Thursday, April 19, 2012

Through Indian Eyes

Years ago I asked Otis Halfmoon, an enrolled Nez Perce who was working as an interpreter for the Nez Perce National Historical Park, to come to Wallowa County and give a talk on the Nez Perce War. I don’t remember now why I asked him to address that particular topic, but I do remember his response.

It was in the upstairs room at the Community Church in Enterprise, and over 100 people, many of them old timers who had never shown up for a Fishtrap event in the past, climbed the stairs, harboring their own ideas, stories, and questions of the Nez Perce and sometimes of their own white settling ancestors.

Otis started it off by saying that he couldn’t tell the story of the Nez Perce War, that what he could tell was his own family’s stories of that chapter in tribal life. He began with the old woman, Watkuweis, who had been helped by whites while escaping slavery by another tribe. “Do them no harm,” she told the tribal council who had been considering how to handle Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery.

History would have played out differently had the old woman not appeared and the Nez Perce taken the whites' guns and horses, or refused to guide them, let them perish in the mountains. And, according to Otis, his family members had often speculated on that—as I imagine have many Nez Perce and members of other tribes over the years.

In his early years as a historian of Indians, Alvin Josephy longed for Indians to join him in the work. He talked about Indians with a foot in each world, in the tribal world and in the world of the educated white, and thought that the important Indian stories, the ones misconstrued and forgotten by white historians, might get written down by them. As time went on he saw that individual Indians were reluctant to speak for Indians, and sometimes reluctant to speak on behalf of or “for” their own tribes.

The patient, always listening Alvin learned to deal with that. When Stephen Ambrose wrote his story of Lewis and Clark, Undaunted Courage, Alvin reviewed it for the New York Times. A fine accounting of things, he said, but again from the White point of view. Why didn’t someone ask the Indians what they thought of the Corps of Discovery.

Eventually, Alvin did. In his last book, one he had talked about and that had taken shape over decades (he first traveled Lewis and Clark’s route himself for Time Magazine in 1955), he found nine Indian elders and writers whose people had lived along the trail, and asked them to say what they had to say about Lewis and Clark.

I remember talking with one of the writers shortly after the publication of Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes. I intimated that I was a little disappointed in one of the chapters. “You don’t understand,” she said, her finger in my chest. “Alvin asked us to say what we wanted to say about Lewis and Clark, what each of us as individuals and members of our tribes had to say--history, family stories, the impacts on our tribes. He did not ask us to say what you white people wanted to hear.”

I thought about the 500 Nations of North America, and the 2000-2500 languages and cultures of the Americas at Columbus's arrival that Alvin had noted in Indian Heritage of America in 1968. How Alvin chided Americans for thinking there was one Indian Language. How he spent his life giving voice to as many Indian stories--through Indian eyes--as he could find.

Friday, April 13, 2012

"Noble Savage"

After the last blog on Mildred Bailey and “passing as white,” a friend suggested that it sounded accurate on the one hand, but on the other, why is it that so many Americans claim Indian roots? There are jokes about the number of people with Cherokee great-grandmothers, but when, he asked, have you heard someone obviously “white” claim a slave ancestor from Sierra Leone.

What’s with this contradiction of widespread pride in Indian ancestry—and white America’s disregard for and continuing practice of forgetting Indian history and consciously eradicating Indian culture?

I can’t site a page in a Josephy book or remember a specific conversation, but I know that he believed that, from the earliest days of white settlement, relations with Indians were dominated by a triad of white attitudes toward them: romanticize, kill, or assimilate.

We now know that diseases often preceded actual contact and that millions of indigenous Americans died before they saw a white face. We also know, though it is less frequently mentioned, that Europe, and especially northern Europe, was in the final throes of the little ice age when those first ships sailed to the North America. Famine was fact, and the people who traveled were a scrawny lot (I read somewhere that Napoleon’s army was made up of men who barely topped five foot, unlike Charlemagne‘s much earlier army of six footers.) And their first sightings of Indians must have been awe-inspiring. Think of the early paintings of the “red men,” and of the Indians who were brought to Europe to parade in front of kings, queens, and philosophers.

These able-bodied Indians appeared to be living well without the trappings of European civilization, without large houses, police forces, and only the barest of manufactured goods. “Noble savages,” Rousseau called them. At least some of the early colonists, Benjamin Franklin among them, read and were influenced by the Europeans and found confirmation of their views in personal experience.

I don’t remember which general declared that the only good Indian was a dead Indian, and there is not time or space to chronicle the attempts by do-good white Americans to assimilate Indians. The Dawes Act, Indian Reorganization Act, and Eisenhower’s termination policy can serve as brief reminders

But is it too much to say that Josephy’s original triad is with us still? That White America is still conflicted about Indians, and that we carry with us these old attitudes—all of them. At Fishtrap, we hosted the Makah filmmaker Sandy Osawa, and watched her documentaries on musician Jim Pepper and prima ballerina Maria Tallchief. We listened to Horace Axtell describe a language and sounds related directly the world around us.

And now that powwow’s are mainstream, we are stirred by jingle dancers and Indian elders with eagle feathers. I remember selling a book of Indian sayings in my bookstore days: To Touch the Earth.

Maybe that is what the Cherokee great grandmother is all about….

check out Sandy Osawa and Maria Tallchief here:

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Passing as White

Albert Barros, enrolled Nez Perce and old friend of Josephys and mine, recently forwarded a piece on jazz musician Mildred Bailey. Bailey, who sang In the 30s and 40s, was considered the first big white jazz singer and a trail blazer for later female jazz stars Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

White? Her mother was a Coeur d'Alene tribal member, her father Swiss-Irish. She was born Mildred Rinker in Tekoa, Washington in 1900, and the family moved to Spokane when she was 13. They were called “breeds” in Spokane, and her father suggested they downplay the Indian heritage (at a time when light skinned blacks across the country were passing as white and my Indian classmates in California were passing as Mexican).

One of their Spokane neighbors, who joined with her brother Al to form a group called the “Rhythm Boys,” later became known as Bing Crosby. By the late 20s, all three were in California, and, through Bing, Mildred got a first big gig with Paul Whiteman’s band.

Mildred Rinker-Bailey died impoverished in New York in 1951, forgotten by most, but known by music lovers as an early and great white jazz singer. Last week the Cour d’Alene Tribe asked the Idaho legislature to honor Mildred Rinker-Bailey, the great Indian singer. The whole story can be found at:

Which reminds me of a recent “Oregon Movies, A-Z” blog post by friend and film historian Anne Richardson on Oregon’s bi-racial story. There are great photos and brief stories about Thomas Morning Owl Jr. and the play, "Ghosts of Celilo"; Will and Tim Sampson, father and son, who played the mute Indian narrator in the film version and a new stage version of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She goes back to Modocs and Piutes with Joaquin Miller and Sarah Winnemucca, and forward to Jon Raymond’s Meek’s Cutoff and Indian Chris Eyre’s directing Indian writer Sherman Alexie’s "Smoke Signals."

In Richardson’s view, Indians may have passed as whites and we have some ugly racial history in the Northwest, but to this day our writers and movie makers acknowledge that we live in a multi-colored world. Here is that interesting post: