Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Archivists come to town

Last winter I sat in Doug Erickson’s lair at Lewis and Clark College in Portland talking library work. Doug is special collections librarian there, and his office is also the home of the William Stafford Collection. In a corner sits an odd Plexiglas contraption that looks like a space module from a Buck Rogers film. In fact it is some kind of medical unit Doug picked up on EBay and refitted as a small sound studio. He uses it for the Oregon Poetic Voices project, but also puts non-poets he wants to capture into the machine.

I don’t remember whether the finger pointed at my chest was real or figurative, but I remember Doug’s admonition that archival work is “activist work,” not arcane activity conducted passively by withering librarians hiding papers on shelves for future generations. “Rich people get their stories told,” Erickson reminded. “I want your grandmother’s poems and stories.” And as incentive, he added that Lewis and Clark has the Wood Family Papers, which relate to the Nez Perce story and so to Wallowa County and the Josephy Library. He might have students interesting in coming here to work with us.
I thought a lot about that this winter. My reading of Josephy material over the last couple of years fits Erickson’s thesis well. Alvin was a meticulous researcher who wanted stories from the past that help show us truly how we got where we are and where we might be going. He loved amateur historians—the archivists who don’t know they are but keep diaries and notebooks. And he worked hard at advocacy, crafting arguments for current policy based on the sins, omissions, and good work of those in the past.

So one thing led to another, and with a few hundred dollars from the local Cultural Trust and the Soroptimists Club, we brought in two archivists from the University of Idaho last week. It was all done through the Friends of the Wallowa County Museum, but other local groups—Wallowa History Center, Maxville Heritage Center, Nez Perce Homeland Project, and our Josephy Library were all involved.
U Idaho Librarians Garth Reese and Devin Becker made an afternoon presentation in Wallowa, an evening presentation in Joseph, and met with a few of us to look at Grace Bartlett’s papers on Friday morning. The public presentations showed in outline form the hows and whys of organizing collections of personal, public, corporate, and business records so that they can be accessed and used by students and researchers. The session with four file drawers of historian Grace Bartlett papers was exciting. There’s a foot of folders on the Appaloosa horse controversy, letter exchanges with historians and Indian elders, and papers and pamphlets that Grace wrestled out of national archives—all with her own extensive notes.

The chains of events from Alvin’s finding of the Nez Perce story and coming to the Wallowas, of his meeting Grace and her writing her own book, of their collaboration on the Appaloosa writings, and, on the other side, Grace’s own coming to the Wallowas in the early 30s, meeting Horner the historian, eventually marrying Harry Bartlett, the Nez Perce horseman, and shepherding the Wallowa County Museum into existence intertwine and help make the Wallowa Country a living textbook.
And principal actors in the text are still, despite broken treaties, war, and attempts at assimilation, the Nez Perce. Almost miraculously, the Indians have been here all along, leaving with the Nez Perce War but not leaving, coming back to fish and gather, to work white farmers’ fields, to build the walls around the Joseph Cemetery at Wallowa Lake, to celebrate at Chief Joseph days and dance at Tamkaliks, and to shepherd the salmon and steelhead home.

Thanks to Alvin and Grace, Nez Perce story tellers, fishers, root-diggers, and dancers, and to the archival instincts of many, our Wallowa Country is a living history museum threaded to past and future in an increasingly seamless cloth.
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