Monday, March 12, 2018


When I first heard the news about Sherman Alexie’s treatment of women—especially of Native women writers—I thought immediately of Bill Clinton. Poor kid from wrong side of tracks with extraordinary smarts fights his way up the white male-dominated American ladder of success.  And decides he deserves what those already at the top by dint of birth, family, and place of origin effortlessly have.

But Sherman is Indian, and everything Indian in this country is immediately more complicated. Starting with the name itself—“Indian,” an early European mistake that has been followed by 500 years of them.

Nevertheless, Sherman Alexie, by all accounts and by his own admission, is responsible for demanding sexual favors for career assistance with many women. It’s a charge that has become so routine in recent months that we barely flinch as we go on to the next accusations, the next TV expose, the next admission of guilt.

But Sherman Alexie is not Bill Clinton. In fact, Clinton’s long-ago carefully crafted admissions of extra-marital sexual misconduct and current stunning silence about issues of harassment and assault strike me as huge roadblocks in the national battle for respect and fair treatment of women.

But that is for another day.  Sherman has in fact offered some sort of apology, and, if I know Sherman at all through his writings and brief personal contact, he is now in deep and profound self-examination of how he got where he is.

I am NOT excusing anything; I am exploring.

I just finished listening to his memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. The story is painful, from the tortured relationship with his parents—mother especially, to athletic and academic successes in a white world he purposefully pursued from a very young age, and on to a sparkling literary career. I say that because there is continuing pain through the successes. Sherman willed his way off the rez when he was very young and different. He excelled at an all-white close-by school in debate and basketball, had white friends and white girlfriends, found his way to college and literary success. There are periodic visits back to family and friends and childhood torturers on the rez—some of the visits around funerals. All of the visits, the phone calls, and the recollections are permeated with stories of Indian tragedies—failures, breakups, and diseases; deaths by alcohol, car crash, and suicide.  At one point he recognizes that he is the only one in his grade school cohort to still be alive.

The light in Sherman’s memoir is his wife and child. Which make the charges and admissions of guilt all the more painful.  Why would a man with a beautiful, understanding, Indian wife he expresses the deepest love for in his book resort to harassment and sexual demands of other women?

* * *

Sherman came to Fishtrap one time. I got a phone call from Bob Greene, the owner of that fine Moscow, Idaho bookstore, Bookpeople, suggesting that Sherman Alexie was about to explode on the national scene, and if we were going to get him to Wallowa Lake, we should do it now. A story had just been published in Esquire, and two books, The Business of Fancydancing and Old Shirts and New Skins, had been published by small houses. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven was about to come out from a major publisher.

Sherman came, and he delighted. I chided him for not sending a photo, said that I had to cut one off the back cover of one of his books. He laughed and did a quick stick drawing self-portrait in the book in return.

I could not get him back to Fishtrap—he had indeed gone on to major fame, and once, when I saw him in Portland and asked about it, he described an uncomfortable scene in a Wallowa County gas station—he’d been asked to pay for his gas before the attendant would fill the tank. It’s too hard being brown out there, he said.

In many ways, it’s hard being brown anywhere in this country, especially in the current climate that permits overt racism. But Sherman will continue to be a brown American Indian, and in these times when harassment and assault are being openly talked about, he will continue to be known for his abuse.

Can anything good come of it?—he’s one step ahead of Bill Clinton with his acknowledgement and apology. But I am going to expect more from him than from Clinton or Matt Lauer or Charlie Rose or all the others in the parade of white male aggressors. I am going to look for words from Sherman. Words have been the tools of his trade from reservation grammar school to today. I want to know from him how and why, want an explanation of these terrible infidelities and sexual demands as muddy and clear as Indian humor and Indian resilience are muddy and clear in his movie, Smoke Signals.

I won’t go back and read the old books, but I might have to watch that movie again, remember how much it made me cry even as I laughed. I’m crying for you now, Sherman, and I can wait for the laughs as you spill out the pain that put you into this awful mess. But write it out—maybe show women they’re not to blame, and show white men how to begin making things right.

# # #

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Josephy Library

I had the privilege of writing a piece on the Josephy Library for the latest edition of the Oregon Library Association Quarterly. Here’s a bit of info and the link to the journal. Mine’s the last article. You can click on a link to a pdf of it--or the whole thing. Here it is from the OLA President:

The latest issue of the OLA Quarterly is now available!

The theme for this issue is Small Libraries, BIG Ideas, and the Guest Editor is OLA President Buzzy Nielsen. From Buzzy's introduction:

"The Oregon library community consistently amazes me with its innovative, enterprising, and patron-focused activities. Indeed, we hear about these many activities through Libs-Or, OLA conferences, and this journal. While certainly not by design, many of the voices we hear come from libraries along the I-5 corridor. Cool things happen in those libraries, of course, but this issue of the OLA Quarterly amplifies voices we hear less frequently: the rural institutions that constitute the majority of the libraries in Oregon.

Please feel free to share this issue widely! We hope you like it.

Reading tip: The text and images are more clear if you download the issue and articles all the way to a .pdf reader, and if you do so, the links will be clickable. 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Immigration: two things to remember!

In this time of Sturm und Drang over immigration:

First, there were brown people in North America before any white people of European stock arrived. They spoke hundreds of languages before Dutch, French, Spanish, German, and English arrived. They hunted, fished, foraged, and GREW hundreds of different foods and herbs—many of which were taken up by the Europeans and sent off to the rest of the world. America’s tomatoes would become Italy’s food; her tobacco would fuel economies in Europe and Asia and bring on its diseases; her cotton would clothe the world and her corn would feed it. Most importantly, for the future of North America and the United States, pieces of the wisdom of the Iroquois would find their way into our original written documents and the form of the government itself.

Secondly, we should remember that before California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico were part of these United States, Mexicans, Mestizos of mixed European and American Indian blood—brown people, had lived in and developed economies, cities, and societies in those places. (And yes, that too was a displacement of indigenous brown people—but also a mixing.)

The mythology of a white, Eurocentric culture as foundational, and of brown culture as arriving later and being of immigrant origin is exactly that, mythology. Yes, there was forced immigration of black people from Africa—and their contributions to American culture are substantial and generally acknowledged. And there have been huge migrations of people of all colors from Europe and Asia—often, as with Irish brought as slaves, British Islanders and Europeans brought as indentured servants, and the Chinese brought to work on the railroads, their in-migrations were not quite voluntary. Even the “voluntary” immigrants, those fleeing hunger in Ireland, forced military service in Germany, the family land holdings and divisions in my grandfather’s Norway, and wars and oppression of one kind and another across the world, have not always made their migrations by choice.

So this mass of immigrants has helped create a nation, but the nation was not created in a vacuum, or by divine providence, or without damage to many. And it has been built and continues its growth on the substantial lands and cultures husbanded and developed over millennia by others. And those black and brown people—the ones here first and the later imports—have played and continue to play roles in the ongoing historical drama of the United States.

It is convenient to cherry pick history for an argument; it is more difficult—and truer to the nation we set out to be—to acknowledge all of that history.

# # #

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A Better Life Among the Indians

Mary Jemison was captured by Seneca Indians in 1758. Her parents and most of her siblings were killed, and for some time she tried to resist her captors and find a way back to place and family. But, eventually, she stayed, stayed to marry two Indian men, to have Indian children, and, living with Indians as an Indian in her 80s, to give an interview about her life to a white doctor named James Everett Seaver. Her “memoir,” first published in 1824, had been published in at least 30 editions by the time the author of the book I read, Lois Lenski, published her fictionalized account of Mary Jameson’s life in 1941.

Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison, won the Newberry Award for children’s literature in 1942. I read the Harper Trophy edition, first published in 1995—my copy is the 17th printing! I imagine it is still in print.

Indian Captive. Parents and siblings murdered by the Indians. Children’s literature?

There are many ways to talk about Euro-American ambivalence towards Indians, but this is certainly one of them! Author Lenski, in her treatment of the subject, explains her research into Seneca Indian history and culture at several museums, includes drawings of tools, clothing, and places, and lauds Jemison for giving us the real story of pre-contact Indian life. Buckskin clothing is compared to the traders’ broadcloth, porcupine quills to beads, coiled pottery to brass cooking post, and guns to bows and arrows.

More importantly, she deals with the social life—the nature of capture and adoption in Indian culture, the friendships and kinships that sustained Indian life. While the early chapters and Mary’s fictional voice are harsh towards the Indians, by the end of the book she is defending Indian ways to an English officer. And, given the opportunity, refusing to go back to a white community.

In Lenski’s treatment, the English officer is a convenient foil—and a pivot point for the captive girl. She listens to him deal man to man with the Indians—he wants their support against the French, but then, when he encourages her to come with him, to leave the dirty savages and their heathen ways, he is totally disparaging of the people and family that she had become a part of.

There are several striking things in this story. First, it is based on a real—and one of the first—narratives of a white captive of Indians. Indians capturing—and sometimes killing—white settlers was not uncommon, and treaties, as the one alluded to in this book, often stipulated the return of white captives. And captives, as even Benjamin Franklin acknowledged, and as a myriad of stories from the 1700s to the late 1800s, often wanted to stay with their adoptive Indian families.

The book paints a sympathetic view of Indian life—the relationships with land and among tribal members are strong, the knowledge of natural resources is keen, and the importance of and comfort in tradition is comforting to readers.

But maybe the most important thing that I’ve learned with this book and a small amount of research, is that there has been and still is a vigorous interest in the “Indian experience.” I’ve only dipped into the literature, but one cannot help but contrast the tightly wound lives of white children—and especially of their mothers, from Colonial to modern times, with the relative freedom enjoyed by Indians. I see in my mind’s eye a prim colonial woman in her patriarchal nest, in church for hours each week, tending to food and childrearing and housekeeping for a dominant husband who makes decisions for family and community. I see a young American girl in the 1940s, constrained by family and convention, looking to a life of housekeeping and childrearing, listening to men who preach more of the same.

That this book, Indian Captive, has a 75 year history of publication as a “children’s book,” is telling. It tells me about the long oppression of white American women: property rights—about 1900 in most states; the vote—the 19th amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1920; participation in high school and college athletics, and more than a token chance at medical or law school—Title 9, passed in 1972.

My guess is that thousands—no millions—of American girls have listened to these stories, had these thoughts, read this book and others over the past 250 years, and dreamed of a better life among the Indians.

# # #

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Early Assimilationists

Pocahontas--aka Lady Rebecca
I don’t know when it started—maybe with the very first meetings of Europeans and the Indians of North America. The Powhatan child, Pocahontas, at the Jamestown settlement, is certainly an early example of an Indian captured, converted, and assimilated by the English.

(A caveat: I am thinking of the English and other Northern Europeans’ colonization of North America, and not of the Spanish and Portuguese in Central and South America, where other, often brutal, modes of assimilation were carried out.)

Although Pocahontas probably did not “save” Captain John Smith, she was familiar to the colonists at Jamestown, and in 1613 was captured and held by the English. In captivity she was instructed in Christianity and baptized “Lady Rebecca,” and apparently fell in love with one of her captors, John Rolfe. Wahunsonacock, her aging father, who had a complicated relationship with the colonists, at this point had them under siege, but in order to see his daughter again, he agreed to peace and her marriage to Rolfe. The couple, accompanied by a group of Powhatan, including Tomocomo, who the chief tasked with “counting the people,” went to England, where she was a sensation, a model of the “transformed savage.” Unfortunately and quite understandably, given the Indians lack of resistance to European diseases, she died of smallpox on the return voyage to America. Tomocomo apparently gave up counting the English.

It is probable that the numbers of Europeans and the lack of Indian resistance to their diseases were on the minds of many North American Indians as the foreigners came in larger and larger numbers, bringing guns, iron tools, livestock, culture, religion, and diseases with them. There were wars and there were treaties, and the ferocious forces of numbers, diseases, and a religious culture that considered itself divinely driven and the custodian of ultimate truth were relentless in displacing the indigenous Americans by killing, removal, or assimilation.

Alvin Josephy believed and stated often that the Indians had these three choices; he said also that the Europeans’ preferred choice was most often assimilation, making Indians white.


Killing all of the indigenous people would have been an extraordinary task—they were many peoples living in many different environments, and they knew the land as the invaders did not. And the newcomers needed their guidance: Where did the waters begin and end? What was on the other side of the mountain? How deep would the snow be?  But mostly the Europeans needed what the Indians had—land and the natural and agricultural resources that the land contained and supported.

Removal would become the preferred option under Andrew Jackson, and again in the major treaty period as the Euro-Americans moved across the continent. But in the early days, the new Euro-Americans needed the Indians in their places for reasons above.

Assimilation, the third choice, was that of reasonable men because they could use the information and sometimes the labor and military alliances with tribal people who were alive and in or near their native places.

There were Indian tribes and individuals who resisted, but resistance meant war—and then death, or removal, leaving traditional lands, or some kind of accommodation, or assimilation.  Back to the three alternatives.

For many of the newcomers there were moral arguments for assimilation. They had moral standards—promoted by a body of English common law and a religion that asked that people be treated fairly and honestly. I believe that the religious argument for assimilation—and conversion—was the primary motivation for most of the early critics of those who treated Indians unfairly, the driving force of early assimilationists.

In 1880, Helen Hunt Jackson published A Century of Dishonor, a stinging critique of private and government actions against Indians. She wrote about the massacre at Sand Creek and the Nez Perce War, chronicling misdeed after misdeed, a “Century of Dishonor.”

H.B. Whipple, Bishop of Minnesota, wrote the preface, calling it a “sad revelation of broken faith, of violated treaties, and of inhuman deeds of violence [that] will bring a flush of shame to the cheeks of those who love their country… Dark as the history is, there is a brighter side. No missions to the heathen have been more blessed than those among the Indians. Thousands who were once wild, painted savages, finding their greatest joy in deeds of war, are now the disciples of the Prince of Peace.”

Jackson herself, in an author’s note at the beginning of the volume, says that “The history of the missionary labors of the different churches among the Indians would make another volume. It is the one bright spot on the dark record.”

However misguided, and in order to understand all later attempts to “make Indians white,” we must acknowledge the moral ground on which the early assimilationists  stood.

# # #

Sunday, December 24, 2017

In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat at Christmas

In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat—Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce to the world, wondered about the white man’s religion. Henry Spalding, the Presbyterian, had baptized his father, Tuekakas, and given him the name Joseph, and on his father’s death he had taken leadership of the band of Nez Perce—Nimiipuu—who called the Wallowa Country home, and he had taken his father’s name. At least that is the name the whites called him. What he wondered about was a religion at odds with itself—Presbyterians and Catholics had fought bitterly over theology and converts in his Country from their arrival in the 1830s.

In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat saw and understood many things that whites gave him little credit for; they always managed some workaround of the Indian’s intelligence and logic in pursuit of their own agendas.

At the Josephy Library we give copies of the famous Chief’s speech at Lincoln Hall in Washington D.C., delivered in 1879, just two years after the sad conclusion of the Nez Perce War in Bears Paw, Montana. People sometimes cry when they read it. I think it is a good starting point for understanding a people and history that live with us still—an invitation for scholarship and friendship.

I am privileged to know Nez Perce people and to be learning some of the Nez Perce story. I say some, because a lifetime would be not enough to learn a story of thousands of years, and because my learning would always—will always—be through my own white eyes.

Nevertheless, I get glimpses—in stories from elders, in the way things happen here at the Nez Perce Homeland in Wallowa and at the Josephy Center when Indian people are involved. We’re privileged too to have some written history—oral stories Indians have passed down that have been transcribed; the written accounts of traders and even missionaries; and in my case especially the work of Alvin Josephy.

Alvin waited to reconstruct the story for the white world until he “found” Yellow Wolf and Hear Me My Chiefs, books that are Indian accounts taken down by an eccentric white rancher named Lucullus McWhorter. McWhorter was a friend to Indians who met Yellow Wolf and the Nez Perce as they worked in the Washington hop harvest. Yellow Wolf was a War survivor. McWhorter traveled the route of the famous War Retreat towards Canada with Yellow Wolf, and the books were published by a little known Idaho company named Caxton.

Josephy also scoured missionary and fur trade accounts, and he was just in time to meet and sweat with the last survivors of the War of 1877. His work—The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest, is important in learning the story, but there is no better way to emotionally understand it than to read In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat’s words. And there is no better time to hear them than at the primary Christian holiday:

Whenever the white man treats the Indian as they treat each other, then we will have no more wars. We shall all be alike - brothers of one father and one mother, with one sky above us and one country around us, and one government for all. Then the Great Spirit Chief who rules above will smile upon this land, and send rain to wash out the bloody spots made by brothers' hands from the face of the earth. For this time the Indian race are waiting and praying. I hope that no more groans of wounded men and women will ever go to the ear of the Great Spirit Chief above, and that all people may be one people.

In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat has spoken for his people.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Indian Way of Life

I just finished teaching a “Pacific NW Ecosystems and Tribes” class for OSU on the Eastern Oregon University campus. It was my fourth year, and as I am not a regular teacher, I have tended to revamp the class each year—and sometimes mid-year.

What is consistent is that I try to present the region—the Old Oregon Country; the land occupied by “The People of the Salmon,” as Richard Dougherty elegantly described it in Alvin J’s American in 1492—as it was in 1492, and then the changes that came with each intrusion of the white Europeans: the horse, diseases, explorers and fur trade, missionaries, treaties, settlers, farmers and fishermen, the Wars, the Columbia River dams and irrigation projects, up to the EPA, Boldt Decision, and tribal fisheries programs today.

One of the tasks of the class is to explore “Difference, Power, and Discrimination,” so we follow the power shifts from tribes to whites, from agriculture to industry, rural to urban, and we discuss how Indians and women and others have been treated along the way.

I was on my way to La Grande for class a couple of weeks ago, wondering how to get 33 students involved in more discussion, and a little experiment occurred to me as I drove. I divided the class into three groups, and asked them each to take 10 minutes and come up with lists: Group 1—the tools white men have used to dominate women in our country; 2—the tools white men have used to dominate African-Americans from slavery to present; and 3—the tools white men have used to dominate Indian tribes and people for 500 years.

I said “white men” in each case because when you talk about power, it is white men who have historically held—and still hold many of—the seats of American power. (Current tensions, the results of news reports and confession, are testimony to this fact.)

The lists were remarkably similar: physical strength, religion, education, money, politics—including the vote, etc. But in the middle of the discussion something else occurred to me. “What, I asked, did Indians have that women and African Americans did not have for years and decades in our country?”

Students had little trouble with the first answer: land—property. Early African-Americans, most of whom were slaves, did not own property. And one can argue that white women were considered property themselves for the first 150 years of our national experiment. We had learned in class that it was basically 1900 before women could own property across the country, and of course it was 1920, not yet 100 years ago, when women got the vote! Although one might point to marriages which consolidated lands and the occasional matriarchal land baroness, they were exceptions, while Indians occupied and held onto lands that white men wanted from the time the first fishermen stepped off their boats and the first pilgrims landed. The diseases, treaties, duplicity, and conflicts that allowed white men to confiscate Indian lands from coast to coast is the earliest—and often most neglected—chapter in the nation’s history!

The second thing that Indians had that neither white women nor African-Americans could boast of was an attractive lifestyle. From Rousseau and his “noble savage” and the European painters who dressed King Hendrik in regal gowns, from John White’s 17th century drawings of muscular, handsome Indians, to Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and scores of French-Canadian voyageurs who went into the American wild with and as Indians, a certain small number of Euro-Americans—including some “captured” women and children—have embraced an Indian way of life.

There is an entire literature of this, possibly beginning with Benjamin Franklin, and certainly running to the recent tale of a young girl captured and raised by Kiowa Indians being “returned” to her white family by a grizzled old veteran named Captain Kid. It’s News of the World, and it’s a good read, based, I’m sure, on extensive research into the literature.

But let’s begin with Franklin:

“When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return. [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.”

# # #

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Canoes, statues, gifts

Many of you have been following our canoe journey, and some know about the big grant we received from the Oregon Community Foundation to have a Plateau Indian artist put Indian art on Main Street in Joseph.

That one is a long process. We are recruiting artists now--deadline January 15--for a first selection of three artists, who will each be given $1,000 and a month to develop proposals. One of the three will then have a year--and a $25,000 artist’s award--to complete an art project for Joseph’s Main Street. If you know of Plateau artists who might be interested, let us know! The OCF grant will cover most of the costs of this project.

Allen Pinkham Jr.’s small canoe floats! There is a little polishing up to do, but he is now thinking about those 30 foot logs sitting in Jim Zacharias’s log yard! We have some grant money for this project, but we will need more to get a traditional 30 foot Nez Perce dugout canoe on the Snake River in 2018!

And we will need more to complete a “Who Lived Here and How They Lived” permanent exhibit on the Center’s second floor next to the Library. Joan Gilbert, who designed the Josephy exhibit, is designing this one, and I think it is going to be good. The intent is to answer your questions--and those of visitors from across the world--about the Nez Perce who once lived here and who we at the Center, along with many others in this community, are now welcoming home.

We are also working with Tamástslikt on a summer 2018 exhibit. No end of good things going on here (I have not touched on the classes and exhibits and concerts that Cheryl has lined up), and I hope that you will be able to enjoy some of them in person.

Meanwhile, on this Giving Tuesday, or anytime, for that matter, we’ll appreciate your support of the Josephy Center and our good work. Check here to give online-- give a call if you’d like!

Thanks--and the very best of holidays to you and yours.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Canoe notes #3

Allen Pinkham Jr. got his dugout canoe into the water at Wallowa Lake in November. He’ll be back for some finishing work on this 16 footer, and then on to the 30 footers! The plan is to build one with the help of modern tools--as was done with the smaller canoe--and then one with traditional tools and methods. And then---he wants a trip on the Snake River in 2018.

Meanwhile, here’s the run-up to launch, and the canoe--and Allen and granddaughter--In the water. That’s son-in-law Travis, whose day job is in a commercial boat-building shop, working with Allen.

Friday, November 17, 2017

History buffs and novelists tell the stories

Alvin Josephy wrote and spoke frequently about the Indian story being left out of the standard American history of school textbooks and the academy. He said that amateur historians--“history buffs”--and novelists kept the story of Indians and the West alive when academia didn’t much care.

I teach a class in La Grande on Northwest Tribes and the Ecosystem they lived in, and how European intrusions, from diseases, horses, fur-trapping, and treaty-making to boarding schools, dam-building, and fire suppression changed Indians and the land. I’ve become increasingly interested in white-Indian realtionships, and yesterday we compared white male—women; white male—African-American; and white male—Indian power struggles from colonization forward, looking particularly at the rise of Black Power, Red Power, and Feminism in the 60s and 70s.

Two things stood out. First, white men, empowered by physical strength, religion, and tradition, were able to dominate women in the United States from our beginnings, and the appreciation of women as human beings deserving of the recognition and opportunities accorded their fathers and brothers has come about very gradually, and often painfully.

Second, African-Americans were brought to the new world as slaves, smothered first with physical force to get them onto ships and then shipped to a completely alien world, where fellow slaves often did not share language or culture, and a white minority was able, with the slaves’ debasement and confusion and their own assumptions of superiority and use of force, to dominate them. Their recognition as human beings deserving of the opportunities accorded their white brothers and sisters has also been painful and slow.

Indians are more complicated.

Josephy says that Europeans gave the Indians three choices: Assimilation; Removal; and extermination. There have been killing sprees and even genocidal actions against Indians, but Indians did not all die.  Removal has stumbled on inconsistencies and out and out failures, from Jackson’s removal policy to the widespread introduction of Indian “reservations.” Indians are still here—on and off their reservations.

Assimilation has always been the preferred government and societal treatment of Indians. Indians have been missionized, allotted onto farms, barred from practicing religion and cultural events, kidnapped and stripped of hair, language and culture at boarding schools, terminated from their reservations, and relocated to urban centers, all in the cause of making them white.

Women could not be made white—white men that is; Africans could not be made white, but the very early conceit in our country was that Indians could be made white. The Indian, the old boarding school anthem went, could be killed to save the (white) man.

Indians, it seems to me, had and have two things that European women and African-American men and women did not have when confronting white European men. First and most importantly, Indians had the land—and all that that meant. They knew the land, how to use, travel, and live on it. Europeans needed Indians at every point along the colonization road to show them those things.  But White Europeans wanted that land for their own purposes, and used every means of getting it—war and treaty being the primary means. Because the Indians had the land originally, they had a power in war and negotiations that neither women nor African-American slaves had. In the time, they were often overwhelmed with force and deception, but they hung and hold on—now to small bits of land and culture that take them back millennially.

The other thing that Indians had from the beginning was a physical health and lifestyle that was attractive to some of the European intruders. Think of Rousseau and his noble savage, and of Daniel Boone, the fur trappers and mountain men who left polite society to live with and like the Indians. They get their due in university press and small local publishers, not in our textbooks

And the story of women and children captured by Indians is threaded throughout our literary history in adventure books for children and in the diaries and narratives of “amateur” historians.  Not, again, in the textbooks, where the stories of grim preachers, prim women, and Salem witches do find room. But the “captives,” including the many who refused to return to “polite” society, have their own literature, from Mary Jemison, captured in 1753 at 15, diarist and subject of a stream of books from then to now, to Paulette Jiles’ just-published News of the World, a fictional account of a white girl raised by the Kiowa.

With Indians, white-guilt, Indian resilience, romanticism and a lingering taste for the land and the wild have crowded and continue to crowd each other in an ambivalent  500-year stew of a relationship. A stew too complicated for textbooks, left to novelists and history buffs.

# # #

Monday, November 13, 2017



This is a newspaper column I wrote for the Wallowa County Chieftain this week. It was suggested I post it here. I don’t think it is out of place.
best, rich

We live in a strange time. National news is dominated by arguments over facts—half-facts and fake facts, social media condemnations and accusations—while a growing chorus of serious speakers of all ages, religious and political persuasions rises to speak truth.

The liberal movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was not the first person of note to be accused of sexual abuse and huge hush money payments—Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly beat him on that score—but the accusations against Weinstein have opened a dam of stories about major figures in entertainment, religion, sports, and politics with sometimes bizarre accounts of power, control, and sexual predation.

Diana Nyad, the greatest long distance swimmer ever, wrote last week in the New York Times about a swimming coach who abused her and others when they were in high school, and how, after the girls told the school, the coach was quietly let go, and then went on to coach in college and in the Olympics! She’s been telling the story for decades; now people are listening. And listening to Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman, who joined the chorus with accusations against USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who is already facing charges of abuse and child pornography. These stories—and powerful organizations and a naïve public—are too late for scores of abused swimmers and gymnasts, but “late” is saving lives.

Last week also the Brooklyn Diocese released the names of several priests who had been “laicized” for abusing young boys 30 and 40 years ago. One went on to an illustrious academic career—which Arizona State University terminated with the new revelations.

The comic Louis C.K. joins Kevin Spacey and Public Radio’s Senior Vice President of News Mike Oreskes in the parade. In the NPR case, as in most others, the women—and in Spacey’s case, men—who had been reluctant to come forward have found courage in the wake of Weinstein’s fall. Even the US Senate has decided that sexual harassment training should be required—as Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore fights off accusations of pursuing and abusing teenagers as a young lawyer. My favorite defense: the Bible has stories of older men happily marrying teenagers.

If you think this all happens somewhere else, talk to the folks at Safe Harbors, and comb old local newspapers for reports of men physically and sexually abusing girls, women, and the occasional boy. The legions of famous victims who have stepped forward will embolden ordinary people in towns and cities across the country.

And listen for other stories too. Race has not been far behind gender in today’s truth-telling. Recent studies show that the tide of white Trump voters who swept him into office—despite evidence of questionable sexual and racial behaviors—was largely motivated by fear of immigrants and the fact of a sitting black American President.

In Wallowa County we named the mascot at Wallowa High School “Amos,” after an African-American named Amos Marsh, probably the most successful athlete who ever graduated there. And we laugh at the story of our beloved County Clerk, Marjorie Martin, who felt obliged to hide documents related to the massacre of Chinese gold miners on the Snake River while close relatives of the perpetrators were still alive.

Oregonian reporter Greg Nokes caught wind of the massacre story and doggedly pursued it, befriended Marjorie, and gained important information after she retired and new Clerk Charlotte McIver uncovered old documents stuffed away in the “wrong place.” A book, a monument on Snake River, and an Oregon Public Television documentary followed.

A recent showing of “Massacre at Hells Canyon” drew over 100 people at the Josephy Center, and Joseph teacher Jason Crenshaw showed the film and taught the event in his US History class.

Gwen Trice has been uncovering the history of African-American loggers in Wallowa County with the Maxville Heritage project for several years, and Pearl Alice Marsh, younger sister of star athletes Amos and Frank, is compiling a written history with interviews of the first generation descendants of those loggers.

Last week Pearl Marsh told the Joseph student body, grades 7-12, what it was like to grow up black in Wallowa, how she couldn’t be a “Brownie,” but a kind 4-H leader recruited her, how famous Amos could dance with white girls, but not date them, how living in Maxville and Wallowa was tough, but a huge step up from the Jim Crow south. When a student asked if she still experienced discrimination, Pearl said yes, but we’re much better now than we were with the legal discrimination and the lynchings that haunted all black American lives just a few years ago.

We are all better for knowing the truth—even when the telling is hard.

# # #

Monday, October 30, 2017

Indians, their land, and refugees

Alvin Josephy said that reservations and the continuing attachment to land they afforded have been instrumental in the survival of American Indian cultures. Reservations were, for the most part, diminished versions of ancient tribal landscapes, but however diminished, they were pieces of those larger lands—particular lands that had sustained particular tribal peoples for millennia.

Policies of removal and assimilation have of course taken many—most—Indians away from ancestral grounds over the last five centuries. There are now more urban Indians than rural Indians, and tribal enrollments are covered in confusion, with each tribe establishing its own enrollment requirements, and individual Indians finding themselves descendants of many tribes and sometimes living on a reservation where they are not, maybe cannot be, enrolled.

There have of course been movements of indigenous tribes through history, brought on by famine, weather, natural catastrophe, intertribal warfare and European colonization. Alvin Josephy began his landmark book on American Indians, The Indian Heritage of America, published in 1968, with maps and charts showing language distribution. Before we knew what DNA was, languages were leaving traces of peoples’ histories and movements, even people without written histories. One can follow these movements through the long lens of language, find the Athabascan languages of the north in the Southwest and Central America, the spread of Algonquin speakers east to west across the middle of North America, with Algonquin speakers even now lodged in small spots along the Pacific Coast.

Yet an Indian friend told me that he has a letter from the Danish paleo-genetic scientists confirming his relationship to “the Ancient One,” the man found years ago along the Columbia River and recently determined to have been there for some 9,000 years. Despite conjecture and maybe hope by some American anthropologists that a later, European connection would be uncovered, it was not. The Ancient One, aka Kennewick Man, is related to present day Indians of the Plateau.

When the greatest world-wide refugee crisis since that following WW 2 is ripping people from ancient roots and throwing them together in places totally removed from places of origin, there is something comforting about the people who were always here. Like ancient trees, mountains and rivers, we can marvel at the perseverance of people that have withstood awesome odds to remain in place.

But what about those who must move, those who have been stormily chased from traditional landscapes by hurricane, volcano, drought and other “natural” disasters, and by the tyranny of governments, the force of armies, and the violence of civil wars?

When their world is in turmoil, people move--and others take them in. Joseph and his remnant band of Nez Perce were taken in on the Colville Reservation in 1885, after the Nez Perce War, after years of exile in Indian Territory. Many descendants still live there.

We as a nation can, like Germany and other European countries, acknowledging the difficulties, but with some memory of the post-WW II chaos and its huge refugee crisis, take in the strangers. Or we can further close our borders and hunker down in historical ignorance.

# # #

Saturday, October 21, 2017

African-Americans and Indians

Two weeks ago, friend Anne Richardson arranged a discussion of Daniel Sharfstein’s book on Chief Joseph and General Howard, Thunder in the Mountains, at Portland’s Black Hat Books.  And this week, on Thursday, 14 of us from Wallowa County spent the day with Director Bobbie Conner and her staff at the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute on the Umatilla Reservation. The story of the gathering of tribal history of the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla—indeed of all the related Plateau tribes—and the skill and pride with which it is displayed and used to teach new generations of Indians, is inspiring.

In the end, the two experiences help me understand what my mentor Alvin Josephy called the miracle of Indian survival, and something of the big and small differences between Euro-American treatment of African slaves and indigenous Americans.

Sharfstein teaches history and law at Vanderbilt University, and is steeped in the Civil War and Reconstruction. The short version of his book is that the load General Howard carried from his time managing the post-Civil War Freedmen’s Bureau in Washington D.C. followed him West, and that he had tried to do for Indians what he had been unable to do for freed slaves: give them Christianity, education, and agricultural land.

Thwarted in his effort to give the freed slaves land as Reconstruction tumbled and pre-war landowners regained control of the South, knowing that his clients were mostly Christian, Howard had concentrated on education—most famously, of course, with Howard University. In the end, his eastern career was shrouded in stories of mismanagement and corruption, some of them true. But most importantly, Reconstruction and his early goals for the freed slaves were shattered by others, and he was sent West—to deal with Indians.

The assignment as Commander of the military Department of the Columbia in 1874 gave Howard a chance to skip back past Reconstruction to his Civil War experiences. He became a popular Portland speaker on the subject, and in the course of it was able to recover from personal debt incurred in the East. The new position also allowed Howard to revive old ideas of making new citizens of the country, this time Indians.

Although there had been missionaries in the territory for over 30 years, Christianity was not firmly seated with the Indians of the Northwest in the 1870s. And the efforts at educating them in the Euro-American tradition, primarily by those same missionaries, had been minimally successful. Ditto with agriculture: corn seeds and potatoes, cows, and sheep had come West with the fur trade, south from Canada with Spokan Garry, north from California with gold miners. But most of the bands of Plateau Indians—Cayuse, Nez Perce, Umatilla, Walla Walla, Yakima, et al—were still making seasonal rounds, gathering the camas roots and huckleberries, fish, lamprey, deer, elk, pronghorn and buffalo that had sustained them for millennia.

Although Howard kept thinking he could make the Indian cultures and peoples in his Department of the Columbia fit into his boxes for religion, education, and agriculture/land-use, he couldn’t. The cultural differences and cognitive distances between Howard and the Indians in all three areas were huge—and ultimately insurmountable. In fact, Sharfstein shows that after the Nez Perce War, right up to and through the time that he met amicably with Joseph years later, O.O. Howard never really understood the Indian point of view, or the vast distances between it and his own.

And here is where it gets tricky. What has struck me since reading Sharfstein is the distance between the African experience with Euro-Americans and the Indian experience with Euro-Americans. Africans were forcibly stolen from many lands and cultures, brought to a new place, and, it seems to me, homogenized. Although bits and pieces of their previous languages and cultures clung on, the Africans of many tribes were thrown together, forced into new work, new language, and new religion, treated by the white culture as all the black same, until most of what they came from—except their color—was erased.

On the other hand, five or six hundred distinct North American Indian cultures were confronted by diverse Euro-American economic, religious, and military interests—by French, Dutch, Spanish and English Americans; Protestants and Catholics; corporate functionaries and free spirits. Alliances were made and battles were fought one by one by one. And for 500 years, attempts to consolidate and treat Indians as one, from war to removal to assimilation, have never completely taken hold.

Indians in this country have been enslaved, beaten, hung, and dehumanized, as have their African-American countrymen. There have been conscious and unconscious attempts at genocide; some tribes have been exterminated. Government programs moved Indians West, and moved them to smaller and smaller reservations. Assimilation—the most persistent treatment of Indians, has employed missionaries, agricultural training, land allotments, boarding schools, tribal “termination,” Indian relocation, and the banning of potlatches, languages, dances, and regalia, to make Indians white. But indigenous Americans, misnamed from the beginning, have remained Indians; more importantly, they have remained Modoc and Lakota, Delaware, Cherokee, Umatilla, Makah, Paiute, Shoshone, and Nez Perce.

# # #

Monday, October 2, 2017

Ken Burns and “The Americans”

Hollow Horn Bear--1923 US Postage Stamp
I’ve been a big fan of Ken Burns’ documentaries—like many I watched the Civil War series as it came out; like many (though not as many) watched “Baseball” explore the post Civil War Civil Rights journey; and I caught most of the recent “Vietnam” series the first time around and will watch the one episode and parts of others I missed as they come back to my screen.

Yet there is a giant hole in the work of Ken Burns. In the September 4 issue of the New Yorker, author Ian Parker profiles the documentarian, and the headline writers call it “Mr. America.” Parker recounts many of Burns’ triumphs, from “The Brooklyn Bridge” to “Mark Twain” and the “Dust Bowl.” And he quotes Burns on at least ten ideas for the future, including “Hemingway,” “Crime and Punishment in America,” and “Country Music,” which is already in the can and set to run. He’s also considering “Winston Churchill,” and chuckles that it fits into his pantheon because Churchill had an American mother.

Burns is a history buff, an American History buff. But something big is missing: Americans. Here I step back to the original meaning of that term. The current issue of American Indian Magazine announces the fall exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian, “The Americans.” It then explains that

“The exhibition’s title is a play on words. In the Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition provided for ‘American’ is ‘An indigenous inhabitant of (any part of) the Americas; an American Indian.’ This usage was common until the early 19th century.”

I googled. Here is the 1828 Webster’s Definition: “A native of America; originally applied to the aboriginals, or copper-colored races, found here by the Europeans; but now applied to the descendants of Europeans born in America. The name American must always exalt the pride of patriotism.”

The NMAI exhibit traces the use of Indian images by government and industry over the entire course of US history, from a 1792 “Peace and Commerce” medal with a bare-breasted and beautiful Indian “queen,” to the “Tomahawk missile” and (my favorite) the Pontiac car, named after an Ottawa Indian Chief who’d beat the British.

Maybe the most dramatic image is that of Hollow Horn Bear, and I quote at length from the American Indian Magazine article because it says it all:

Already a familiar face in Washington, D.C., Sicangu (Brule) Lakota chief Mat ó Hé lo e a, or Hollow Horn Bear (c. 1850–1913) became the iconic, if unnamed, “American Indian” by 1923, when his likeness appeared on the new 14-cent U.S. postage stamp. He also appeared on the five-dollar bill, the first and only historic Native to be shown on U.S. paper currency. Hollow Horn Bear fought alongside Oglala Lakota Chief Red Cloud in Red Cloud’s War of 1866–68 and participated in the defeat of Gen. George A. Custer in the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. Yet he later served as a delegate to the federal government and marched in the inaugural parades of Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 and Woodrow Wilson in 1913. His transition from feared enemy to national symbol is one of the mysteries explored in the major new exhibit “Americans,” opening this fall at the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall.

The complications: an Indian who lived through the Indian Wars and fought against one-time hero George Custer, but did not live long enough to see the true story of Custer explained to the public—or to see his own image on a US Postage Stamp! Somehow exemplary of the crazy many-sided ways that later Euro-Americans have addressed, and continue to address, the people who were here to meet the Mayflower, Columbus’ boats, and those of the slavers. The “500 Nations” of North America and the many more of Central and South America.

I’d challenge the historian in Ken Burns to take on this story, one that makes the complications of the Civil War and Vietnam pale, a story about Americans who saved the Plymouth colony and Lewis and Clark, influenced Benjamin Franklin and the first colonialists, and excited Rousseau, the fur traders, mountain men, and generations of movie makers. And these Americans—unlike the Civil War heroes and the fading population of World War II veterans and Rosy the Riveters, are alive today and holding on to languages and cultures that sustained them long before the new Americans hit the shores of the American continents.

# # #

Friday, September 22, 2017

Manifest Destiny and white identity

American Progress, by John Gast 1872
Manifest Destiny was an idea long before it had a name, and what it was really about was not the “white man’s burden,” but an Anglo-American one, the idea that the arrow of civilization and mantle of world leadership had passed from the British Empire to the emerging Anglo-American Empire. The accession of Mexican lands and the Philippines, adventures in Central America, and most importantly for our own national history, the Westward Expansion that displaced Indians and seized tribal lands across the continent, were all part of a grand idea that Anglo-American civilization was destined to lead the entire world.

From the founding of the United States forward, Anglo-Americans were in political control: immigrants from other European places grouped themselves in Eastern city neighborhoods and on Midwestern farms—Greeks, Irish, Scandinavians, Bohemians, Slavs and Jews from Central Europe and more. German immigrants—the largest share of all immigrants between 1850 and 1900—built factories and Midwestern cities. They were white, but not Anglo-white, and while the Irish and Italians ran their neighborhoods and Germans made beer, Anglos ran national politics. Thirty-eight of our Presidents trace ancestry to the British Isles, Eisenhower was the first German-American, Kennedy the first Catholic.

The West was historically a sparsely populated region whose natural resources and agricultural possibilities dazzled and attracted people from the “United States” and countries around the world. Spaniards, Mexicans, and Indian workers dealt early in tallow and hides. The Chinese came to build railroads and work in mines, and Filipinos and other Asians came to Hawaii to work in fields, and then hopped to the Mainland. In other words, from territorial days and Mexican, Russian, and British claims forward, the West was more colorful than the East, but not as politically powerful.

European westward settlement proceeded over decades; twentieth century wars transformed the country in months. Especially World War II, a bi-coastal war that brought tens of thousands of young American men from across the country to camps in California and Washington on their way to war. Men, and women too, moved to shipyards on the West coast, and thousands came to Los Alamos and Hanford to work on the atomic bomb. In 1994, historian Richard White told an Oregon Fishtrap audience examining change in the West that “prior to WW II the West was a hard-scrabble place looking for population, capital, and an industrial base. WW II gave the West all three.”

African-Americans came too, but the military was strictly segregated (until 1948), as were shipyards and Hanford workers barracks. So while Anglo-Americans and Italian-Americans, Scandinavians and even Jews served together, lived and mixed together in war and at home, blacks were firmly separated.

At that same Fishtrap conference, historian Alvin Josephy, who had been a Marine Corps journalist in the Pacific, said that WW II didn’t unite the country—the G.I. Bill did. What we didn’t talk about, and what seems clear to me now, is that WW II and the G.I. Bill that followed united “white America,” and laid the ground for what is dividing us now.

African-Americans, who’d traveled north and west to work in urban factories since the early 1900s, found no place in the emerging post-WW II suburbs, where William Levitt, his followers, and the GI Bill used federal money to build tract homes for the mixed ethnic bag of white WW II veterans. Federal money supported suburban infrastructure while it ignored deteriorating urban infrastructure in city cores which were becoming increasingly black; and federal policy winked or ignored redlining as suburbs stayed white.

But WW II showed blacks other worlds too, and soon baseball and the military were integrated, a Civil Rights Bill was passed, and the reign of Anglo presidents finally gave way to the Irish, to a poor white Southerner, and, finally, to an African-American.

Today, the old ethnic and “tribal” identities are jumbled and waiting for DNA counts to tell us who we are—or were. Families are split across the country. There are more and more boxes on government forms—and the easy response from far too many is to scream “White!”

Maybe in New York City, long a landing place for new immigrants, and here on the West Coast, where soldiers have long settled down with war brides and wars have deposited millions of Asian refugees, where opportunism and intermarriage have stirred the pot harder, a new multi-cultural identity is growing. But here and everywhere there are too many pockets of Supremacists, people who want the white back they thought they always had, people who lost their own anchors of place and “ethnic identity” sometime around 1944.

# # #

Friday, September 1, 2017

Canoe notes #3

Canoe, Allen, granddaughter, Wallowa Lake
On Sunday, August 19, we launched Allen Pinkham Jr.’s dugout canoe. This one, as described before, is about 16 feet long, was shaped with help of Jim Zacharias’s mill, Allen’s work with electric chain saw, and his further work—with some minor help from a few of us locals—with chisel, hammer, and adze.

Six of us hoisted it onto James Montieth’s pickup bed, and the six of us lowered it into the water at the boat dock on the north end of Wallowa Lake. There was a big, fancy powerboat across the dock from us, but our craft immediately attracted attention and drew a crowd of 40 or more, including a raft of kids who wanted to try it out.

Which they did. And it floated, and it floated true—not listing port or starboard. Both ends took on about same amount of water, but Allen thinks he can adjust that as he does final shaping of hull and gunnels so that the rower’s weight at the stern will be matched by a heavier bow. At this point the hull is 1-3 inches thick, and he wants it close to 1 inch. And the sides will also be whittled down to ¾-1 inches. (Which all should take off another hundred or more pounds, so that we will be able to load and unload with a smaller crew.)

For those of you following the canoe project, there is a 30 foot log waiting for Allen in Jim’s log yard. He plans to utilize modern technology on that one as well—Jim’s mill, the electric chain saw, etc. But then—the far off dream at this point, but the man has some determination in him—there will be a more traditional canoe, built with the tools available to the Nez Perce before the time of Lewis and Clark, a historical time close to the last time people of the tribe built dugout canoes.

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Friendship and freedom; Indian and White

Young Joseph’s Monument, Nespelem
This weekend a Nez Perce friend handed me a copy of a letter, written in 1940, by Walter Copping, a white man who had been a storekeeper at Nespelem, Washington. The letter writer says that Chief Joseph died in the fall of 1904 while most of the Nez Perce were gone picking hops, and that the funeral was on June 20, 1905, when there were again few Nez Perce around and he and some Indians of “other tribes” were made pallbearers. He was sure of the date, because he wrote it in his “Masonic Monitor.” He explains that when the Indians came back from hop picking that year they had another ceremony, and adds that there was a third ceremony, which Professor Meany and railroader Sam Hill attended, and at which a monument was placed at the grave site. He gives no date for this third memorial.

The man talks easily of languages—English, Nez Perce, Chinook, and it is not clear from the addressee and the names of husbands and wives that he mentions who exactly was Indian and who was white. He simply had been asked by someone to write down his memories of Joseph, and his response had been delayed—“If I wasn’t the world’s worst letter writer you would have heard from me long ago.” But he goes on to write like a good neighbor and friend would write—sometimes humorous, always respectful.

“I remember that Joseph used to come into the store and sit on the counter for an hour or two at a time and would not talk very much.. When he would talk he would speak to me in Nez Perce and if I did not know what he said he would explain in Chinook to me. He would help me to learn the Nez Perce…. I liked Joseph very much and thought he was a very fine man. Was a large  (about 240# and 6’3” tall) and a fine looking fellow.”

I just finished reading Daniel Sharfstein’s Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard and the Nez Perce War. It’s a good book, and I will write more about it, but what strikes me now, as I read this letter and think of the friend who gave it to me, is how good, curious, and moral Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce were before, during, and after the War of 1877, and how utterly clueless of their own prejudices the white politicians and generals were.

The Indians were, from the arrival of Lewis and Clark, trying to understand these new people with the upside down faces. What were they looking for? What did they have to trade? What did they need? How many of them were there? What foods did they eat? What did they do with cloth, leather, steel, seeds, cattle, horses? What was their religion? And how did it fit their lives?

The whites, on the other hand, were confident in their own superiority and in their God-given right to take land not being efficiently “used’ by the Indians.

There were of course many exceptions: the fur traders who took Indian wives and adopted many Indian attitudes; the many white women, children, and men who had, from New England west, “gone native” to a place where women seemed to have more say and the social and religious demands were less restrictive; and Eliza Spalding, who, alone of the Spalding-Whitman contingent, seemed to genuinely like Indians, who learned their language and invited them into her home.

But most whites, and especially the male Anglo-Americans of political power who would eventually declare “Manifest Destiny,” were mostly dismissive of Indians, at their worst brutal towards them. The “best” of the whites thought the Indians’ only hope was assimilation—missions, boarding schools and Allotments in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “termination” and urban relocation in the 1950s the final rush at it.

In Sharfstein’s book, Joseph is constantly trying to understand white laws and ways, and trying to put his own case in those terms. Howard is a stubborn assimilationist: the Indians needed Christianity, farms, and education.

Joseph’s requests were simple and straightforward:

“We ask that the same law shall work alike on all men…. Let me be a free man—free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself….”

I sense from this letter that for occasional moments, at a white man’s small store in Nespelem, Washington in 1900, Joseph and the storekeeper felt equal as friends. The freedoms Joseph dreamt of, were, of course, never realized.

# # #

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Eli Parker and Robert E. Lee at Appomattox

Ulysses Grant and staff. Parker at left. 
The most amazing thing to come my direction after the Charlottesville disaster was a piece by Mark Trahant in High Country News. Trahant is enrolled Shoshone-Bannock, the author of a book on Scoop Jackson and Termination, and, currently, a professor of journalism at the University of North Dakota. And, I am proud to say, someone we had at Fishtrap during my tenure there.

On reading Trahant’s “History Tells Us Donald Trump’s Presidency is Over,” I thought immediately of Alvin Josephy’s contention that Indians have been systematically omitted from the standard version of American history. They are, Josephy contended, seen as impediments to Euro-American progress across the continent, or as a side show, literally or figuratively participants in Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.

But Trahant reminds us that “Eli Parker, a Seneca Indian, drafted the documents that spelled out the surrender to be signed by General Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865.”

Parker had gone to law school, but could not take the bar exam to practice law, because Indians were not citizens and one had to be a citizen to practice law. So he became an engineer, gained wealth, and in one of his engineering projects met and befriended a down and out Ulysses S. Grant. Years later, Parker was at first rebuffed in gaining an officer’s post in the Union Army, but, eventually Grant found him, he was made an officer, and at the Appomattox courthouse, Parker was an officer, Grant’s scribe, and the man who drafted the document of surrender.

That fact, and Eli Parker, have been effectively scrubbed from the standard history. Which makes the irony of Parker’s interchange with General Lee all the greater:

 “I am glad to see one real American here,” Lee said while shaking his hand. Lt. Col. Parker responded: “We are all Americans.”

# # #

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

JFK on Indians

In 1961, Alvin Josephy moved from Time Magazine to American Heritage, where The American Heritage Book of Indians was his first major assignment. The text was written by William Brandon, but Alvin oversaw designers and assistant editors who fact checked and copy read, and I am sure it was Alvin who scoured the country’s libraries and museums for images to accompany the text. The early reviews, neatly summarized by American Heritage staff members and stuffed behind the cover of Alvin’s own copy of the book, which sits in our library, extol the effort, and comment on the breadth and depth of text and illustration. General readers will love it, one reviewer says, but even scholars will find something new.

I think I’d glanced at the one page introduction by President John F. Kennedy at some point, but recently found myself reading it again—and it struck me that Kennedy’s message was or became Alvin’s message throughout his long career as writer, editor, and Indian activist: “American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all,” says JFK. And he goes on to say that we have things to learn from Indians, etc.

I don’t know how editor Josephy got JFK to introduce this volume, or who actually penned the words—speechwriter Ted Sorenson? Or JFK himself, who had a strong background in history and was no slouch as a writer. But this one page “Introduction” could neatly serve as our mission statement here at the Josephy Library of Western History and Culture.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Canoe notes #2

My childhood recollections of New World history move quickly from Columbus and the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria to Squanto and the Puritans on the other side of the continent. In neither case did we get much real history, but rather sloganeering echoes passed from teacher to student for decades, now centuries. And we got holidays—Columbus Day and Thanksgiving—that were and probably still are occasion for grade school pageantry.

But Allen Pinkham, Jr., our Nez Perce canoe carver, sends me back to Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., my mentor and the “Great Reminder.” Alvin reminds us that Indians were here for millennia before Columbus and the Puritans, that they had fashioned high civilizations as well as many simple but effective ways of living on their lands, that there had been catastrophes even before the Europeans came with the great upset, but that Native peoples and the land have been resilient. (I mistakenly typed “had” in place of “have” in that sentence; these things go on.)

In researching The American Heritage Book of Indians, published in 1962,  Josephy combed the nation’s research libraries, and in them found the words and images of Fernandez de Oviedo. Oviedo apparently did his own art work; he was no great artistic talent, but with him we have some of the first European artistic renditions of the people of the New World.

And some of these images include canoes. This image appears in a book by de Oviedo, La historia general y natural de las Indias. The drawing is dated 1535.

One learns immediately that even in the early 1500s, men were of different minds on the treatment of Indians. In the Caribbean and Central America, beginning with Columbus, it had been brutal. It was too much for one Spaniard, Las Casas, who turned reformer, entered the clergy, and was officially named “Protector of the Indians.”

While all agree that Oviedo’s  Historia furnishes a mass of information collected at first hand, Las Casas, the fellow contemporary chronicler of the Spanish colonization of the Caribbean, denounced Oviedo and the Historia thus: "one of the greatest tyrants, thieves, and destroyers of the Indies, whose Historia contains almost as many lies as pages.”

Las Casas own tome is titled, pointedly, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.

And I’ll take it that the canoes were not part of the lie, but real—and recognizable today, 500 years on, as part of a world that Allen Pinkham is revisiting with his own canoe carving here at the Josephy Center.

# # #

Monday, July 31, 2017

Canoe notes #1

A couple of years ago Allen Pinkham Jr. was here at the Josephy Center teaching beading and drum building. At the end of his stay, he said that “We Nez Perce were canoe people. I think I’d like to come back here and build a dugout canoe.”

It’s taken patience and the work of many, but Allen is now fully embarked on building his first canoe—as far as we can figure, the first Nez Perce dugout canoe built in over 100 years.  Allen’s father, Allen Sr., came and checked the rings on the log to determine top and bottom, and told all the canoe stories he had in his very active memory bank. Local logger Jim Zacharias has helped with logs and making a first rough cut on the first log. Josephy Center board member Tim Norman (who happens to be a pretty darned good sculptor) came with tools and a good backswing to help hollow the log.  Bob Chenoweth, the retired curator at the Nez Perce National Historical Park, which is headquartered in Spalding, Idaho, came to offer advice based on his years of studying Nez Perce and regional canoes. According to Bob, there are only 5 or 6 NP dugouts in existence, all of them over 100 years old. The Park has four of them; Montana Historical Society has one, and there might be another out there somewhere.

The Nez Perce National Trail Foundation, the Autzen Foundation and some of you out there in donor land have helped fund the project so far—for which huge thanks.

This first canoe is a15 footer, a one man—or woman—canoe. We have two 30 foot logs waiting in Zacharias’s yard for a full-size canoe. But Allen, who has worked in many traditional arts and visited canoe builders from coastal tribes, has never built a canoe, so he and we liked the idea of building this one-person canoe first.

The project takes on a life of its own. One of Allen’s brothers makes traditional, antler and stone type, tools. The first two canoes—this 15 footer and the first 30 footer—will employ some modern technology, mainly a mill and chainsaws. But Allen mused this weekend that he might ask his brother to make some traditional adzes, that he would eventually figure out how to build a canoe with antler, stone, and fire.

The canoe building goes on outside the Josephy Center front door. Visitors can look at it anytime, and if here on the right weekend, watch Allen work on it and, if so inclined, take a whack or two with adze or wedge and sledge. They can also, as one woman did today, sit down and read Bob Chenoweth’s monograph on Nez Perce and other Plateau region canoes.

You don’t have to be here at the Josephy Center to “think” about canoes. Chenoweth says that the Indians continued to use canoes long after they got the horse, and could travel from present-day Clarkston, Washington to Celilo in six days. The Nez Perce helped Lewis and Clark build five canoes—Chenoweth says that in order to carry men and gear, a couple of them had to be over 50 feet in length. Corps accounts mention numerous canoe sightings on the Columbia—not so many horses. Seasonal Indian villages were mostly along water—the source of food as well as transportation. And horses without roads would still have made for difficult travel.

The first known depictions of Natives by Spaniards—before 1500!—include a man in a dugout! Most of the major cities in the world—as well as scores of Nez Perce villages—were built on river, lake, and ocean. Can you imagine Lewis and Clark in their canoes on the Big River? Imagine the Nez Perce, before 1800, before they saved the explorers, before Astoria and missionaries, Forts Walla Walla and The Dalles, joining a parade of river people traveling to Celilo to celebrate and exchange food, culture, and religion, meeting and making friends and relatives, making new families. Seeing someone with dentalia in a pierced nose.  

Think about the history that can be dug out of a canoe.

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