Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Day in the Josephy Library



Tuesday Brown Bag lunches at the Library are gaining traction—bigger and more diverse audiences each week—and one never knows who will show up or what the conversation will be. 

This week the theme was the “Nez Perce Homeland Project” in Wallowa. New staffer Mary Hawkins came with brochures and powwow raffle tickets, and Homeland board members Joe McCormack, Ralph Swinehart, and I chipped in with some history of the project.

The project is a 320 acre site just east of the city of Wallowa. We started forming a non-profit about 1990, bought the first 160 acre chunk in 1995 with monies from the Oregon Trail license plates issued on the 150th anniversary celebration of that event and an additional 160 a few years later. Joe and Ralph and I pieced together bits of the story as we went: A powwow and friendship feast at Chief Joseph Days that began in the late 80s—for maybe the first time, Indians from all of the major Nez Perce places, the Colville, Umatilla, and Nez Perce reservations, had been asked how they would like to participate in the event named after their most famous leader; a powwow in Wallowa spearheaded by Umatilla tribal member Taz Conner, who carried strong Nez Perce heritage, and Wallowa school teacher Terry Crenshaw; the expansion of the Nez Perce National Historical Park to sites in Oregon and Washington; the appointment of Paul Henderson  as the Park Ranger for non-Idaho sites, and his attendance at Oregon Trail commemoration meetings. Joe remembered Paul telling the Oregon Trail folks that the Nez Perce Trail was the only one that took people “out” of Oregon. Ralph remembered Paul having meetings in Enterprise, Joseph, and Wallowa, and the folks in Wallowa being the ones who stepped up to embrace the idea of commemorating the local Nez Perce presence—and their leaving.

We all remembered hunting for land for an interpretive site—and finding one rancher who was ready to sell until his neighbors heckled him; and then looking seriously at an old sawmill site full of chemicals and concrete that would have been hell to work with. And then Norman and Mimi McCrae stepped forward with an offer to sell us 160 acres. We didn’t remember how that happened—but we should. Their action—and the later sale of an additional 160 acres—made the project happen.

Now there is a powwow each summer in a wonderful dance arbor, a longhouse kitchen and the infrastructure for the longhouse is built, and we have about $50,000 towards the longhouse. There is also a trail to the top of Tick Hill, from which the original burial site of Old Chief Joseph is visible, and horse corrals go in this month. And a handful of tribal members have chosen to be buried in their old homeland.  This has all been done largely with volunteer labor and a non-profit board consisting of local people and tribal members from Umatilla, Lapwai, and Colville.

In addition to Homeland project history, the Tuesday discussion touched on Indian—white majority relations in general, from treaty period through wars, Dawes Act and other efforts at assimilation, and the Indian reorganization act of 1934 through the second siege of Wounded Knee and more recent instances of Indian empowerment. In 1900, the locals in Wallowa County would not “sell” a piece of land to a returning Chief Joseph with government money in his pocket, and he went back to Colville, Washington to “die of a broken heart.”  A hundred years later there are attempts at reconciliation.

We were joined on Tuesday by a handful of students from an Indian Studies class at Willamette University on a “listening project.” They are looking at 12 school communities in Oregon who must give up Indian related mascots and names, and were in nearby Enterprise interviewing faculty members, current and former students, and community members about Enterprise school’s giving up the name and image of “Savage” a few years ago. How did that go? What were the issues then, and what lingers? They participated in our discussion and stayed on to interview several Brown Baggers for their project.

Our Josephy Library is not just a place for old books and documents; the library—and the Indian peoples and western themes on its shelves and pages, are still much alive in current conversation and the issues of the day.

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