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.

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Monday, November 13, 2017

Truth-telling

Friends

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!