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.

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