Monday, May 28, 2012

A poet's--and teacher's--ear: Josephy and Kim Stafford

Kim Stafford tells the story of Alvin Josephy giving a talk at his college, Lewis & Clark in Portland, Oregon. At the end of the talk, says Kim. Michael Mooney, then President of the College, rose to ask Alvin why he continually used the term, “Indian,” when “Native American” might be more appropriate and accurate.

Alvin did not explain that “American” has its own historical problems in trying to think or name indigenously, but quietly, “graciously” and “directly,” says Kim, answered that Indian was what his friends in Indian Country called themselves.

Alvin tried his hand at a novel—abandoned, I believe, because it coincided with and dealt with the painful breakup of his first marriage at the end of the War. He wrote radio plays and screen plays that were produced, and told me once that he had tried his hand at a Broadway musical. As far as I know, he never wrote a poem. But he had that kind of ear, that way of listening and picking up the body language of the speaker and other voices in a room. Once, at Fishtrap, overwhelmed with good feeling after listening to several Indians read and talk, he opined briefly that the spirits of Nez Perce elders were present and happy with events at Wallowa Lake that day.

This gift of careful listening, quiet reflection, and the gracious response is one that characterizes Kim Stafford. His father, William Stafford, was the poet at the Library of Congress, a title later changed to U.S. Poet Laureate. And William held the title of Oregon Poet Laureate for many years. At a meeting to revive the position (now held by Paulann Peterson), I suggested, semi-seriously, that we name Kim Stafford our state “teacher laureate.”

I met Kim when he was a poet in the schools in Wallowa County in 1978. In 1988, he helped launch Fishtrap, and at every step of the way he has been at the pivot point of Fishtrap’s programs and changes. This summer he will begin a year-long workshop in memoir.

But let me tell one more story about Kim the teacher. Steve Arment, the local woodworker responsible for the beautiful wood screen doors across the county, the wood-work d├ęcor in many fine local establishments, and, once, a full carousal full of birds and exotic animals, wanted his step-daughter to take a Fishtrap workshop. He would trade us for a new podium—or pulpit as I soon began calling it. After thinking and discussing, we put Rose in Kim Stafford’s workshop. Alice Warnock, the Grandma Moses of Baker County, was then in her 80s and taking the same workshop. On day two or three I stepped in as the group broke for lunch to ask how it was going. “You can’t imagine,” said Alice, “how wonderful it is to remember what it is like to be sixteen.” (And yes, the pulpit is the one still used at Fishtrap—and Rose is now on the Fishtrap Board!)

Kim’s students learn to listen and learn from him and from each other, the mark, I believe, of a great teacher.

If you have a story to tell and want to make a book of it, and you need the gentle nudges and quiet affirmations of peers and mentor, I suggest you consider Kim’s year-long workshop. I understand that there are now eight enrolled and there is room for a couple more. The information is at

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Blinded by the times

When he wrote the essay on the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Indians, Alvin Josephy took great pains to place it all in historical context. And he credited the company with high mindedness in establishing standards for dealing with the Indians—the traders were not to use alcohol as trade goods, not to marry Indian women, and were to build peaceful relationships with them and promote peace among the tribes. Measured against French, American, and other British traders, Josephy gives the HBC good marks.

“Nevertheless,” says Josephy, “the relations between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the American Indians can be seen fairly and truly only from a perspective that recognizes the imperialistic dynamics of the company during its fur trade heyday [1670-1870]…” The lynchpin of those dynamics was the doctrine of discovery, a notion of sovereignty developed by the Catholic Church and European governments which assumed that Europe and European culture and religion were superior to all indigenous peoples and cultures in the rest of the world, and then gave European powers control of those people and lands by discovery and conquest. This agreement among European people and powers—that some humans were by God’s law and grace superior to others—drove imperialism for at least two centuries.

In the emerging American colonies the slave trade was crucial to development—to the agricultural development in many colonies and to the commercial development of others. As the idea of independence from England spread, there was some debate about slavery, but, in the end, even its detractors caved in to an American assumption, an often open but almost universally implicit notion, that whites were by nature superior to people of color. John Adams deplored slavery, but realized that a union could not be secured without it. Jefferson deplored slavery, but held his slaves, and on his death, freed only a handful, allowing the larger number of them to be sold to pay down debts. Even the “enlightened” were blinded by, or at best compromised by, their times.

Fast forward to our own times. A dozen years ago I was putting together a Fishtrap program exploring the “legacy of Vietnam.” I recruited Viet vet and Pulitzer Prize winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa and other veterans who had written short stories and novels about their experiences. And Xuan Nguyen, a Vietnamese war widow who had served as translator to an American war widow as she went to Vietnam to see the place and circumstances of her husband’s death, and to produce a documentary about it called “Regret to Inform.”
I thought it would also be good to have a resister, one of the men who had gone to Canada to avoid the War, and mentioned this to writer friend Valerie Miner. “What do you mean, the men who went to Canada?” she said. “What about the women? Who do you suppose made the meals and put together the paperwork?” She had been one of them, and after Canada had moved to Sweden and to England before returning to the States—then only after amnesty was declared.

I thought back to my own Vietnam War years. I had been in the Peace Corps when it all exploded, got easy deferments then, and was conveniently 26 by the time the draft lottery replaced individual draft boards and confusing deferment policies. Overseas and confused about the war’s beginnings, I found myself in Washington D.C. in late 1967, exploring its politics and, ultimately, joining the protest against it. I was at the first Pentagon march, and have been proud of that over the years.
But Valerie’s remarks brought me up short. Made me remember signs along the route of that march. “Girls say no to boys who go” they shouted. Only years later, as I planned the conference on the legacy of Vietnam, did I realize what that said about boys who did not go—and the girls who supported them. In those pre-feminist or early feminist days, girls’ rights, girls’ minds and bodies were of lesser value and at the service of boys.

As historians and as citizens, it is important to consider world views and blind spots of the times we consider, whether those times be 300 years ago, or mere decades back, pieces of our own times.
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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Hudson's Bay Company and the Indians

I just read “The Hudson Bay Company and the American Indians,” a three-part series Alvin originally published in 1971 in The Westerners: New York Posse Brand Book (I love the Westerners! See November 2010 post) that was reprinted with color photography as “By Fayre and Gentle Meanes,” in American West Magazine.
Fayre and gentle was how the Hudson’s Bay company men were supposed to treat, or “Draw downe the Indians” to their purpose. Their purpose was the acquisition of furs. Alvin says that the company did not come to “conquer or dispossess the Indians. It did not covet their land, hunting grounds, or fishing stations. It did not mean to disrupt them or undermine their beliefs, destroy their means of existence, shatter their organizations and ways of life, or change them into white men… It was a commercial enterprise, in business to make a profit by buying furs peacefully from the natives at prices that would bring the highest rewards to its stockholders.”

Of course it was not that simple, and the good efforts of the company men to obtain furs and keep peace among the tribes so that they would not lose sources, and would in fact gain new ones as they moved west, in practice led to tribe fighting tribe for privileged station and Hudson’s Bay competing against other companies for the trade. In practice, guns used as trade goods meant tribal violence, and alcohol, specifically prohibited as a trade good by the Hudson’s Bay office in London, was used and raised its havoc with Indians with little or no immunity to its effects. In practice, traditional cultures, land uses, and livelihoods were disrupted.   
Most importantly Alvin continues, “The cumulative impact of all these destructive forces impaired the Indians’ ability to cope with the more aggressive whites who followed the fur men into the Indian country, seeking timber, mineral wealth, and land. With the withering of the fur trade and abandonment of posts, the Indians, dependent for so long on the trade, were left impoverished and helpless… In the long run, [this] was to be the most enduring and damaging effect of the fur trade.”

Once again Alvin found a practice and practitioners—the fur trade and the trading companies—and linked them to the flow of Indian and Western American history.  The discussion could now go many ways—the role of alcohol in white expansionism; the impact of white and European commerce on Indian lands and the flow of American history; how guns changed Indian tribal relationships; what the Indians taught whites about native foods and survival as fur traders moved across the country, etc. 

Or we could burrow into the fur trade. My guess is that Alvin began research on the subject while working on the big Nez Perce book, and the articles sited above grew from that. But later, in the 1990s, he worked extensively on the Duncan McDougall log books and Alfred Seton journals from Astoria. He was editing them for Sleepy Hollow Press in New York, but the project was disrupted by the death of Nelson Rockefeller –but that is another story! (and one we have several folders on in the Josephy Library).

p.s. Alvin allowed Hudson's Bay reps to respond to his articles, and printed their comments as footnotes. He says they did not dispute the facts, but disagreed on some interpretations. Who knew Hudson's Bay was still alive and still cared about public perceptions of long ago events.

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