons, are rugged and, in comparison to most traditional Indian lands, unchanged from the eons of Indian occupation. One can approximate the 1200-mile Nez Perce fighting retreat in a car, but foot or horseback one can make it—and some do, even today, across the same landscape with most of the 1877 landmarks.

7. The Euro-American ambivalence towards Indians: From the first meetings in Jamestown and New England, new settlers’ attitudes towards Indians were confused and confusing. Settlers depended on tribes for survival, did not understand or want to understand different cultures, feared what was different, admired what was different, but in any case wanted the land, the beaver pelts, the tobacco, fish and the whales. Indians were paraded in front of European courts. There were white women who were captured by Indians, and, in some cases, did not want to return to their own; and white men—think of the fur traders, who happily married Indian women and in many ways became natives; and there were also Indians who demonstrated that they could learn white ways. When the Nez Perce evaded American armies, Joseph—who, as historians have labored to show was not a war chief—was depicted as the “Red Napoleon.” Our advanced armies could not have fallen victim to uneducated savages! He must be brilliant. The Nez Perce gained supporters in the Eastern Press.

I’ll stop at 7—the number of drummers at a traditional ceremony.  And this one, number 8 it would be, is primarily a white issue, because most importantly, the Nez Perce War came near the end of 200 years of growing white dominance of the continent, and has raised and continues to raise feelings of guilt for injustices done the Nez Perce people—and to all Indians. The guilt is accompanied by admiration for Indian courage in the face of mistreatment, and astonishment that Indians have survived.

Now I think I am ready to start reading Vollman.

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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Ancient One

That is what Tribal people called the skeletal remains that white anthropologists dubbed “Kennewick Man” when he was unearthed along the Columbia in 1996, and quick carbon dating suggested he was 7,500—9,000 years in the ground. They argued that the remains were theirs, and that they should be allowed to rebury them properly.

Some scientists argued otherwise—the archaeologist James Chatters initially described the skull as Caucasian, and produced a reconstruction of his face suggesting that Kennewick Man looked a bit like the actor Patrick Stewart. The scientists mounted a vigorous campaign for more testing and against the Indians favoring reburial. (To be fair, Chatters subsequently changed his mind on the Caucasian idea.)

It all helped fuel a movement suggesting that Indians—Native Americans with Asian genetic connections who had crossed the land bridge tens of thousands of years ago—might not have been alone here. Or even first? Advocates of the “Solutrean hypothesis” held that during the Ice Age anatomically modern humans from Europe crossed via an ice bridge or over open water to North America, and the Solutrean high hunting culture of present-day Europe (roughly 20,000 years ago) became known as the Clovis culture in North America.

Others have argued about later, but still early arrivals of European peoples. Kennewick man was a marker in the scientific quiver of all such early European influence advocates, and eventually the courts backed the non-Tribals, and the Ancient One was measured and shared, to some extent, across the scientific world.

On Thursday, 21 years later, Danish scientists published an analysis of DNA obtained from the skeleton. Kennewick Man’s genome clearly does not belong to a European, the scientists said:

“It’s very clear that Kennewick Man is most closely related to contemporary Native Americans,” said Eske Willerslev, a geneticist at the University of Copenhagen and lead author of the study, which was published in the journal Nature: (
According to the team of Danish scientists, who examined DNA from across the world, the Ancient one apparently has a close relationship with the Colvilles in north central Washington State.

So the Indians were right, they have the closest relationship to the Ancient One, and I imagine that a ceremonial reburial will eventually happen somewhere in the Northwest.  But what does the whole episode tell us about advocacy and science in the service of certain belief patterns.

I’ve wondered from the beginning how much we can tell about a skeleton by the shape of a skull? Think about the variation in skull shape among your neighbors and friends, maybe even within your own extended family. I immediately thought about that period when nineteenth century “scientists” thought that skull shape said something about personality—phrenology, wasn’t it? Apparently some in the scientific community came to a similar conclusion before the Danish DNA analysis.  It might have been why Chatters abandoned the Caucasian skull hypothesis.

But given that, what drives science—and lay students—to look for a European explanation for New World development? It is now pretty certain that outliers from Europe have made landfall from time to time over the eons. We know that the Norse found Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland over 1000 years ago,, during the Great Warming, built communities, and then were frozen out of the last two by the little ice age.

But all evidence is that the major developments in what would become known as North and South America—the mound cities and Mississippian Culture, the Mayans, Aztec, pre-Inca and Inca cultures, the domestication of over half of the world’s major agricultural products, Tlingit art, and Makah whaling owed nothing to Europe and Europeans. Whatever Asian migrations and interactions of different migrations occurred, what developed here before 1492 was indigenous to those ancient peoples who share more DNA with Siberian nomads than they do with German burghers or English sailors.

As far as we know now, all human DNA weaves back to an African beginning. And following the journeys out of that continent and across the world is exciting stuff.  But I think we’ve had enough of putting white Europeans at the center of all important movements—we have as much to learn from the stories that the Ancient One passed on in his time and to his progeny, which might now be scattered across the two continents, mixed with other threads and carried in the thousands of stories of creation and migration that were here when Columbus first set foot at Hispanola.

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For the NYT account of the Danish scientists’ findings:

Monday, June 15, 2015

Celebrating the Nez Perce

A few hundred Nez Perce Indians called this Valley home for thousands of years. They called themselves Nimipu (“the people”) and identified with this place, their families, their band and its headmen (Young Joseph, Old Joseph, Wal-lam-wat-kain, and on and on) more than any larger tribal group. European horses and diseases got here before Europeans did, and then the fur traders, who probably had seen a couple of Indians in buffalo country with dentalia they had traded for at Celilo through their nostrums, and put the Nez Perce name on them. This all before 1805 and Lewis and Clark. The fur men, migrants themselves, many from France and Scotland, trapped, traded, traveled and married with Indians. They had posts in Spokane and made it to the Pacific just five or six years after the Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery.  Historian Grace Bartlett says there were a couple of Frenchmen living in the Wallowa Valley with Indian wives when the first settlers came in—that was all the way up in 1871, when all manner of people were rattling around what some call Salmon Country—the lands from the British Columbian coast to the Northern California coast, and from salt water to the Rockies.

Settlers came after fur men, missionaries, surveyors, treaty makers, and gold seekers. It’s a long complicated story—thousands of years long and the length of rivers and mountain ranges, and the Nez Perce National Historical Park collects the pieces and tells the story in places across four states—Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Montana. They’re headquartered in Spalding, Idaho (ironically, named after the early missionaries to the Nez Perce) and are celebrating 50 years of work. One of the ways they are celebrating is with a show of “gift art,” the beaded bags, cradleboards, flutes, and moccasins Indians made and still make for children, sisters, and friends. And, fortunately for us here in Wallowa County, the first showing of this work is at the Josephy Center on Main Street in the town of Joseph (named, of course, after the last Indian headman who lived here).

It came on May 30 and will be up until the June 28. On the opening day we celebrated with Indian singers and drummers and artists and interpreters telling us stories.  Happily, May would have marked the 100th birthday of Alvin M. Josephy Jr. the man who told the Nez Perce story in exquisite detail, told it with the background of horses, diseases, fur traders, “discoverers,” missionaries, treaty makers, gold strikes, the Civil War, etc., told it, as much as he could, through the eyes and voices of the people themselves. On May 31, we celebrated his centenary.

There were still three survivors of the War of 1877 alive when Alvin began his work, and he spoke with them. When the Nez Perce returned to the Northwest in 1884 from the place they still call the “hot country” (Leavenworth; Indian Territory), the young men and those closest to Joseph were sent to Colville, in Washington—there was still much fear of Indians in Idaho and Oregon. Alvin went to hear the stories in Colville too. And in 1965 he published The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest, still—fifty years later—the acknowledged starting point for book learning about the tribe and culture. 
The drummers stayed and played for the Josephy party. Gordy High Eagle, one of the drummers, had been a “camper” at the Josephy house in the earliest days of the Chief Joseph Summer Seminar, then known as the Day Camp. Indian kids came for several summers, and always stayed at the Josephys. Another camper, Albert Barros, is now on the tribal council in Idaho. He brought a proclamation from the Tribe honoring Alvin. Betty Josephy, Alvin’s wife, was honored too—Albert called her “mom.”

Bobbie Conner, who is now the director of the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute on the Umatilla Reservation and is of Cayuse and Nez Perce descent, spoke movingly of listening as a child as Alvin talked with her grandfather. She also spoke movingly of this Wallowa land, thanked those of us who live here for loving it and taking care of it, reminded us why her people tried so hard to hold onto it.

Which reminded me that Alvin once told me that the Nez Perce claim to the country still had some merit. Now, in the library of books he left us, and in the writings of Grace Bartlett, the local historian who put together a day-by-day account of the last days of Indians here, I consider this. In 1873, President Grant came to the same conclusion, that the Treaty of 1863 was invalid. He rescinded the treaty, and determined that the Nez Perce should have half of the Wallowa Country. His agents went so far as to assess the improvements on the land in anticipation of paying off the settlers (some $68,000 on fewer than 100 claims).  

It didn’t happen of course. Some settlers were dug in, there were Indian haters in nearby Union, and there was fear of Indians engendered by the Modoc troubles. Finally, fears rose to fever with Custer’s debacle in 1876, and the Nez Perce War followed in 1877.

That is a too short history story. To learn more, one could follow the Nez Perce National Historical Park sites along the trail—some 1200 miles—that took the Joseph Band and other non-treaties almost to Canada, where Sitting Bull is supposed to have waited for them.

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