Thursday, March 31, 2011

Who was Gwen Coffin?

Gwen Coffin grew up poor in Colorado, made his way through college and law school in Chicago, married a teacher named Gladys, and, in 1941, moved to Wallowa County to buy a newspaper and practice law. He never got around to the law practice, though he did make some law while serving briefly in the Oregon Legislature. He was still going newspaper strong at the Wallowa County Chieftain when I got here in 1971, taking on Johnson and Nixon and the Vietnam War, promoting conservation and wilderness.

Oh—and Gwen was the man Alvin Josephy called, and the Coffin House in Enterprise was the house that Alvin came to on his first trip to see Joseph’s Nez Perce homeland. They ate lunch and Gwen gave Alvin his first tour of Wallowa County. That would have been mid-1950s, shortly after Alvin came upon the Nez Perce story that changed his life--and in turn has changed many others.

Fishtrap lives in the house now. It was purchased with generous help from the Coffin daughters, Nancy Ormandy and Gail Swart, who grew up in it and like all the things that tied their parents and this house to writing and living in Wallowa County (Gladys had become a Fishtrap regular in her 80s!)

This editorial, which appeared in the April 8, 1943 edition of Gwen’s Chieftain, at the height of the Second World War and just 48 years ago next week, says a lot about Gwen Coffin. He supported the war efforts in Europe and the Pacific, but, as you will see, he questioned the conduct of business and government at home....

April 8, 1943

When historians sit down to write the history of the present war we venture a guess that the government’s treatment of the Japanese in this country will come in for some pretty severe criticism. There is very little to be said in favor of what has been done so far.

In the hysteria of the first few weeks after Pearl Harbor the army decided that the presence of thousands of Japanese in the Pacific coast region constituted a threat to the safety of the country and a policy of wholesale deportations to concentration camps was decided upon. No effort was made to determine who were loyal Japanese and who were disloyal or potentially so. All were given short notice to dispose of their homes and their businesses preparatory to being moved to hastily improvised camps where thousands were crowded into barracks with few facilities for maintaining life on anything like a normal basis.

The whole business is foreign to our conception of fair play and orderly process. Had the procedure adopted been necessary the picture of families being torn from their homes and mode of life and sent to distant internment camps would not have been quite so pathetic. But it is highly doubtful whether the policy was ever really necessary.

We have not felt obliged to send German and Italian nationals to concentration camps in wholesale batches, although it would e exceedingly difficult to make out anything like a convincing argument in favor of a more lenient policy toward these people than toward the Japanese. There are no doubt disloyal and traitorous Japanese in this country but probably they represent no greater a proportion of the total Jap population of the U.S. than the proportion of disloyal Italians and Germans in the total population of those tow national groups. It should have been possible to have segregated the Japanese known to be loyal to this country from those who were known to be disloyal or about whom there might be doubts. The loyal Japanese should have been given every chance to contribute toward the successful prosecution of the war instead of being immediately branded as outcasts and thrown in with the know traitors and shipped off to detention camps.

Besides being an undemocratic process the whole business is unsound economically a Senator Chandler of Kentucky has decided in introducing a bill in Congress calling for the release of loyal Japanese form detention camps so that they may return to useful occupations furthering the war effort and cease to be charity wards of the Untied Sates government. Senator Chandler estimates that more than $50,000,000 a year would be saved if this segregation were made. Much of the resentment on the West Coast toward the Japanese was not the outgrowth of the war but arose during peacetime as the Japanese achieved some success and prominence in their pursuits of agriculture and trade. Many employers preferred to see the Japanese remain in the ranks of low paid wage earners. Others were resentful at the sight of Japanese prospering better than many Americans.

It is foreign to our conceptions of democracy, however, to distinguish between peoples on the basis of color or nationality. There should be only one test for the right to share in the opportunities which this country provides and that is the test of belief in our democratic ideals and government, and a willingness to work with other Americans to further those ideals and to support this government.

Gwen Coffin, editor and publisher, Wallowa County Chieftain

(1986 photo of Gwen Coffin, Senator Bob Packwood, and Wallowa County Chamber President Gerry Perrin at Toma's Restaraunt in Enterprise.)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How do we keep learning from Alvin?


Alvin Josephy died in 2005. I read something that he wrote—or that was written to or about him—almost every day. And I am continually amazed by what he said and when and where he said it.

In Life Magazine in 1971, Josephy wrote that the US government interpreters were telling visitors at the Custer Battlefield that Custer was a hero and the Indians were savages; in the New York Times Sunday Magazine in 1973, just weeks after the FBI-Indian confrontation at Wounded Knee, he said that the Indians were justified, and published photos of Custer’s troops being buried with high ceremony and Sioux Indian survivors of the battle being slaughtered and buried in a mass grave. In 1992 he reminded—in speeches and a book, America in 1492—that Columbus came to a land of some 75 or 90 million people, over 2000 mutually unintelligible languages, and cities larger than any in Europe at the time. And that the learned clerics and academicians in Spain began an immediate “solemn intellectual discourse” concerning the Native peoples of the “so-called New World,” to determine whether its inhabitants were “human” or “sub-human” beings.

I wonder every day how we keep Alvin’s work and legacy alive—more importantly, how we use it to inform contemporary conversations about history, government, Indian affairs, and environmental issues that are on the table today.

The problem is that Alvin was a scrupulous researcher who used the latest research in archeology, ethnography, linguistics, etc. Many of his journalism pieces reflect the best knowledge of the time, which might not be up to date today (DNA was just coming on as Alvin’s career wound down). His books still attract an audience—but there are new writers saying similar things today. Why go back and read what Alvin had to say?

I think it has to do with vision—with a vision of US History and Indian history and how they were intertwined and distorted by the lack of acknowledgement that Indians HAD a history before Euro-Americans. It has to do with honoring personal interview, stories and legends, the pieces of culture that were discarded, or were pushed out of the “history” bin and into the “natural history” bin (along with dinosaurs and bugs, as Alvin said). It has to do with what he called “Eurocentrism” which devalues indigenous knowledge and non-Judeo-Christian religious traditions.

In the “Oklahoma Lecture in the Humanities” presented in Tulsa in 1992, Alvin quotes a textbook, American History: A Survey, published by his publisher, Knopf, in 1987! “For thousands of centuries, centuries in which the human faces were evolving, forming communities, and building the beginnings of national civilizations in Africa, Asia, and Europe—the continents we know as the Americas stood empty of mankind and its works…The story of this new world… is a story of the creation of civilization where none existed.”

He reminded his audience that the learned historians were not alone, that few Americans knew about American Indians’ contributions of food, language, and law to the world, and that most Americans still thought that American Indians were all pretty much the same—spoke one generic language, had one religion, and had had one economy, stereotypically that of the post horse plains Indians. They didn’t—and I would add that we still don’t—know where the Cherokees and Navajos and Blackfeet live, and how their pre-Columbian migrations and post US national government wars and treaties got them there.

This speech was given in 1992. Alvin’s words, which can I think drive us still, are that “For the Quincentenary to have more than surface meaning, finally, for ourselves and our children’s children, we ought to recognize and understand, also, not alone what Indians have contributed to the world, but what they could have contributed if they had been allowed to do so, and what they can, and may still, contribute. All in all it is a much bigger assignment than merely acknowledging that Indians, rather than Columbus, discovered America.”

Alvin Josephy is a burr in our historic hides. I want to make sure that he continues to rub.

(photo; Jonathan Nicholas and Alvin Josephy, probably 1989, at Summer Fishtrap at Wallowa Lake Methodist Camp)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A reflection on Winona LaDuke’s visit to Fishtrap


Small world—and invisible Indians

Winona LaDuke was at Winter Fishtrap this weekend. She is an enrolled member of the Mississippi Band of Anishinaabeg on the White Earth Reservation in Northern Minnesota and a global activist on behalf of Indian rights and sustainable natural resource use.

Winona is not bitter or self-pitying, but straight forward, proud, realistic, rational, and spiritual all-together. Seven of the eight million dollars spent on food on her reservation go immediately off-reservation, she said. Some huge percentage of electrical energy is spent in the mining and transportation of fuels and the transmission across far distances. On her reservation they will grow and produce more of their own food; they will build wind turbines and develop wind energy.

People hovered after her talk. I approached slowly and introduced myself as having been born and partially raised in Fosston, Minnesota, at the edge of the White Earth Reservation. “My father was born in Fosston, in 1929,” she said. (He later went to California where he was an Indian in the movies—“an extra $25 if you fell off your horse”—and where Winona was born.). I said that an uncle had a small fishing resort called the “Hideout” on Island Lake right after the War. “That would have been off county road #4,” she said.

There were no Indian kids in school—my guess was that they went to small country schools on the reservation. “Probably until eighth grade,” she thought, as that was as far as her father had gone. Only now I think that some of the Indian kids must have been hustled off to boarding schools in other places. I didn’t think to ask her about boarding schools.

Indians were invisible to us. We didn’t know any Indians. On county road #4 we saw a few shacks and big cars. We thought that when Indians got money they bought Cadillacs and got drunk. We didn’t know about the kids, though our parents pitied them.

Then I remembered trips to Itasca State Park, the headwaters of the Mississippi River—“that’s on the Reservation,” Winona chimed—and that for a quarter I had my picture taken sitting on an Indian chief’s lap (why do I remember the quarter?). I don’t know what happened to the picture, but I remember that the Indian had a large feathered headdress and wore buckskin. “That was probably my grandfather,” said Winona.

This is all sixty years ago, and it pains me to write it. I’ve gone to good schools and traveled far, lived for 40 years in Nez Perce country in Oregon—land the Indians were driven from with broken treaties and threats of war. I spend some of my time now going through the books and articles written by the late Alvin Josephy, my mentor still.

Americans have always tried to do away with Indians, Alvin said. We killed them first with diseases, wars, and broken treaties. And for the last hundred years have worked hard at killing “Indianness,” the Indian in them. This has been called assimilation, integration, termination.

Oh, we love them too—love what they were or we imagined them to have been. Alvin called these ideas “Nobel Savage” and “Vanishing Indian.” Indians were idealized by Rousseau and other European intellectuals, and captured in ethnographic studies of language and culture as the same languages, dances, and songs were outlawed on the reservations. They were photographed, most famously by Edward Sheriff Curtis, in regalia they no longer wore. He would pay them a few dollars for changing from regular clothes—often rags—into regalia.

Most importantly, Alvin said, they have often been “omitted” from history. The many languages—over 2000 mutually unintelligible at time of European contact, diverse cultures, arts and artifacts that display skills in engineering, math, and trade, Indian contributions to world agriculture from potato to tomato, and the very way they strove—and strive still—for harmony within the natural world have for the most part been absent from histories and textbooks.

Maybe the books are better now, but I wonder how far we have really come from the days of Winona’s father and grandfather and me in northern Minnesota, when Indians were Tonto on the radio, a photo chief at a state park, and invisible where they lived....