Thursday, December 13, 2012

The History Urge



Our class at the Josephy Center read the Introduction and the “Manifest Destiny” chapter from Alvin’s Civil War in the American West this week. I was struck again by the paucity of information in general circulation—i.e., textbooks, movies, TV shows, and popular books—about Indians, Civil War, and the West. But Alvin said many times that there was and is a mother lode of historical information on places, people, and events that have shaped the American West: stories from Idaho, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, Oregon, California, stories of battles, of generals resigning to go home to the South, of emigrant trains, Pony Express (yes, that too during Civil War years), and Indian massacres. With a little digging, one could find the vote count in Oregon—the Republicans carried by 221 votes!, or the fact, turned up by one of our participants, that George Pendleton, namesake of our Pendleton, Oregon, was a staunch slavery advocate and the town once boasted streets named after Confederates.  

Most often, according to Alvin, amateur historians, good citizens with a history urge, have gathered these stories and kept them alive. His work was to gather and sift the material and relate it to what was happening in the East and to Eastern leadership of the Union and the Confederacy. I can bet that he came to the story himself through his work in Indian history. He would have turned up the Sioux Uprising in Minnesota, and followed that to its sorry but important conclusion, then the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado and the Bear River Massacre in Idaho.

His genius was in gathering, standing back and taking a long historical look, and then weaving the pieces into a quilt that shows us more than the small pieces—or the dramatic events that dominate our idea of the Civil War—ever can. So we learn that the Civil War period saw a greater decimation of Indian tribes and takeover of Indian lands than any comparable time in our history. We follow the patterns—from Minnesota to Idaho—of encroachment, starvation, reprisal, loss of life and land, treaty, then more encroachment, starvation, etc.

I was struck, on rereading Chapter 8, on the number of times the word “starvation” was used. Settlers or miners came to an area, destroyed grasslands or used up other resources, starved, shot a settler’s cow, were hounded back and “treatied,” were promised secure (but much smaller) pieces of land, sometimes money and commodities, and then relived the cycle again or stewed and drowned in their diminished circumstances.

Alvin was a long-time editor at American Heritage. The Civil War book first appeared as a Time-Life western history volume in 1986. His passion was in making history readable, connected to the present, and true to historical facts. He wanted a general historical awareness, and praised the history buffs who carried local torches. I think he stayed at American Heritage after his own career as an historian had taken off in part because of his urge to keep the history urge alive in America.

And I remember him saying that he had gathered so much material on the Civil War in the West, and the general knowledge of the same was so scarce, that he had to do a full sized book on the subject. The big book was published in 1991. Something for the real history buff—and something the academic historians might have to take into account.

I was googling around to see what had happened to the big book—which is still in print, with four-star reviews. And I stumbled onto Gordon Chappell, who has published an on-line bibliography of the Civil War in the American West (with a nod to Alvin in the introductory paragraph). Pages and pages of books on events and people related to the War in the West. Books from university presses and books privately published. (I was struck by the number of titles from Nebraska and Oklahoma university presses, who make their living scratching the history itch.)

I wonder if Alvin ever met Chappell, but am sure that he met and encouraged hundreds of folks who had that same urge. If you are one of them, take a look at this bibliography of the Civil War—and scratch your own head about textbook and Civil War re-enactors fixations on Gettysburg and Vicksburg.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Beaver hats


Sometimes you read something or hear something or something happens that changes how you look at the world. For me, reading Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, and thinking about world history in terms of the “Columbian Exchange” did that. For the first time, I connected the fact that potatoes originated in the Andes—that I had picked up somewhere along the line, with the potato famine in Ireland and the potato lefse that my grandmother made every holiday. That the Americas were vibrant places full of humanity and human influenced landscapes before the Pilgrims settled Plymouth suddenly became obvious—how did the corn, beans, and pumpkins get to the far north anyway?

How I wish I could have talked with Alvin about Charles Mann. Better yet, how good it would have been to put them together. That is kind of what we did in our class this Wednesday (“Introduction to Indian Studies and the Nez Perce Story” on Wednesday mornings at the new Josephy Center). We were reading Alvin’s “The Hudson Bay Company and the American Indians,” which first appeared in three parts in the Westerner, and then again as “By Fayre and Gentle Meanes” in American West Magazine in 1972.

We discussed beaver hats. The fur trade, after all, supplied furs—at a dizzying pace—to England and Europe for the purpose of making felt hats, beginning in the early 1600s and continuing for at least 200 years. Why the hubbub about beaver furs and hats? It turns out beaver fur is extraordinarily good for felting—something about the small hooks on hairs meshing together in the felting process—and that hats were already, in the sixteenth century, signs of status and socio-political points of view in the old world. And that the beaver on that continent (I think they are not exactly the same as the new world beaver, but we’ll leave that side road to other investigators) were all but trapped out. 

In the new world, early white settlers were finding it tough to make a living with farming. And there are records of Dutch settlers sending furs across the Atlantic in the early 1600s; the Plymouth colony soon followed suit. And fishermen plied the Atlantic Coast, and occasionally put in to pick up Indians to sell as slaves across the sea, and occasionally added furs to their trade goods (it is thought by many that white fishermen were responsible for bringing smallpox to the coastal Indian peoples, and thus reducing the indigenous population—and their potential resistance—by 90 or 95% just a few years before the more famous Pilgrims arrived).

Soon French and English trappers and traders were vying for trapping ports and Indian tribes to provide them with furs. Eventually, the Hudson Bay Company, chartered in 1670, became the dominant trader with Indians and supplier of beaver pelts to the old world. There were differences in how French and English traders worked—the French were more likely to intermarry with Indians and adopt more of Indian culture. Traders brought guns and diseases along as they pressed north and west. There were issues of control of tribal lands—the Crown gave Hudson Bay a “charter” for a huge hunk of what is now Canada; the Louisiana Purchase transferred “claims” to Indian lands from the French to a young United States, etc., and wars among French, English, American, and Indian forces grew alongside the fur trade.

Alvin chronicles the movements of traders and of tribes, the diseases, the growing dependencies of tribes on white men’s goods, the place of alcohol, the peace making and the confrontations, and the “softening” of tribal lands for the waves of settlers who would soon follow. He doesn’t tell us much about the beaver and beaver hats. I think Mann would have talked with him about that. For your edification and fun, here is a web site that has a lot of information on the topic: http://people.ucsc.edu/~kfeinste/beaverhat/Main.html. The site will also tell you about issues of class and gender in Europe, and show you pictures of some of the finest hats.

Alas, the fur trade and the place of beaver hats in national life and international diplomacy is a fascinating one that gets sleight treatment in standard history texts. Imagine felt hats getting all the way back to the Andes!

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Thursday, November 29, 2012

More thoughts on Walter Littlemoon & Indian Boarding Schools



I am still haunted by the “Thick Dark Fog” that Walter Littlemoon described in the video I saw on Public Television last week. Walter was born the same year that I was, 1942, in Wounded Knee, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I was born in Fosston, Minnesota, just 600 miles east and north of Wounded Knee. Walter was taken from his parents and shipped to an Indian boarding school when he was five.  I didn’t go to school when I was five, because Fosston didn’t have a kindergarten. And there weren’t any Indians in our school when I did go, although the White Earth Reservation was fewer than ten miles away from Fosston. I have vague recollections of asking where the Indians went to school as we traveled through the rez to get to my Uncle Al’s resort—a few cabins and boats on Island Lake, which must have been on the rez or surrounded by it. 

The resort was a couple of two track miles off the county road that went on to Mahnoman and the center of the rez I guess. I remember that you had to back up to a passing spot when you met a car. And I remember an Indian boy showing me how to thread a minnow on a hook. I don’t remember learning where the Indians went to school. I don’t remember any other instance of meeting or talking with Indians in the ten years we lived in Fosston, or on any of the visits back we made after we moved to California in 1952.

Wait, there were the times we went to Itasca State Park, headwaters of the Mississippi, and my uncles ran ahead to put pennies and nickels on tree branches—they had told me that there were money trees at Itasca—and I would shake the trees and fill my pockets with money. And for a quarter’s worth of pennies and nickels I could get my picture taken with a real Indian Chief. That’s the other Indian I remember from Minnesota.

And now I am pushing memory. When I was nine, the summer before we moved to California, I played on some kind of pre-Little League baseball team that went to the Red Lake Reservation for a game. I was the youngest kid on the team, a tagalong who got to play some right field. And mostly now I remember that in California when Little League came to town I bragged that I had played real baseball with 90 foot bases and leading off. I don’t remember anything about the kids we played against at Red Lake except that they were Indians.

How many of us have Indian stories in our pasts that have been brushed aside by educational and social systems that saw them as vanishing or already vanished? How many of us my age and close knew that Indian kids our own age were being literally kidnapped by authorities in a strange and ultimately brutal attempt at assimilation?

Here’s a link to five minutes of Walter’s story on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uxtVtBhceY

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving


I watched a film on PBS last night, “The Thick Dark Fog.” It is the story of a Lakota man named Walter Littlemoon and his struggle to reclaim his humanity, stolen from him at a boarding school as a five year old on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The man’s a poet—a simple and eloquent speaker, and I will now order his book, They Called Me Uncivilized

And while I wait for the book, I will puzzle over two things. First, as we recovered from the horror of the Holocaust in Europe and watched another again with a sideways glance at Cambodia, cultural genocide was going on under our noses in our own country. Oh, by the mid-sixties, as I came of age, we were probably no longer kidnapping Indian children, cutting their hair, and beating the Indian out of them so that we could make them men and women, but the products of our years of doing so were serving in Vietnam and stumbling around Los Angeles and Portland and other American cities after Eisenhower era “termination” policy do-gooders had put them on Greyhound buses and dropped them off with a few bucks and a charge to join the mainstream. 

Why didn’t we—good white college students at state universities and the best private colleges, Civil Rights workers risking harm registering black voters, Peace Corps Volunteers standing up for and with poor people in over 100 other countries—know what was really going on in our own? Some few of us did, I guess, but mostly we were only half-educated, knew that Indians were mistreated but wanted them to get what black people were getting, their civil rights. Not many of us were talking about getting Indians the rights to lands and resources stolen from them and the rights treaties had supposedly granted them as Indians, as pre-white inhabitants of the country.

Now I live next to a couple of reservations in the traditional homeland of Nez Perce people, and I am learning—slowly—their stories and the stories of Indian peoples across the continents, the New World. “Thick Dark Fog” is not the first documentary on Indians I have watched. I’ve seen “Smokin’ Fish,” a Tlingit story, and know Sandra Osawa and her films, “Pepper’s Powwow,” about the great Indian jazz musician, Jim Pepper, and “Maria Tallchief,” the story of the Osage prima ballerina that Sandy did with help from Maria’s daughter, the poet Elise Paschen. And of course I have seen “Smoke Signals” more than once.

After watching the film tonight, I went to nativetelecom.org and found logs of radio and TV broadcasts, notice of Native radio stations, filmmakers, producers, etc. And it occurred to me that we still live in two parallel worlds. That yes, Indian stories creep across the lines, and some of us go to powwows and tribal and national museums and read books by Sherman Alexie and James Welch, Scott Momaday and Debra Earling, but that for the most part our schools still omit Indians and their 500 year history of dealing with the “nation of immigrants” that have and continue to descend on the Americas.

That’s the other puzzle. Custer and the Big Horn are, as the late novelist James Welch claimed, subjects of more books and movies than just about anything in American history. There are statues of the “Red Napoleon,” Chief Young Joseph, across the land. But the real stories of Crazy Horse and Joseph are still locked away from the mainstream of American history and affairs. And the Sierra Club doesn’t much ask Indians how they were able to live in this land for 20,000 or 30,000 or more years before Europeans arrived.

There are breeches, tears in the wall and points of connection between the Nation of Immigrants story and the Indian story, and I guess it is our job at the Josephy Library to keep finding them.
Which gets me back to Thanksgiving. How many of us were taught how or even puzzled over how the Indians got the corn and squash and beans that they supposedly fed the Pilgrims in the cold northeast all the way from their origins in warm  Mesoamerica? One world to another?

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Friday, November 16, 2012

Class discussion: Charlemagne Napoleon, protein and white bread


I’m stretching my Josephy Library legs, offering a class—“Introduction to Indian Studies and the Nez Perce Story”—at the new Josephy Center. It’s based on Alvin materials—chapters from books, speeches, and journal articles he wrote over 50 years—and has become a lively weekly conversation for the dozen of us who gather in the Library on Wednesday mornings. Our text this week was the first chapter of 500 Nations, and the discussion revolved around similarities and differences of the North American tribes, and, inevitably, the rise and fall of cultures.  Culture led to economy, and economy led to—diet.

Barrie Qualle grew up in Saskatchewan ranching country, with Cree, Assiniboine, and Gros Ventre Indians all around, and remembered how tall and stout they were. “Six two and six four not unusual,” he said. Barrie thought that their diet must have been heavy in protein and that they lived in a place and at a time when meat and fish were abundant. In lean years, he surmised, their bodies grew even more efficient at converting the foods they had.

We talked about hunter gatherers of the Plains and the agricultural Indians of Mississippian and Mesoamerican cultures, and how food abundance had created wealth and economic specialization—but left those cultures more susceptible to drought and torrent. And historians have indeed laid the failures of the Mississippian Mound and Mayan cultures to dry spell and drought.

Charlemagne
 Which all reminded me of a long ago doctor’s office visit where I picked up a medical magazine and read about a study of the height of soldiers in Charlemagne’s and Napoleon’s armies.  The author was trying to establish the impacts of diet and climate on human health, and finding old records of soldiers’ heights gave him something to compare. It was a stark comparison. Charlemagne’s army, in the late 700s, was made up of six footers; Napoleon and his troops, a thousand years later, were five footers. 

At least two hundred of those thousand intervening years are known as “Europe’s Little Ice Age,” a time when cold and starvation, though not in every year or every decade, were substantial and frequent. The period coincides almost exactly with the rise of European colonialism and the white settlement of America. 
Napoleon


So the scrawny white guys, armed with guns and diseases and a sense that they were God’s chosen, came to the New World and pushed south from the Caribbean and West from the Atlantic Coast. And as they pushed and “removed” indigenous people with their guns and diseases and notions of cultural and religious superiority, they took Indians from their food and food from Indians—in North America, slaughtered the buffalo and pinched tribes onto smaller and smaller reservations—and then wrote return payment with commodities into their treaties. In other words, they took away the protein and gave them sugar, flour, and salt (skimming as they went, so the Indians were robbed of protein and then even of the white commodities).

That is the pattern that Alvin describes in Civil War in the American West—whites protected trails, settled land, fought or wrote treaties, promised cash and food, reneged and/or skimmed, fought and wrote more treaties, pinched more land…

Squanto

It occurs to me that there is a direct line from those actions and treaties to the commodity foods of today, and that good and bad, fat and thin, protein and white flour, good nutrition and the lack of it, running from starvation and causing it, are all part of the big historical landscape and North America today.  

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