Friday, November 29, 2013

The end of November



It is the end of November in my 72nd year and my mind churns.

I guess for many of us of a certain age November will always be associated with John Kennedy’s death. Yes, I remember the day, remember riding my bike to class at UC Riverside, putting it in a rack and walking across campus and coming on a distraught Dr. Dennis Strong, waving his hands, tears streaming down his face, shouting that they had shot the President.

Although a couple of UCR students I knew checked out almost immediately and joined the Peace Corps, it took me almost two years to do the same. We went to Turkey with Kennedy half-dollars stuffed in our bags, tokens we would hand out to friends we made. And, like Volunteers across the world, I found newspaper and magazine pictures of JFK, in my country alongside photos of Ataturk, in small villages across the land.

This November, teaching a class on ecosystems and tribes in nearby La Grande to Oregon State University ag and natural resource students, trying to get them to relook at what was here before our European ancestors arrived, I told them that new world potatoes probably saved my Norwegian ancestors from starvation and that Indians, people of the salmon who lived and worked what we now call the Pacific Northwest, were here with sophisticated societies and economies long before trappers, missionaries, explorers, and settlers came to change and replace them. I reminded them that historical perspectives change slowly, and that they had probably participated in the same fourth grade Thanksgiving pageants that I had watched and played in 60 years ago, that no one had encouraged us then to wonder where the corn and squash and beans that the Indians shared came from—and for that matter, how Squanto had learned enough English to tutor them in agriculture. Our history—and our stereotypes of hunter-gatherer Indians—have been handed to us flawed.

But there is change. A few days ago a group of Joseph fifth and sixth graders came to the Josephy Center to see the Indian art exhibit and the library. We talked about the Nez Perce and how they got their name. I told them about Indians from the coast, the far north and the inland high desert congregating at Celilo to fish and trade goods and stories. I said that when they got the horse, the Nez Perce had gone over the mountains to hunt buffalo. “Where did the Indians get horses?” I asked, and a bright-eyed fifth grader, hand bouncing in the air, said “I know, I know—the Columbian Exchange.”

I try to tell my grandchildren, who are in 7th and 9th grades, about Kennedy and how he tried to change the world—and in some ways did so—and how he changed my life. We have a campaign poster that I have hauled with me from 1960, my freshman year of college at Denver University, that promises “Leadership for the Sixties.” Their eyes glaze. I take them to the community Thanksgiving feed to help serve. As they feared, it’s mostly old people. They’re miffed—but they buck up and do a good job of it.  

Kennedy didn’t get many years—and watching it all again it seems that he knew that the work was big and his time was short. He wrote the foreword to the American Heritage Book of Indians (which Alvin Josephy edited; JFK on Indians for previous post) and showed an understanding of that history—we can wonder how Indian policy might have changed.

I am brought to his book, Profiles in Courage, and Alvin’s book, The Patriot Chiefs. Both men believed in the importance of individuals in their times. Alvin was a historian with an urge toward action; JFK an actor with a sense of history. My mind goes from Kennedy to Tecumseh, one of Alvin’s Patriot Chiefs, an Indian leader who dreamed a pan-Indian stand against the European invasion. He failed, but is with us still in the genes of Indians still fighting for sovereignty, still struggling for a place in their native land.

Dreams stay with us; Tecumseh and Kennedy are with us.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

History counts



It’s an old saw—you learn by teaching. This fall I am teaching a class for the Oregon State University Ag program on the Eastern Oregon U campus in La Grande. The class is “Ecosystems and Pacific Northwest Tribes.”  We looked briefly at the pre-Columbian Americas and the impacts of contact—the “Columbian Exchange”—and then moved on to the pre-contact Northwest (realizing that such a designation is loaded with post-contact geography), the impacts of the fur trade, missionaries, treaties, and settlers, and finally now, are looking at how the region’s ecosystems are working today.

We read a few chapters of Charles Mann’s 1491, a wonderful essay, “People of the Salmon,” by Richard Daugherty in Josephy’s America in 1492, and bits and pieces on the fur trade, treaties, missionaries, and Oregon tribes. This week our reading was the Klamath chapter from First Oregonians, and our guest speaker was Jeff Oveson, long-time executive director of Grande Ronde Model Watershed.  

As I re-read the short version of the Klamath-Modoc story and thought about a recent rebroadcast of the “Oregon Experience” program on the Modoc War (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lv3NSN-8b3o) it struck me that the Klamath and associated tribes (Modoc and Yahooskin are joined on the reservation) experience of white contact had hit the nadirs of government Indian policy in case after case—loss of land and resources, treaty, war, and assimilation through schools, allotment, termination, and urbanization. Controversy and strife haunt the region still, and Indian-white, Indian-government, and white-government relations are tenuous and controversial.

The Nez Perce story, also a sad one, also follows the patterns and hazards of contact—disease, loss of land, settlement, allotment. But the Nez Perce—I now speak of families dispersed on three reservations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho—were spared termination. And going back further, the Nez Perce came out of the 1855 treaty negotiations with heads held highest of all inland tribes. They retained most of their ancestral lands and were the only people to emerge with a reservation of their own—one not shared with other, confederated, tribes.

Yes, land was taken away in the “Liars Treaty” of 1863, and negotiations with President Grant, promising to rescind part of that treaty and give back some Wallowa land, failed. Yes, there was a war that drove Nez Perce from the Wallowa and from other ancestral lands. And yes, lands were allotted and much tribal land was lost with the Dawes Act.

But the Nez Perce, known in Governor Stevens time as a strong tribe with skilled negotiator chiefs, acknowledged and often celebrated for their arduous and skillfully managed fighting retreat toward Canada in the Nez Perce War, and successful, with Chief Joseph’s skilled diplomacy, in returning from Indian Territory to the Northwest less than a decade after the 1877 War, as much as any tribal people, always saw themselves as peers in relationships with whites and white governments.

J.T. Willizams, Nez Perce Fisheries
I see this today in the faces and actions of Nez Perce tribal leaders, Nez Perce Fisheries personnel, and in those of their cousins on the Umatilla. I ask Jeff about working with tribal fisheries—Nez Perce and Umatilla—and he concurs. Tribal workers in our part of the country are confident, skilled, and see themselves as and are seen as partners in working with the region’s natural resources.

History counts.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Congress catching up with the Indians



A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the photographer John Fouch and his pictures of Plains Indians and Chief Joseph and other Nez Perces at Fort Keogh in Montana in the late 1870s—and I promised more. Today’s news from the Senate—the 61-30 vote for cloture on the “Employment Nondiscrimination Act,” also known as ENDA—seems like the right occasion to consider another Fouch image. 

ENDA would make it illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Fouch’s relevant photo is of “Squaw Jim” and a companion—maybe his wife. They are Crow Indians and the time is the late 1870s. 

The literature refers to cross gender Indian people as “Berdache,” a French word derived from a Persian word referring to male-male attraction. This from the “Encyclopedia of the Great Plains”:

"In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, French explorers, traders, and missionaries in the Mississippi Valley occasionally encountered Native Americans who could be classified neither as men nor women. They called such individuals berdaches…. In fact, Plains Indian berdaches are best described as occupying an alternative or third gender role, in which traits of men and women are combined with those unique to berdache status. Male berdaches did women's work, cross-dressed or combined male and female clothing, and formed relationships with non-berdache men.

"Plains Indian women often engaged in hunting and warfare, but a female role equivalent to that of male berdaches, although common west of the Rockies, has been documented in the Plains only among the Cheyennes (the hetaneman). Even so, some Plains Indian women became notable warriors and leaders and behaved much like berdaches. In the early nineteenth century, Running Eagle of the Piegans wore male clothing on war parties, while Woman Chief of the Crows had four wives."

The entire interesting entry is at http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.gen.004

In other places Indians are referred to as “two-spirited,” and in fact contemporary Indians promoting respect and equality for gay, lesbian, and trans-gender tribal members now prefer “two spirit” to Berdache, which is culturally loaded.

The loading was done by Christian missionaries, who could not accept Indians that challenged their ideas of gender boundaries, and were in fact often accorded respect for special access to spiritual worlds provided by their dual-gender, dual-spirit personas. Walter Williams, who has written extensively on the subject, explained things this way in The Guardian:

Rather than emphasizing the homosexuality of these persons, however, many Native Americans focused on their spiritual gifts. American Indian traditionalists, even today, tend to see a person's basic character as a reflection of their spirit. Since everything that exists is thought to come from the spirit world, androgynous or transgender persons are seen as doubly blessed, having both the spirit of a man and the spirit of a woman. Thus, they are honoured for having two spirits, and are seen as more spiritually gifted than the typical masculine male or feminine female.

I expect that many tribes and tribal members have gone on with old beliefs and practices, and two-spirited Indians have continued to enjoy respect and “normalcy” in many if not most cases in the years from Fouch and his 1870s photos until now. And I think it is interesting that the mainstream American public and our politicians, who sometimes lead but most often struggle to follow their vocal supporters, and who just a few years ago were busy promulgating a “Defense of Marriage Act,” and considered the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy “liberalizing” to our military, are coming to the conclusion that “two spirited” people should be treated equally in the workplace.

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