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.

# # # 

Friday, July 18, 2014


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?
# # #

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. 
# # #

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Disease, religion, and the “here and now”

Smallpox didn’t rate a line in the ‘Western Civilization textbook that I used in 1961—The Course of Civilization, by Strayer, Gatzke, and Harison.  In fact, the Plague, or Black Death, which some now think wiped out a third of Europe’s population in the mid fourteenth century, gets less than a page. Ironically, the disease is credited with preceding and influencing “bloody peasant rebellions…, senseless civil wars,” and “the witchcraft delusion,” in which “innocent men and women were falsely accused of practicing black magic.”

Prior to Alfred Crosby’s linking biology to traditional history, I guess that was par for the course: history was wars and politics; disease was for the biologists and epidemiologists to discover and discuss, and poets to mourn. Mention was brief and, like the Salem Witch Trials, a sideshow left to novelists and preachers to explore.

Even without the plague, life in medieval Europe—for the more than 80 percent who were peasant farmers—was always precarious. If the child made it past the first year or two, self-immunizing against common diseases in the process, life expectancy might be 30 or 40 years. Accidents and infections were rampant.  A year or three of drought or heavy rains brought hunger and sometimes starvation. And the wealthy classes—e.g., nobles and churchmen—fought and enlisted the peasantry to fight—and die—for them.

As the Little Ice Age—roughly 1400-1850—tightened its grip on the old world, thousands ran or were shipped to the new world as indentured servants. Over half of the Europeans who came to North America between 1600 and 1776 came that way. And by 1600, more than half of the indigenous people in North America had already been slain by smallpox, measles, and other maladies mostly sent ahead by Europe’s advance guard of explorers and fishermen. Eurocentric thinking—which saw European tools and religious beliefs as superior to anything “discovered” in America, quickly covered over 30,000 years or more of complex civilizations and histories as white Europeans marched across the continent.

We don’t’ know what life expectancies were among Indian tribes—though it surely varied greatly from tribe to tribe and even continent to continent. And the Little Ice Age and the Great Warming that preceded it took their tolls on the populations in the Americas before European arrival. In the Great Warming, Brian Fagin accounts for huge population losses on the California coast, in the desert southwest, and among the Mayans and pre-Incans. In other words, life for indigenous Americans before the European arrival was precarious too.

Among small and dispersed tribes in areas of great natural resources, as in what is now the Pacific Northwest, it might have been easier to cope with weather and disease before the Europeans. But we know now that these diseases crept in—from the sea, with horse-mounted Indians, with the fur trade—well ahead of the Europeans who carried them. With horses and guns and metal pots came smallpox, measles—and missionaries.

This week’s “aha” moment came when it occurred to me that the Indians and the early white settlers held very similar religious views—or at least “goals” for their religious practices and beliefs. With life expectancy short and a world full of hazards, what religion offered was a bit of power and some solace in dealing with it! Lewis and Clark doctored—and they had guns. The four Indians who went back to St. Lewis to find Clark were looking for some of the white religion’s power. Father Desmet and his Catholic troops among the Flathead wedged their way in with ceremony and similarities—weyakin/angels; baptism/sweat lodge; chapel/long house. But when the Indians were asked to give up their own rather than supplement it with the new, they chased the Catholics off.

And of course white doctor Whitman’s ineffectiveness in dealing with measles led to his Indian death sentence.

There might have been pious Christians who carried real visions of an eternal hereafter, and Indians I’m sure felt that spirits continued after death. How long and in what form seems less vivid. I surmise spiritual presences who might be leaned on with all other religious tools—weyakins, dances and ceremonies—in dealing with the day to day struggles of life. My guess is that for most white settlers looking at high infant death losses and 40 years as old, religion was just such a tool. You did what you could to build a future for offspring—and to acquire goods to enjoy now. And baptized and genuflected and prayed for help. And, Indian or white, if you were a man (yes, my guess is that gender roles on the American frontier were firm and exceptions rare) you might pursue fame, which Indian oral tradition and white books told you did endure.

# # #

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Remembering WW II at the Josephy Center

Here’s a “blog break” from Indians and Western American History and affairs.

Last Friday was D-Day, and the opening of our special WW II program at the Josephy Center. The program owes in part to the late Jack McClaran, a local rancher and strong friend of Alvin Josephy’s who followed the D-Day landing onto the mainland and fought across the Rhine and into the Nazi heartland as a tanker. He saw half of his battalion decimated, waited for new tanks for a couple of weeks, and got back in—“the hardest thing I ever did was get back into a tank… Tankers weren’t afraid of death, but of being  cooked inside a tank.”

And then they liberated Buchenwald. And due in part to Alvin’s urging—“there are people in the world who don’t believe concentration camps existed; we have to tell our stories” –Jack agreed to tell his, and over 100 people showed up at the local Oddfellows Hall a few years back to hear his calm, reflective, and brilliant account of the War.

Alvin Josephy and Jack McClaran
So Jack passed this spring, and it occurred to me—and to many others of course—that the generation that fought in and lived through that War is leaving us. So we determined to have an exhibit, and to interview the vets and Rosy the Riveters and home-front parents and wives and children who planted crops, bought War Bonds, saved rubber and waited for homecomings. We put out the call, and people responded.  

Alvin’s own war story—something I have touched on briefly but not really explored—is incredible and, I believe, the defining time in his life. It fueled a desire for true, gut-level, untarnished accounts of what really happened to and with tribal peoples and the Euro-American fur traders, missionaries, settlers, and speculators as they threaded their way across the continent. It informed his actions as historian and advocate for Indians for the next 60 years.

On the weekend I listened to the edited—and sanitized—15 minute version of Alvin’s recording of the Guam landing. It was the version that played on national radio networks two weeks after the invasion, cut from 110 minutes that included more graphic accounts of the men who were hit as they waded ashore and on the beach as they dug in under the Japanese pillboxes. I re-read the chapter on Alvin’s recruitment into General Denig’s Marine Corps journalism and public relations crew, marveled again at him wrestling recording gear (a 50 pound machine that recorded on movie film), batteries, Hermes typewriter, weapons and other gear across the country, across the Pacific to Guadalcanal and then into battle on Guam and Iwo.

Alvin must have written and relayed thousands of dispatches for publication in local newspapers in Marine hometowns across the country. And the Library of Congress holds 62 recordings from Guadalcanal, Guam, and Iwo. We have ordered the first four, and intend to get all of them eventually. But I want the newspaper accounts too! This exhibit lit that fire and I will go to the Marine Corps or wherever to find them. If anyone out there has hints, let me know!

The exhibit includes pictures and uniforms of Alvin, of Jack McClaran, of Rob Kemp’s father who weathered 30 missions as a nose-gunner (which put me in mind of Joseph Heller and Yosarian), of Biden Tippett and Ivan Roberts and many others. Sadly, we’ve missed interviews—Bud Stangel passed away last week after he said he was ready to talk about it all, and others have passed or are became too weak to tell their stories now, as we put the exhibit together.

William Stafford
But we have what we have. And we shared it with Joseph students this week and are sharing with scores of locals and visitors, rekindling memories and kindling new thinking about war.

I will always remember Jack McClaran’s late-aged wondering about the brutality that he bore witness to at Buchenwald—“Rich,” he said, “the Germans were educated, and local citizens knew in their hearts what was going on in those camps… How can we humans do this to each other.”

Jack became a skeptic of all war, which brings to mind another Veteran, the poet William Stafford. This year is the centenary of William Stafford’s birth. Stafford told his Kansas draft board chair that it was he, his Sunday School teacher, who had convinced him that he should be a conscience objector. He spent the War in Forest Service C.O. camps, and spent a lifetime –many years as Oregon poet laureate, a few as the U.S. poet laureate—writing against war and for peace.