Saturday, May 10, 2014

Lewis and Clark, Pinkham and Evans, Josephy



Allen Pinkham and Steve Evans
On Wednesday night Allen Pinkham and Steve Evans gave the first of what we plan to be annual lectures in honor of Alvin Josephy. Their theme—following the title of their recently published book, Lewis and Clark Among the Nez Perce: Strangers in the Land of the Nimiipu—can be seen as a direct response to Alvin’s charge in a long ago NYT book review of Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage: “[we still await] an understanding treatment (perhaps by an Indian historian), not simply of what the explorers reported but of what was happening on the Indians' side…”

In fact, Alvin’s last book, which he edited along with Marc Jaffe, was Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes, and Allen Pinkham began the evening by holding it up—he was one of its contributors—and explaining that Alvin had advised the ten Indian writers that he and Marc Jaffe were not going to edit them, that they wanted unfiltered tribal stories of Lewis and Clark.

In their new book, Pinkham and Steve Evans (who is not an Indian, but a respected historian and biographer of Lucullus McWhorter married into the Nez Perce tribe and culture) follow Indian Eyes, concentrating on Lewis and Clark and the Nez Perce. They explained how they had checked the journals and other primary sources against tribal stories—and sometimes common sense. Did Lewis and Clark—and York and some of the others—leave progeny among the tribes? Although Evans pointed out that “fraternization was not allowed” and Lewis and Clark “were officers after all,” tribal stories had it otherwise.

The common sense is that armies everywhere, from the dawn of time, have left children in their wake. The twist—which takes just a bit more common sense—is that the Indians saw sexual relations as alliance building. These new white folks and the one black man represented new powers in tribal lives, and like European kings and queens and security and upward mobility seeking peoples the world over, Indians saw opportunity in making mixed breed babies. “Romantic love” probably played a lesser role in most of the world in 1805 than it does among United States readers today—another thing to consider as we interpret the past.

Pinkham believes mixed breeds of the fur trade penetrated the West in the early 1700s, coincident with the arrival of the horse, and that diseases had reduced a population of as many as 20,000 Nez Perce to 5,000-7,000 when the Corps of Discovery arrived. Indian trade routes, so efficient in moving obsidian, foods, and weapons great distances, moved things faster with horses, and moved the good and the ill with equal facility.

But the method might be more important than any individual findings in Pinkham and Evans’ work. Begin with elders’ stories, test them against one another looking for consensus, then corroborate with written records left by Europeans, and in some cases Indians who took up writing or offered up interviews in earlier times. Present a different, fuller picture of the American historical narrative.

It reminds again of Alvin, who sensed the missing pieces in the standard written Nez Perce story when he came on it, then resolved to do the work himself when he found McWhorter’s work—Yellow Wolf and Here Me My Chiefs—and a few remaining veterans of the Nez Perce War.

Pinkham and Evans, who dedicated their book to Alvin, were the perfect choice to lead off a lecture series honoring Alvin Josephy.

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