Monday, April 29, 2013

Royal Americans

There were once kings in America—at least according to the British. In an ironic twist of cultural misunderstanding, the English in the New World, not understanding Indian ways, assumed them into an English mold, modeled on still older, classical names and lines of royalty.  

Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoags, who shared resources, knowledge, and a legendary feast with the Pilgrims, had two sons, who were known to the settlers as Alexander and Philip. The old chief had ceded lands and compromised much with the settlers, who, by the time of his death outnumbered Indians almost two to one in “New England.”  The older son, Alexander, who ascended to leadership on Massasoit’s death, was outspoken at growing English prohibitions on his people—Indians were punished for hunting and fishing on the Sabbath, marrying without Christian sanction, etc.—and, after a year of leading his people, was imprisoned by his white neighbors. He was released on leaving his two sons as hostages, but on the journey back to his people died of “bitterness”—or of poisoning by the authorities, according to some of the Indians.

The younger son, Philip, became the leader of the Wampanoags. He was known by the Puritans as King Philip, and the futile war he fought to stem the tide of settlement is still called “King Philip’s War.” According to Alvin Josephy, it was the “most devastating war ever fought on New England soil. It cost the English six hundred lives, twelve hundred homes, and eight thousand cattle. The Wampanoag, Nipmuck, and Narragansett nations lost three thousand lives… Indian power in southern New England no longer existed.” (500 Nations)

King Hendrick
But there was more of New England, and more royalty. In 1710, in order to secure friendship and assistance against the French, the British colonials sent four chiefs to England to meet Queen Anne.  In London they were dressed in court costume, with robes, sashes, and sabers, for portraits.  One of them, “King Hendrick,” who so impressed the English in London, was killed in 1755 while fighting for the British in what is now upper New York State.

I am continually stuck by the early images that Europeans had of American Indians. Paintings and drawings from the early work of John White through that of George Catlin, Paul Kane, Peter Rindisbacher and others found the indigenous Americans robust, proud, and strong. Their full or partial nakedness allowed the artists to portray muscle, strong masculinity and femininity—one can see the short step to Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s “noble savage.”  

On the other hand, in King Philip’s War whites introduced, according to Josephy, the concept of total warfare. Women, children, families, stock—all were slaughtered indiscriminately. And Philip’s severed head was on display for some 20 years after his death. In the southwest, Spanish colonists hanged and burned Indians for minor offences, often on religious grounds.

The point is that from the beginning of European exploration and settlement, attitudes towards Indians were confused and confusing. Indians were noble and they were savage. They were handsome and beautiful, and they were dark and evil. They were agriculturalists who introduced the Europeans to corn, squash, beans, tomatoes, etc. and they were ignorant hunter-gatherer primitives. They were reliable allies (of the British or the French in the early years) or enemies.

Josephy made a career out of sorting out the confusions, so I will not attempt to do so in a few words here. Enough to say that Indians were always more diverse and complicated than the whites initially thought, that first meetings were most often friendly but soon degenerated into something else, that Indians were thrust willy-nilly into old European differences, that differences among Indians were exploited by Europeans, and that European artists brought their own histories—and their own belief systems—into their depictions of Indians and the history that they were witnessing. Oh—and not unsurprisingly, Alvin Josephy was a close student of the resulting artwork.

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Friday, April 19, 2013

More on Missionaries--and on Catholic and Protestant "Ladders"

For whatever reason—maybe the wonderful cover photo—I have kept the Spring 1996 issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly by my bed, and pick it up from time to time to look at the fine drawings and paintings of Father Nicolas Point, and to follow those first Jesuits on their 1840 journey to Flathead country in Montana—and their departure in admitted failure just ten years later.

Elizabeth White writes of their early contact and early successes, which she attributes to the similarities between Catholicism and traditional Indian culture: oral liturgy, sacred wine and pipe, sweat lodge and church. The mission’s ultimate failure had to do with deeper life views—the Indian belief that man is part of nature and the Christian/European stories of/beliefs in serpents and other evils lurking in nature. The notion that Christian powers could not be added to traditional powers of nature and native spirit but must supplant them was also puzzling  to the Indians. Finally, the reverends’ attempt to bring the Blackfeet into their fold was too much for the Flatheads, and these first European missionaries gave up and moved on.

Catholic Ladder
Last night I read for the first time the last essay in the issue, a piece on “Catholic Ladders” by Kris White and Janice St. Laurent. These Ladders were teaching tools, originally of wood with four sides which could be carved or painted with symbols of Christianity. Sun, moon, stars, angels, the story of creation, Adam and Eve, the years of Christ and the decades of human history, the temple of Solomon, the Ten Commandments, were represented symbolically and figuratively in visual shorthand for the words and stories of the Bible. Eventually, the Ladders were put on paper in increasingly large layouts with more ornate depictions of the sources and lessons of Christianity.

This, it seems to me, was a brilliant strategy. The visual mnemonics of the ladders were a short step from the knotted ropes (called Quipu in some texts) that many tribal people used to keep track of seasons, time, and significant events in tribal life. They could be shown to a crowd, touched and moved easily from meeting to meeting, village to village.
Spalding "Protestant" Ladder

There is a picture of the only known “Protestant Ladder,” which was designed by Henry Spalding and drawn by his wife, Eliza. It was two feet wide and stretched six feet, and was colorfully painted. The Spaldings were of course the first missionaries to the Nez Perce. The note on Eliza’s drawing and remembering that Old Joseph’s daughter, the one who married white trapper Joseph Gale, took the Christian name Eliza caused me to look for more about one of the first two white women to travel the Oregon Trail (the other being Narcissa Whitman).

Eliza was as committed to the mission movement as was her husband, and she proved to be a natural teacher.  Her school at Lapwai was, I read, “different than many of the other missionary schools in the west.  She did not require her pupils to bathe, dress in ‘white’ clothing, or cut their hair.  In addition, she taught in both English and the Nez Perce language.” How common sense and practical; no wonder she was more popular with the Nez Perce than was her preacher husband!

Eliza becomes a more interesting character when we learn that she had some doubts about her faith after the massacre of the Whitmans. But she did go on to teach and administer other schools in the Willamette Valley. It makes one a little sad that she died young, at 44. Maybe her impact on mission schools would have been greater and their worst abuses diminished had she had another 20or 30 years to work on it.

That is speculation of course. But one piece of information from that Oregon Historical Quarterly is not. While one Catholic Ladder in the text prominently features the beginnings of the Church, Eliza’s (and Henry’s) Protestant Ladder depicts the pope tumbling off into the fires of hell. Whatever difficulties the Catholic and Protestant missionaries had among the Indians did not keep them from feuding with each other!

NOTE: for info on the Spalding Protestant Ladder, go to:

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Friday, April 12, 2013

JFK on Indians

Alvin Josephy knew the people who had taken over American Heritage Magazine in 1954 and turned it into a profitable hard cover edition of well written and researched articles on American history. He wrote several articles for them, including the piece on “Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War,” and in 1960 was convinced to take on the job of editing The American Heritage Book of Indians in their book division.,

The text was largely written by William Brandon. Among other things, Alvin scoured the country for images—photos of Indians and artifacts, and original drawings—to accompany the text. In A Walk Toward Oregon, he tells the story of finding original drawings by Fernandez de Oviedo, “the first-known views of Indians in large canoes and as slaves in Caribbean gold mines.” They were stowed away in the Huntington Library in California, and reproduced broadly after their American Heritage publication. (Alvin and early illustrators is yet another topic!)

At any rate, the book was published in 1961, in the first year of John F. Kennedy’s presidency. It was a turning point for Alvin, as he elected to stay on full time at Heritage, where he would work for almost 20 years. And the new president—at whose urging I am not sure—wrote the introduction to his first book on the new job. On this as on so many matters, one wonders how events might have turned differently but for the Texas tragedy. His 1961 words are as fresh and true today as they were 52 years ago:

For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all.

American Indians defy any single description.  They were and are far too individualistic.  They shared no common language and few common customs.  But collectively their history is our history and should be part of our shared and remembered heritage.  Yet even their heroes are largely unknown to other Americans, particularly in the eastern states, except perhaps for such figures as Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce warriors of the 1870's, Osceola and his magnificent, betrayed Seminoles of the 1830's, and possibly Sacagawea, the Shoshoni "bird woman" who guided the lost Lewis and Clark expedition through the mountain passes on Montana.

When we forget great contributors to our American history-when we neglect the heroic past of the American Indian-we thereby weaken our own heritage.  We need to remember the contributions our forefathers found here and from which they borrowed liberally.

When the Indians controlled the balance of power, the settlers from Europe were forced to consider their views, and to deal with them by treaties and to her instruments.  The pioneers found that Indians in the Southeast had developed a high civilization with safeguards for ensuring the peace.  A northern extension of that civilization, the League of the Iroquois, inspired Benjamin Franklin to copy it in planning the federation of States.

But when the American Indians lost their power, they were placed on reservations, frequently lands which were strange to them, and the rest of the nation turned its attention to other matters.

Our treatment of Indians during that period still affects the national conscience.  We have been hampered-by the history of our relationship with the Indians-in our efforts to develop a fair national policy governing present and future treatment of Indians under their special relationship with the Federal government.

Before we can set out on the road to success, we have to know where we are going, and before we can know that we must determine where we have been in the past.  Is seems a basic requirement to study the history of our Indian people America has much to learn about the heritage of our American Indians.  Only through this study can we as a nation do what must be done if our treatment of the American Indian is not to be marked down for all time as a national disgrace.

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Friday, April 5, 2013

Browsing and Black Robes

Father Pierre-Jean De Smet
One of the great pleasures of being in a library (or a bookstore, where I spent a dozen wonderful years) is browsing. Your eyes scan shelves not with anything particular in mind, but with a lifetime of general interests and a number of current curiosities. A book—or journal or magazine—jumps at you with its shape, color, title, or the image on its cover. You pick it up and, almost unconsciously, look at front and back and open or don’t open and put it back or stick to it a bit longer—sometimes you keep reading. Interests and curiosities are strengthened and changed as you browse, and off you go again, maybe this time searching specifically for a title or subject matter. 

Add continuous reading of Josephy texts and you have my current life at the Josephy Library! This week it was the cover of the Spring 1996 Oregon Historical Quarterly with a photo of Father Pierre-Jean De Smet and a number of long haired Indian men, and the announcement of articles on “Catholic Missionizing in the West.” So I was soon reading about the Black Robes in Montana in 1841, about a Jesuit mission that lasted just a decade and collapsed amid cultural misunderstandings—the Indians quest to learn and incorporate Christian teachings; the Jesuits insistence on conversion and replacement of traditional beliefs and ritual—about  the missionaries, traders, and Indians who were part of the drama. And I was marveling at the illustrations of Father Nicolas Point.

Point and his art work, De Smet and his travels—he made 19 trips across the seas raising funds for his missions! The Iroquois Catholics, the relationships between Catholic and Protestant missions, President Grant’s effort to administer Indian agencies with missions; I have a bundle of new topics in my bucket of things to browse and learn.

I sometimes imagine grouping books and specific journals in the Library by Josephy interest areas: fur trade, Civil War, Mormons, treaties, transportation routes, expedition artists and art work, and the ideas of white superiority, Eurocentrism, discovery, nature, progress, etc. etc. etc. Alvin’s curiosities were many, and my browsing is now constrained and strengthened by a growing familiarity with them.

Maybe some of you out there—historians and poets, followers of Indian affairs and Western themes, have similar or related curiosities, and, in your browsing have found the book or article that brought clarity—or inspired further curiosities. Please tell us—and consider our new Library another shelf for your own browsing.  I’m happy to keep my eye out for the topics that occupy your mind, to do a little research by browsing on your behalf. And of course welcome everyone to come into the Library when you are in town and have the pleasure yourself.

notes: The OHQ is Vol. 97. No. 1; and a portfolio of Nicolas Point art work is available at

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