Monday, September 17, 2012

The assimilationists



I’m again reading a book I read years ago—and again finding new meaning. Caroline Wasson Thomason was born in 1887 somewhere else, but grew up “Between the Sheeps” in Wallowa County. She married a teacher and lived for years in New York, where she wrote children’s plays and stories.  And she wrote a couple of novels, one that dealt with American blacks and civil rights, and one historical novel: In the Wallowas.  
My recollection was of a syrupy story involving settlers and their teenage children, but with accurate accounts of Chief Joseph’s last visit to the Wallowas and a famous runaway horse incident. I also vaguely remembered a love story that crossed racial lines, and the purple prose. I was right on that: “’My princess! My beautiful flower!’ Imna knelt beside the bed and took her in his arms. A spasm of pain flushed her lovely face, and he held her more closely.” 

The action begins in 1899, and includes Joseph’s visit that year as well as his last visit in 1900, final attempts to find a small piece of the homeland for his exiled band. Although the scenes were not as dramatic as I remembered, the message rang true. Even sympathetic whites, who acknowledged that Joseph and the Indians had been dealt a bad hand, knew that the people of the Wallowas were not going to agree to their return, and let them have the day. Joseph returned to the Colville Reservation in Washington and “died of a broken heart” there in 1904.
The “morg” at the Wallowa County Chieftain had the 1899 papers, which meshed with the novel’s account. Joseph came with a promise of Washington D.C. money in hand to purchase property, but the proposition was not treated seriously. The newspapers treated it with disdain and even some contempt—the Asotin paper wanted to extend the ban to keep Indians from coming back to hunt and gather.

Back to the novel. This time around, armed with months of reading Josephy and Charles Mann and others about treatment of the tribes, I was more interested in the portrayal of Indians generally. The author is sympathetic, but her Indian heroes are assimilated and “modern.” They drive cars and go to law school, and have wheat ranches in the Umatilla country. They speak highly of the Whitmans and the Spaldings, are good Presbyterians. They honor the old leaders and the old ways, love the fine bead work, the drumming and dancing, but these things are of the past; good Indians get on with white education, white laws, building big houses and even intermarrying with whites.
The other important thing that I noticed this time around was the publication date, 1954. This is the Eisenhower administration and “termination” time. Termination, by whatever name it has been called over the years—e.g. The Dawes Act—has always had curious mixed sponsorship: those who hated Indians, wanted their land, or just scoffed at their old superstitions and thought they should join the majority culture (Alvin said that Henry Luce at Time Magazine thought them “phonies” and just wanted them to get on with it), and those who sympathized with Indians but thought that the only way they could survive was to join the dominant culture. Alvin called this the “vanishing Indian” view of Edward Sheriff Curtis and others. The old Indians and their ways were to be put in museums and admired for their grandeur and maybe a little for previous contributions—maize and potatoes? –but they had to become assimilated, become white.

The idea that tribes and tribal values have had active roles in American history, and might have things to contribute still, has been held by few—and hammered at by Alvin Josephy over a 60 year career as historian and advocate.
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1 comment :

  1. Rich - This is a great site. As always, I enjoy your writing and your deep knowledge of Alvin's world. You're just the right person to be caretaker of it all.

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