Sunday, October 16, 2011

At the edge of the rez



My friend Pam Steele’s first novel, Greasewood Creek, will come out from Counterpoint Press in November. I just finished reading a galley copy, and it is a fine book, set at the edge of the rez in eastern Oregon in recent times. But more about Pam and Greasewood Creek in a moment.

Reading it reminded me of Alvin Josephy and the beginnings of Fishtrap. In 1986 and 87, Alvin was lamenting the loss of a series of interdisciplinary seminars and conferences in Sun Valley put on by the Institute of the American West? It was there that he met Bill Kittredge and Annick Smith, the fine Indian novelist Tom King, and a raft of poets, novelists, and moviemakers who were making new sense of the West.

Now, as I go through his books and the books and manuscripts sent to him by friends and people looking for blurbs and critiques, I realize that Alvin had a long history with fiction writers, poets, and movie makers. He had written a few radio and movie scripts himself, had an unpublished and unsubmitted WW II novel on the shelf, and had a long history with writers of all sorts, but importantly Indian writers like Scot Momaday and Leslie Silko. Throw in post-retirement winters in the Southwest consorting with Jack Loeffler, Drum Hadley, Ed Abbey and company, and you start to get the flavor of Alvin’s intellectual milieu.

In those early Fishtrap years he was concerned with the misinformation about the American West among East Coast publishers (the theme of the first Fishtrap Gathering was “Western Writing, Eastern Publishing”), and the narrow range of attention among academic historians. I(ndian elders and amateur historians—history buffs, he called them—were keeping the real stories of the West alive, and novelists were turning them into credible stories for contemporary audiences. They were creating and re-creating the West that was and is a West made up of men, women, and children, Indians, Scotsmen, and Irishmen, French trappers and their M├ętis heirs, Black cowboys, Chinese miners, and Japanese farmers.

The East—and most Americans—thought cowboys were white and “Indian” meant Sioux on a horse somewhere on the Midwest plains. They knew nothing of the range of Indian culture and agriculture, and had no notion that the horse had found its way into North American Indian life in the seventeenth century, late by historical standards. And the Sioux had not always lived on the plains.

Until the 1970s and 80s, when books of settlers’ diaries were published, and civil rights movements gave colored voices credence, Western women’s voices and Indian voices—other than treaty words often dictated by white men, had been absent. The Irish miners in Butte, Japanese farmers in Hood River, Chinese laborers on railroads, Finnish fishermen in Astoria, were mute. History concentrated on Indian wars and range wars, treaties, gold rushes, and territorial and state governments—the goings on of white men. (The Negro Cowboy, published in the 60s, claimed that African Americans had been erased from the West by Manifest Destiny and Anglo-American superiority notions.) Sacagawea and Charbanneau were the exceptions that showed the rule—and we know little of their real lives.

Fishtrap followed, joined, and promoted the new writers, often novelists—Ivan Doig, Molly Gloss, Craig Lesley, David James Duncan We brought new, more inclusive historians, Richard White, Patti Limerick, Sue Armitage, Charles Wilkinson, Erasmo Gamboa. And Indians. Writers like James Welch, Linda Hogan, and Debra Earlring, and elders from the Nez Perce, Umatilla, and Colville reservations.

Back to Pam Steele, a women from West Virginia who came to Wallowa County as a small child with a mine-sick father seeking health in clean air and joining a pod of relatives and Appalachian neighbors who had made the journey a generation earlier. He died, and Pam rode with his coffin on a train back across the country, then returned to West as an adult.

Greasewood Creek's protaginists are hard scrabble people from Appalachia and their heirs mucking out a living in harsh country at the edge of Oregon reservations. Whites and Indians interact, even intermarry, and it is as natural and hard as we who live in these Western places know it is. Work, alcohol, reputation, family ties, and family tragedies are woven into stories that engage, that make us cheer for one, cry with another, and occasionally pull out a laugh.

And the prose is poetry—Pam’s first book, Paper Bird, was a nominee for the Oregon Book Award in poetry. I was reminded of Molly Gloss, whose groundbreaking Jump Off Creek gave voice to forgotten single women homesteaders. Pam’s women are a few generations removed, but they still chop wood, feed cows, and live stories as complicated and important as those of fathers, husbands, and sons.

Alvin and Betty Josephy would have loved it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Mohave Indian Band




So after the last post friend Bill Yakes sent this photo of the Mojave Indian Band, circa 1915. Bill's grandfather was in Needles taking pics at the time, though this is not one of his.

Here are some details Bill picked up about the band:


-- the marching band was established in 1906 by "Professor Albert J. Eller,
who taught music at the Fort Mojave Indian Boarding School." It later "fell
under the directions of both Ned White and Jack Jones [both Mojaves] at
separate times between 1910 and 1952."

-- they played at the dedication of Hoover Dam (1930) and the reception for
Gov. Earl Warren (1950), as well as numerous other occasions.

-- There is a photo dated 1924 of "Jack's Mojave Jazz Band". I assume this
was Jack Jones.

-- The band was also known as the C. A. Simon's Indian Band "in the early
years, played every Saturday evening for over 25 years on Front Street in
Needles, California, for Liberty Theatre owner C. A. Simon."

NOW. Does anyone else have stories of Indian bands in early nineteenth century? Does anyone know how much Carlisle had to do with training Indian musicians, or if there was some overall program that put music into Indian schools?

Would be good to use this blog as a place to trade research notes.

best for today,
rich

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Josiah Red Wolf: Nez Perce War vet--and musician

I was digging through the small—and often most interesting—pieces of literature that Alvin collected along the way to his books and work as an advocate for Indians and the earth. Among the conference reports, ethnographic studies, newspaper clippings, and student papers was an article from Westways magazine, September 1977 by M. Woodbridge Williams, “Legacy of Survival.” The piece recounts a 1970 meeting with Josiah Red Wolf, at that time the lone survivor of the Nez Perce War. (When Alvin began his research in the early 50s, there were three: Red Wolf, Albert Moore, and Sam Tilden.)

Angus Wilson, one-time tribal chair and a good friend of Alvin’s, accompanied Woodbridge. Josiah was 98 at the time, but he and Wilson soon had an animated conversation going in Nez Perce—Wilson had to get him off an agitated rant on the treaties.

Red Wolf had been just five years old during the War, had spent a year at Leavenworth and five in Indian Territory. He may have been among the first 29—all widows and orphans—to return to Lapwai, under the care of James Rubin.

From Lapwai he went to the Chilico Indian School in Oklahoma, and from there, in 1890, to the Carlisle Institute for Indians in Pennsylvania. At Carlisle he learned the cobbler’s trade, and he learned to play the saxophone and cornet. In fact—no small irony here—he marched with the Carlisle school band in a Columbus Day parade in New York City.

Red Wolf eventually came back west,”became a cobbler for the North Idaho Indian Agency and also directed a prize winning band.” He married in 1896, farmed in the Stites area, and played in an orchestra for Saturday night dances.

All this music sent me in two directions. First, I have talked at length over the years with Anne Richardson and her husband, Dennis Nyback, about early jazz and blues singers. Dennis has written about a woman named Lee Morse, who grew up in Kooskia, Idaho, and who he thinks is the first recorded woman jazz singer. Morse went to New York and Broadway in 1923. Richardson and Nyback want to know where and how she started singing jazz in Kooskia in the early 1920s. Player pianos? Maybe?

And Indian dance bands. I happen to have a picture of “Chief White and his Five Redskins” from Lapwai, Idaho on the wall here at Fishtrap. I don’t remember how it got here, but the band is on a flatbed truck, circa 1920. I have heard other stories of Indian dance bands in the early part of the twentieth century. (Beth Piatote, who was our Fishtrap writer in residence a dozen years ago or more, is enrolled at Colville where her Nez Perce grandfather or great-grandfather left the reservation to play music in 1919!)

Could it all have started at Carlisle, with Indians from across the country pulled and pushed to Pennsylvania, taught to be seamstresses and cobblers, but allowed music and then returned—some of them; many never made it back to their home reservations—to put together dance bands which played the hippest white music their white neighbors—who had not been to New York or Pennsylvania themselves—had ever heard? Chief White looks to be a novelty act from the picture, but if the band played “every Saturday night” they had to be good musicians. I wonder how many of these Indian bands there were across the country.

And whether the Nez Perce and Idaho gave Lee Morse, the “first female jazz singer,” back to New York! Nyback is still doing his research.

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