Thursday, November 29, 2012

More thoughts on Walter Littlemoon & Indian Boarding Schools



I am still haunted by the “Thick Dark Fog” that Walter Littlemoon described in the video I saw on Public Television last week. Walter was born the same year that I was, 1942, in Wounded Knee, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I was born in Fosston, Minnesota, just 600 miles east and north of Wounded Knee. Walter was taken from his parents and shipped to an Indian boarding school when he was five.  I didn’t go to school when I was five, because Fosston didn’t have a kindergarten. And there weren’t any Indians in our school when I did go, although the White Earth Reservation was fewer than ten miles away from Fosston. I have vague recollections of asking where the Indians went to school as we traveled through the rez to get to my Uncle Al’s resort—a few cabins and boats on Island Lake, which must have been on the rez or surrounded by it. 

The resort was a couple of two track miles off the county road that went on to Mahnoman and the center of the rez I guess. I remember that you had to back up to a passing spot when you met a car. And I remember an Indian boy showing me how to thread a minnow on a hook. I don’t remember learning where the Indians went to school. I don’t remember any other instance of meeting or talking with Indians in the ten years we lived in Fosston, or on any of the visits back we made after we moved to California in 1952.

Wait, there were the times we went to Itasca State Park, headwaters of the Mississippi, and my uncles ran ahead to put pennies and nickels on tree branches—they had told me that there were money trees at Itasca—and I would shake the trees and fill my pockets with money. And for a quarter’s worth of pennies and nickels I could get my picture taken with a real Indian Chief. That’s the other Indian I remember from Minnesota.

And now I am pushing memory. When I was nine, the summer before we moved to California, I played on some kind of pre-Little League baseball team that went to the Red Lake Reservation for a game. I was the youngest kid on the team, a tagalong who got to play some right field. And mostly now I remember that in California when Little League came to town I bragged that I had played real baseball with 90 foot bases and leading off. I don’t remember anything about the kids we played against at Red Lake except that they were Indians.

How many of us have Indian stories in our pasts that have been brushed aside by educational and social systems that saw them as vanishing or already vanished? How many of us my age and close knew that Indian kids our own age were being literally kidnapped by authorities in a strange and ultimately brutal attempt at assimilation?

Here’s a link to five minutes of Walter’s story on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uxtVtBhceY

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving


I watched a film on PBS last night, “The Thick Dark Fog.” It is the story of a Lakota man named Walter Littlemoon and his struggle to reclaim his humanity, stolen from him at a boarding school as a five year old on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The man’s a poet—a simple and eloquent speaker, and I will now order his book, They Called Me Uncivilized

And while I wait for the book, I will puzzle over two things. First, as we recovered from the horror of the Holocaust in Europe and watched another again with a sideways glance at Cambodia, cultural genocide was going on under our noses in our own country. Oh, by the mid-sixties, as I came of age, we were probably no longer kidnapping Indian children, cutting their hair, and beating the Indian out of them so that we could make them men and women, but the products of our years of doing so were serving in Vietnam and stumbling around Los Angeles and Portland and other American cities after Eisenhower era “termination” policy do-gooders had put them on Greyhound buses and dropped them off with a few bucks and a charge to join the mainstream. 

Why didn’t we—good white college students at state universities and the best private colleges, Civil Rights workers risking harm registering black voters, Peace Corps Volunteers standing up for and with poor people in over 100 other countries—know what was really going on in our own? Some few of us did, I guess, but mostly we were only half-educated, knew that Indians were mistreated but wanted them to get what black people were getting, their civil rights. Not many of us were talking about getting Indians the rights to lands and resources stolen from them and the rights treaties had supposedly granted them as Indians, as pre-white inhabitants of the country.

Now I live next to a couple of reservations in the traditional homeland of Nez Perce people, and I am learning—slowly—their stories and the stories of Indian peoples across the continents, the New World. “Thick Dark Fog” is not the first documentary on Indians I have watched. I’ve seen “Smokin’ Fish,” a Tlingit story, and know Sandra Osawa and her films, “Pepper’s Powwow,” about the great Indian jazz musician, Jim Pepper, and “Maria Tallchief,” the story of the Osage prima ballerina that Sandy did with help from Maria’s daughter, the poet Elise Paschen. And of course I have seen “Smoke Signals” more than once.

After watching the film tonight, I went to nativetelecom.org and found logs of radio and TV broadcasts, notice of Native radio stations, filmmakers, producers, etc. And it occurred to me that we still live in two parallel worlds. That yes, Indian stories creep across the lines, and some of us go to powwows and tribal and national museums and read books by Sherman Alexie and James Welch, Scott Momaday and Debra Earling, but that for the most part our schools still omit Indians and their 500 year history of dealing with the “nation of immigrants” that have and continue to descend on the Americas.

That’s the other puzzle. Custer and the Big Horn are, as the late novelist James Welch claimed, subjects of more books and movies than just about anything in American history. There are statues of the “Red Napoleon,” Chief Young Joseph, across the land. But the real stories of Crazy Horse and Joseph are still locked away from the mainstream of American history and affairs. And the Sierra Club doesn’t much ask Indians how they were able to live in this land for 20,000 or 30,000 or more years before Europeans arrived.

There are breeches, tears in the wall and points of connection between the Nation of Immigrants story and the Indian story, and I guess it is our job at the Josephy Library to keep finding them.
Which gets me back to Thanksgiving. How many of us were taught how or even puzzled over how the Indians got the corn and squash and beans that they supposedly fed the Pilgrims in the cold northeast all the way from their origins in warm  Mesoamerica? One world to another?

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Friday, November 16, 2012

Class discussion: Charlemagne Napoleon, protein and white bread


I’m stretching my Josephy Library legs, offering a class—“Introduction to Indian Studies and the Nez Perce Story”—at the new Josephy Center. It’s based on Alvin materials—chapters from books, speeches, and journal articles he wrote over 50 years—and has become a lively weekly conversation for the dozen of us who gather in the Library on Wednesday mornings. Our text this week was the first chapter of 500 Nations, and the discussion revolved around similarities and differences of the North American tribes, and, inevitably, the rise and fall of cultures.  Culture led to economy, and economy led to—diet.

Barrie Qualle grew up in Saskatchewan ranching country, with Cree, Assiniboine, and Gros Ventre Indians all around, and remembered how tall and stout they were. “Six two and six four not unusual,” he said. Barrie thought that their diet must have been heavy in protein and that they lived in a place and at a time when meat and fish were abundant. In lean years, he surmised, their bodies grew even more efficient at converting the foods they had.

We talked about hunter gatherers of the Plains and the agricultural Indians of Mississippian and Mesoamerican cultures, and how food abundance had created wealth and economic specialization—but left those cultures more susceptible to drought and torrent. And historians have indeed laid the failures of the Mississippian Mound and Mayan cultures to dry spell and drought.

Charlemagne
 Which all reminded me of a long ago doctor’s office visit where I picked up a medical magazine and read about a study of the height of soldiers in Charlemagne’s and Napoleon’s armies.  The author was trying to establish the impacts of diet and climate on human health, and finding old records of soldiers’ heights gave him something to compare. It was a stark comparison. Charlemagne’s army, in the late 700s, was made up of six footers; Napoleon and his troops, a thousand years later, were five footers. 

At least two hundred of those thousand intervening years are known as “Europe’s Little Ice Age,” a time when cold and starvation, though not in every year or every decade, were substantial and frequent. The period coincides almost exactly with the rise of European colonialism and the white settlement of America. 
Napoleon


So the scrawny white guys, armed with guns and diseases and a sense that they were God’s chosen, came to the New World and pushed south from the Caribbean and West from the Atlantic Coast. And as they pushed and “removed” indigenous people with their guns and diseases and notions of cultural and religious superiority, they took Indians from their food and food from Indians—in North America, slaughtered the buffalo and pinched tribes onto smaller and smaller reservations—and then wrote return payment with commodities into their treaties. In other words, they took away the protein and gave them sugar, flour, and salt (skimming as they went, so the Indians were robbed of protein and then even of the white commodities).

That is the pattern that Alvin describes in Civil War in the American West—whites protected trails, settled land, fought or wrote treaties, promised cash and food, reneged and/or skimmed, fought and wrote more treaties, pinched more land…

Squanto

It occurs to me that there is a direct line from those actions and treaties to the commodity foods of today, and that good and bad, fat and thin, protein and white flour, good nutrition and the lack of it, running from starvation and causing it, are all part of the big historical landscape and North America today.  

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