Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Nez Perce and the Columbian Exchange

In preparation for my Portland presentation on the Nez Perce in the Wallowa Country tomorrow night, and thinking about this ecosystems/ Pacific NW tribes class I am teaching in La Grande, I got to wondering about which elements of Alfred Crosby’s Columbian Exchange had the greatest impact on the Nez Perce.

The first one that comes to mind is the horse, because the Nez Perce became noted for their horse breeding and horsemanship. But they probably didn’t get the horse until the early 1700s, over 200 years after Columbus and his crew landed with them in the Caribbean. Late in the history of a people that had been here forever.

It was diseases, and specifically smallpox, that got Crosby to thinking about what all had crossed the ocean and united the two worlds so long divided. And the impact of diseases that the Europeans had developed some immunities to over centuries on indigenous Americans was in all ways catastrophic. In 1491—or maybe his later book, 1493—Charles Mann explains their roles in assisting the conquistadors in overwhelming central and south American civilizations, and in presenting a ghost landscape for immigrant Puritans on the Northeast Atlantic coast. Abandoned Indian gardens and food caches were more important in staving off Puritan starvation than were the pluck, courage, and Christian faith usually credited.

The impacts of diseases on the Nez Perce and other Plateau tribes were again decades—maybe centuries—removed. But diseases did creep in from the Pacific Coast to decimate Willamette Valley Indians in the late 1700s, well before the white men who carried them traveled that far inland. And we know that Indian trade routes took tribal people and commodities from the Pacific Coast to the Rockies—and probably beyond. And we know that the fur trade sent diseases off ahead of it as it moved across the North Country. Allen Pinkham, a Nez Perce elder and co-author of Lewis and Clark among the Nez Perce, thinks that there were about 5,000 Nez Perce in the country at the time of Lewis and Clark—but imagines a pre-Euro-disease population of some 20,000. That would jibe with Crosby and Mann’s thoughts on the impacts of diseases.

Treaties and broken treaties led to war, and Bobbie Conner, director at Tamastlikst, reminded several of us talking about the Stevens treaties one day at the Josephy Center that one must start any discussion of Indian treaties with the “Doctrine of Discovery.” It started with the pope and the Spanish and the Portuguese, but the English picked up on it, and by the time the Oregon Territory came into that crazy “joint occupancy” status, the notion that Indian lands were somehow both occupied but unoccupied (by “civilized” peoples) had taken hold. And Plateau lands were ripe for the plucking—the fight was on between the British (largely through Hudson’s Bay Company actions)  and the upstart United States about which civilized country could claim these Indian lands. Treaties were the tools.

But then I reread the Introduction to Alvin Josephy’s 1492, and he tells us that with all of the things the Europeans brought, all of their diseases, animals, steel and guns, religious righteousness and notions of private property, their Eurocentric view of the world, and the corresponding denigration of other world views, was the lethal blow. It allowed for the enslavement of Indians, the takeover of lands, the destruction of artifacts, and the erasure of languages and cultures that continued on for over 500 years! 

It echoed all the way to Alice Fletcher and Jane Gay “allotting” Nez Perce tribal lands in the 1880s. The solution to the Indian problem was to make them farmers, to assimilate them. Fletcher was kinder than most of her predecessors and contemporaries, thinking that the languages and cultures of Indians should be preserved in books and museums, but she was adamant in the belief that they must join the superior, Euro-American culture to survive.

“Kill the Indian to save the man”—or some version thereof—was long the standard on the “liberal” side of those dealing with Indians.


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