Thursday, July 26, 2012

Small pieces of history

Mike Page and his wife have been coming from their Whidbey Island home to Tamkaliks, the annual powwow at the Nez Perce Homeland project in Wallowa, for the past three years. This year someone told Mike to look me up and ask about the Josephy Library. We spent a pleasant hour looking at books and journal articles, he told me about tracing back his Indian heritage, I made him copies of a couple of things, and we exchanged contact information and went our ways. I saw Mike and his wife across the grounds while serving at the Friendship Feast again on Sunday, and then we had a chance to talk on Monday night in La Grande at my Josephy and the Indians library talk.  

Mike is 75. His grandfather didn’t talk about Indian things, though there was always family knowledge of a Walla Walla –Nez Perce woman and a mountain man named Joseph Gale. His father, in later years, reversed grandfather policy and urged Mike to look to the past—and for the past 20 years or so he has been doing just that. He even got involved with a big Indian fish-in in Idaho in the early 80s. This whole story—Indian fishing, the Walla Walla woman, Joseph Gale, the grandfather who wouldn’t talk and the father who felt safe enough to ask for more—reminded me that history is a complex network of people and events. And that most of us are not historians and poets, but curious people who want to know more about our own stories, about how we came to be in the times and places we find ourselves. We chase down pictures and genealogies, jot down family stories, find old movies and tape recordings and newspaper articles that have pieces that reach back to explain, but rarely do we put the material together into a book or movie or poem of our own.

But other people come along. And we don’t know when what kind of writer will pick up the story pieces that we have assembled and turn them into narrative histories, novels, and even poems. I think often of Alvin finding the Sohon drawings of the 1855 treaty talks in the Washington Historical Society archives—did others know they were there and just not accord them importance? Were they reprinted in books before Alvin came along? I don’t know, but I do know they are common now, and Alvin brought them to that state.
And I know that he loved the small stories and books of local history as much as the big ones. That he found them and sometimes wove them into his published work. And what he didn’t use directly became part of the big iceberg below the surface that supported his vast understanding of the West.

My last post was about the archivists who came to town and started us working on Grace Bartlett’s papers. Grace was the first curator of the Wallowa County Museum, and wrote journal articles and a couple of small books of her own. She, her husband Harry Bartlett, and Alvin worked together on straightening out the Appaloosa story. Two local women are now cataloging her papers, and they are continually flush with new discovery. There’s a Masters thesis from 1901 with an interview with Chief Joseph, and stories from Harry, her Nez Perce husband. The books Grace did not write are waiting for others to come along and sew—with quilt pieces from Mike Page and maybe you and me—into their own stories and poems of the West.
Or maybe you are the quilter.

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