Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Invisible women

Alvin Josephy cried loud and often about the omission of Indians from textbook histories, and often thanked the amateur historians—the “history buffs”—for keeping Western history alive when serious historians busied themselves with government reports and people and events considered major and somehow central to the American story.

Alvin’s Civil War in the American West pulled together material from across the region and integrated it with goings on in Washington and the Eastern War. That is the war that still plays on the main stage in American popular history and American film, but Gordon Chappell has pulled together a 24 page bibliography of books and pamphlets on the subject—he omits journal and magazine articles in the interest of brevity—that includes material “since Josephy.” Interesting that it appears as a National Park Service document: .  So the history buffs keep plowing the turf in the shadow of “Lincoln” and Daniel Day Lewis.

Although he did not write specifically of women in history, I know that Alvin encouraged others who did. He introduced me to Patty Limerick, who now directs the Center for the American West at the University of Colorado, and to Sue Armitage, who broke ground with The Women’s West in 1987. Diaries, photos, paintings of women—Indian women and white women—are prominent in the books and papers we are sorting at the Josephy Library.

Alvin would have loved the current exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society, “Tough by Nature.” Accomplished portrait artist Lynda Lanker, now of Eugene, spent 19 years traveling the West with notebook, sketchbook, and camera, and produced a wonderful series of paintings, drawings, and prints of 49 women working the West. There is a young Indian barrel racer and a grizzled cowgirl who rode broncs almost 100 years ago, mothers with daughters, and sometimes wives with husbands. But one knows from these images and the brief quotes that accompany them that these women were and are “actors in their own lives, not passive participants in their husbands’ ventures.” That line is from an early review of Sue Armitage’s book. I can’t put an image on this page, but you can get a bunch of them here:  Unfortunately, the exhibit closes this week, so if you are in the Portland area, get on down there; if not, you can catch it next in Texas, or in a book called Tough by Nature with a foreword by Larry McMurtry.

In over 40 years discovering my own West from my perch in the Wallowas, I have met rodeo queens, women ranchers and potato farmers, women who drive trucks and tractors, rope and brand—and cook and dance. But even here stereotypes persist. I remember a play written by an Eastern Oregon woman about growing up with the ranch and the Pendleton roundup—sorry I can’t come up with name or title—performed by Whitman College players. When they kicked women out of the bucking events in the rodeo in the nineteen teens, the heroine explains, it was supposedly in the interest of safety. Why then did they turn them to trick riding, where injury and death were even greater possibilities? The daughter in the play can’t have the ranch—there are no sons—until she finds a suitable man to marry. Etc. etc. etc.

There are some things that we need to be constantly reminded of: Indians are part of our history and part of our present; the West and all that happened and happens here was and continues to be as important in the American story as are Eastern and Midwestern events and stories; and women were here all the time, and are still here, ”actors in their own lives,” and actors too in the ongoing American story. 

Lynda Lanker’s 49 women should give courage to women still fighting stereotypes and pause to men who further them.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The most famous Indian in America

Note: We just completed a four week examination of the “Wallowa Country: 1855-1900” at the Josephy Center. Teaching is new to me, but four high school juniors and a fine group of eighteen older history buffs, curious newcomers to the Wallowa, and serious students of Indian affairs led me to learn and organize what I am learning as I try to follow Alvin Josephy’s intellectual and emotional  life journey in Indian America. Much has been written about the Nez Perce War and about Chief Joseph; less about his attempts to return to the Wallowa Homeland at War's end.

There was a time when Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce was the most famous and (mostly) admired Indian in the land.

At the surrender at Bear’s Paw, after the siege and forty miles short of the Canadian border and Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph and his remnant band of Nez Perce and allies from other bands and tribes who had joined in the Nez Perce War were told by General Miles that they would be taken to Fort Keogh, 500 miles away. They were told that they would winter at Keogh, and then be allowed to return to their homeland.

Joseph’s brother, Ollokot, and most of the young warriors were dead. Women and children were hungry and cold. White Bird and a few others actually would make it to Canada, and Joseph and the other able-bodied could have done so, but they would have had to leave women, children, and the wounded behind. Joseph would not do that.

And that, I think, is the point at which his fame—and the story of Joseph as the leader of the Nez Perce people—begins to grow.

At War’s the generals needed the story of a brilliant opponent to make their own war efforts worthy. The Indian survivors were truly hungry and cold and distraught over the loss of people and land. And if not the military genius that the generals and a growing public made of him—the “Red Napoleon”—Joseph soon proved himself brilliant as a speaker and leader of his people in exile.

On the 500 mile ride to Fort Keogh, Joseph and Miles became closer, and Miles promised again to help Joseph return to his homeland. Of course the next chapter in the story is the next in the litany of broken promises: the Nez Perce are not to winter at Fort Keogh, but to be moved to Bismarck in Dakota Territory, where there is a railhead and it will be easier to keep them supplied. And then it is Leavenworth and Baxter Springs and Indian Territory (further removed from Sitting Bull and White Bird in Canada, though this is not what they told Joseph). No hanging—which Miles had also promised—but no return to his homeland either.

In Bismarck Joseph and Miles were both greeted as heroes and feted with dinners (the Bismarckians seemed interested in being part of a drama that was being covered by the national press rather than supporters of either of its combatant factions). And Joseph learned about the press—and the telegraph, and he began to tell the story of broken promises.

He would tell that story at Fort Leavenworth and Baxter Springs and in Washington D.C. He would tell it to commissioners and Congressmen and Presidents. He would gain sympathy of Presbyterian ministers and congregations, ally even with Christian Nez Perce—old adversaries sent from Lapwai to convert the non-treaty and traditional religionist Joseph Band while they were in exile. His words would appear in the leading magazines of the day, Harpers and North American Review.

And eventually, after almost eight years in exile, Joseph and the remaining Indians—many died in captivity—would be allowed to return to the Northwest. But not to the Wallowa—118 would go to live among the mostly Christian and mostly treaty Nez Perce at Lapwai in Idaho; Joseph and 150 followers to Colville, to live among Indians of other tribes and languages. Joseph continued his efforts at return to the Wallowa.

But East and West are different, and the country was changing rapidly. In 1885, Western landholders were still at odds with Indians, still homesteading on land recently held by Indians. And stories of the Nez Perce War and even Custer’s defeat were not distant. The newspapers and politicians ranted against Nez Perce return. And Indian accommodations—bands and tribes thrown together with no notion of historical relationships—were hard. It was not easy for the Nez Perce at Colville.

Joseph made two trips east, continuing his audiences with Congressmen, bureaucrats, and Presidents. From War’s end through exile and the move to Colville, Joseph was the most famous, respected Indian in the land. In the first years at Colville, the eastern press, intellectuals, and the churches continued to lament his treatment and promote his cause. But in two trips to the Wallowas, the last in 1900, he was told that no land would be given him, no land sold to him.

By 1900 the West was overrun by white settlers, the Indians tucked away in mostly hard places. The “hostiles” had been killed or put away: Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull were dead; Geronimo had surrendered and appeared in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.  Even Joseph took his turn with Buffalo Bill, accompanying him to the parade in New York City at the dedication of Grant’s Tomb.

On his last trip to the Wallowa, in 1900, an Indian commissioner came along—and reported back against Joseph’s return. The country, he said, was fully inhabited and being well used by whites. The local paper reported that “considerable sport was made of the man” when he said he wanted some land by his father’s grave near Wallowa, at the Lake, and in the Imnaha country. The homeland dream was no longer a cause célèbre of eastern intellectuals, no longer a fear of Western settlers. Joseph’s star and his hopes had risen and been buoyed by an enthusiastic nation, but that nation had passed him by.

On September 24, 1904, Joseph made a last New York appearance:  the New York Sun said that “With the death of Chief Joseph, the famous leader of the Nez Perces, the United States has lost its most celebrated Indian.”

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Afterword:  Although I have picked up pieces of information about the years of exile and attempts at return in other places—Joseph’s famous and widely published speech on his 1879 visit to Washington D.C.; Steve Evans’ excellent Voice of the Old Wolf, which tells the story of Nez Perce friend and chronicler Lucullus McWhorter; local newspaper files, etc.—the last 120 pages of Kent Nerburn’s Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce is the best synopsis of the post-war years that I have found.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Colonial Habits of Mind

Alvin Josephy acknowledged the havoc wreaked on indigenous Americans by diseases, wars, and alcohol, but he said many times that the most pernicious impact on the Americans was Eurocentrism, the idea that the newcomers’ cultures and notions of religion and politics were superior to those of the people they met when they got off the boats in the Caribbean and on the North and South Atlantic new world coasts.

When you read that the populations of the Americas, which might have been over 70 million when Columbus arrived,  were reduced by 70-90 percent with the initial introduction of measles, smallpox, malaria, and other European and African diseases, that the Northeast coastline was devastated by disease before the Pilgrims landed, that 75 percent of the remaining population of Indians (smallpox had made it around the Horn in the 1700s and done its damage) in the Willamette Valley was killed off and Sauvie Island reduced to piles of bones by malaria in 1830-31, when you think about all of this, how important and “pernicious” can cultural attitudes be?

A couple of weeks ago I found Farthest Frontier: The Pacific Northwest on the used bookshelf at Mary’s bookstore in Enterprise. The author, Sidney Warren, a PhD from Columbia, had a grant from the Library of Congress and its History of American Civilization program to explore the subject. The book was published in 1949. It’s a good and generally fair-handed account of the region’s early white days, but look at how Warren steps right into the Eurocentric trap:

“The coastal natives had not advanced very far up the ladder of civilization, and those of the inland region were even more backward. They were all, of course, excellent hunters and fishermen and knew how to preserve sea food to last till the next season’s run.  They made clothes out of animal skins and the bark of trees… They constructed houses, some of them of tremendous size, some of which survived for generations, using bone or stone wedges together with an ingenious cutting tool to shape the planks. They built canoes sturdy enough to hold sixty men to travel several hundred miles in ocean waters” (my italics)

Not bad for the “less advanced.”  And Warren obviously did not see the irony in his text.

But that was 1949, you say. Surely we are past it now. Well, not exactly. Daniel Richter, a distinguished history professor and author of many books on early Euro and Indian America, takes fellow historian Bernard Bailyn, a 90 year old distinguished professor emeritus at Harvard and winner of a couple of Pulitzer Prizes, to task for Eurocentrism in his new book on Euro-America’s beginnings. The book is titled The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600–1675. And there you have it.

Richter does praise Bailyn for his attention to detail, for accurately portraying the brutality and contentiousness of the times, and even for acknowledging an aboriginal presence on the Europeans’ arrival. But he takes him to task for minimizing that presence, and points to the title. “Our word choices continue to trap all of us in old colonial habits of mind,” he says.

Continue to trap the eminent historians of the day—and I admit from personal experience, most of the rest of us as well.

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Friday, March 1, 2013

A bit of Christmas every day

Unpacking and cataloging books at the Josephy Library is a little bit like Christmas every day. I dig through boxes, looking for the most essential things to catalog (there are many boxes left to catalog, so someone has to prioritize!), schlep them to volunteer librarian Shannon Maslach at the bank, and she brings them back with neat little cards in them, or in nice folders that go in the new oak map case/file cabinet built for us by local cabinet maker Brian Oliver. 

James Michener WW II
This week it was a faded, torn covered copy of James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. Out of old library and bookstore days, I turned immediately to the copyright page, and sure enough it’s "New York. Macmillan, First Printing, 1947." The book is in booksellers’ “fair” condition, I would say, but the on-line story is that a dust jacket in any shape at all is rare.

So the little treasure, with Alvin’s familiar signature on the first end-page, is probably worth hundreds of dollars. But my mind runs to the story from A Walk Toward Oregon about his working on a novel as WW II ends, then abandoning it and writing The Long and the Short and the Tall, the non-fiction book about his experiences in the Pacific. There is an inkling of why the fiction book was left half-done in Walk Toward Oregon—personal life had been disrupted by the War and his homecoming, but still, I never really talked with Alvin about it, or about Michener and Michener’s take on the War and the Pacific. More questions not asked.

Which reminds me that Alvin and Betty’s daughter Kathy (Katch) Josephy brought in a CD copy of Alvin’s recording of the landing on Guam. This was the landing that he recorded on a condom covered mike, tethered to his half-track by a 40 foot wire. Over 20 of the 32 men that waded ashore were hit before they got there. The recording played across the nation, and is acknowledged today as the only recording of a ship to shore landing by a participant. Alvin played parts of it for us at Fishtrap one time, and it was even then, over 50 years after the event, a deeply emotional experience for him. “Some of us felt guilty about coming home alive,” he said. 

Shannon cataloged it—and made a loaner copy. The text is also reproduced in The Long and the Short and the Tall.

There were other treasures as well this week, including two contemporary accounts of the Nez Perce War by correspondents sympathetic to the Indians. One of them, a signature from Galaxy Magazine, 1877, by one “F.L.M.,” has a note from P.D. on the inside of the front cover. The P.D. is, I’m sure, the antiquarian book dealer and expert on Western Americana, Peter Decker, who will get his own blog post sometime soon. People like Decker still exist—William Reese, who got his start with Decker’s help, is apparently now the dean of dealers in Western historical material. But in the days before Google, these antiquarians found the missing links—the old books, manuscripts, magazines, and letters—that historians like Alvin relied on in telling the stories.

There is something importantly tactile about end-covers with initials and signatures on them, about the books and important papers and journals and old newspapers, letters, and magazines we own, something that Google can’t quite capture.

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