Friday, September 25, 2015

Rupert Costo, the Pope, and my friend Ray

Like many Americans—and people across the world—I have watched and listened to the new Pope with hope and wonder. A man of clerical power that extends over much of the world with Francis’s humility giving voice to the poor, the immigrant, the prisoner, is something new in our time, and something that is reaching beyond Catholics and even Christians. I chuckle when he rides in a Fiat, cheer when he derides consumption, and give thanks when he talks sensibly about climate.

But the canonization of Father Junipero Serra?

My friend Ray Cook grew up in Idaho, lived most of his life in California and worked for the State Highway Department. On retirement, Ray started coming to the Wallowas, where his grandfather had been a Methodist preacher and his grandmother was buried (Ray placed a tombstone for her in the Wallowa cemetery).

Ray once had to evict an elderly Indian lady to make way for a California highway, and the act has haunted him ever since. He came to Fishtrap events for several years, and over time has sent me letters he writes to newspapers and notes of events that he attends—most having to do with American Indians. Many of these things are colored by that experience, some by later stories he has read and heard.

One of the storytellers was a friend he gained at the Highway Department, an engineer named Rupert Costo. Costo was a Cahuilla Indian, a writer, publisher, and advocate for Indians. Ray sent me his autographed copy of a book Costo edited and published, The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide, for the Josephy Library. In it modern scholars write about California Indians and the brutal Mission legacy, and detailed and heart-wrenching Indian testimony that has been taken over the years is reprinted. The book, published in 1987, was an attempt to halt the canonization process of Father Serra.

Costo died in 1989, so he did not live to see Pope Francis’s embrace of Serra. He did live long enough to donate the extensive collection of books and artifacts relating to American Indians that he and his wife, Jeanette, who was Cherokee, had accumulated, to the University of California, Riverside, my alma mater!

And to donate $400,000 to the university to endow a chair in Indian Studies—a position now held by my friend, Clifford Trafzer! In fact, as I reached back for facts in this case, I find out that Costo, who was born in Hemet California, was an instrumental lobbyist for having a UC campus at Riverside. (I don’t remember hearing that story while I was a student there.)

We should, it is argued, not judge Father Serra—or the many priests, Spanish land grantees, and later American miners and farmers who enslaved, tortured, and sometimes sought to eliminate Indians—by the standards of today. So we should condone the throwing of babies into cactus patches to get parents to tell the whereabouts of runaway slaves, threatening and throwing babies off the “Crying Rock” to make Indians work, and collaring Indians to pull plows all as practices of their times?

What about the priests and lay people who did speak up? Alvin Josephy notes, in 500 Nations, a friar who spoke out against the brutal treatment of the Indians in 1799. He was declared insane and taken out of the country. If we canonize the brutalizers, what do we do with those who acted saintly in their times?

Alvin argued that “the treatment of California Indians was as close to genocide as any tribal people had faced, or would face, on the North American continent." I can’t put my hands on it now, but I believe Alvin knew Costo and his work, and I believe that he, like Costo, would now stand up against this new Pope on the canonization of Serra.

We admire Pope Francis exactly because he argues against many of the popular and expressed values of our times—unbridled capitalism and conspicuous consumption for example. If Costo’s book and Josephy’s work had found their ways into the Pope’s life, I have to believe that there would be a different story in the news today. Maybe we would learn the friar’s name, and maybe HE would be sainted and Serra relegated to the history books as a man of his times.


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Monday, September 21, 2015

The oldest story--more on refugees

The pictures and stories of refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Greece, Hungary, Croatia, Austria, Germany and more bring a brilliant image of mass migration into sharp and heart tugging focus. At first look and sound it seems like something new, and the proximate causes—wars and uprisings in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Libya, and the accompanying refugee crisis in Europe fill and refill the media and our brain space daily.


But migrations, invasions, expulsions, and other mass movements of humankind go back to the Israelites; to Persian, Alexandrian, Mongol, Hun, and Ottoman invasions; to the Inquisition and expulsion of Jews from Europe, to the Holocaust. In my short lifetime Jews fleeing Germany were denied entry into our country, and Jews, with Western guilt and support, made a new country and displaced Arabs; in my lifetime African peoples liberated from colonial oppression have risen up, killed, and chased each other from one place to another; and wars in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia have seen millions die and millions more scurry for new places to live.

These days I study American Indians, inheritors of a millennia-long migration—driven by weather, climate, oppression and opportunity—that began in Africa, crossed Asia, and put ancestors on these continents 20,000 or 30,000 years ago. Historian Alvin Josephy started the Indian Heritage of America, his book about what might have and must have happened before European arrival in the Americas, with languages. Those language maps tell stories of movements of Indian peoples before written history and the interpretation of artifacts—how did those Algonquin speakers get to the Pacific coast?

We mostly neglect these stories and tell stories of the coming of Europeans to the Americas. These are stories of “discovery” and competing European interests in “conquest.” We nod to “religious freedom” as a reason for Europeans leaving old homes, but talk less about weather, famine, small wars, crowding and inheritance, regime changes, and the Prussian draft that all played roles in putting long-time Europeans on small boats in frightful seas for the new world.

Once here, the Europeans began a long, four-century process of displacement of the people who were here before them. In some places it went quickly—people died in huge numbers and tribes disappeared. In North America generally there was a long, slow, slog of displacement, of indigenous people being pushed west and pushed onto reservations, forced to learn English and Anglo culture to survive.

Part of this old story is one of intermarriage, rape, and a mixing of peoples. Warriors and explorers didn’t bring their women along. This struck me first when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Eastern Turkey, assigned to a village of “refugee” Turks from Bulgaria and Greece. They had come in Balkan people trades made in the 1930s, between the two world wars. My Turkish friends were Moslem and spoke Turkish, albeit with their own peculiar accent, but they looked more Eastern European than Central Asian. It struck me then that the Ottomans traveled without women—all the way to the gates of Vienna in the 1500s. There had been plenty of time for the mixing of blood.

The Turks in Istanbul and Thrace and the Black Sea were sometimes light and blue-eyed; those south and west looked Mediterranean, and those to the south and east were darker and indistinguishable from Arab neighbors. Even the Romani—the Gypsies—who mostly traveled north and south with their caravans, spoke the languages of their immediate surrounding—along with their own Romani—and shared physical characteristics with their neighbors.

None of this lessens the pain of people fighting to get across borders or to stay in a homeland today. It does say that walls and borders are artificial and always breeched. Physical borders—rivers, oceans, mountain ranges—make crossings and the intermingling of peoples more difficult, but they too give way in time.

Unfortunately, wholesale death seems endemic to these mass movements. But there are minglings of cultures, and kindnesses, too, from the Egyptians who took in the Israelites to the Dutch who hid the Frank family and the Danes who wore Jewish armbands; from the French trappers who married Indians and created a new tribe, the Metis, to Americans who have taken “war brides,” refugees from Germany, Japan, Vietnam, and, one supposes, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Millions of refugees are suffering and dying now, but thousands—maybe millions—are coming to their aid. Along with the horror there will be exchanges of foods, languages, and cultures. More importantly, the people who rise to help are showing one of the oldest and most basic forms of right conduct—putting aside fear and the dark impulses of exclusion and embracing the outsider, the immigrant.


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Thursday, September 10, 2015

A Babel of languages

I’ve always thought that Alvin’s Indian Heritage of America, published in 1968, was extraordinary in its examination of the Americas before contact. He started with languages. Ironically, it was often missionaries, intent on Christianizing and changing people, who learned indigenous languages, intent from that day through today’s Moody Bible Translators on giving them back scripture.

But some missionaries were captivated by language itself, as were some army officers, adventurers, and a few academics who described themselves as “ethnologists.” In 1891, Major John Wesley Powell—of Colorado River fame but then Director of Ethnology at the Smithsonian—submitted the seventh annual report to the Secretary of the Smithsonian, in which he described attempts at learning the proper names of North American Indian tribes and the classification of their languages. The volume published the field work of 1885-86, including the first classification of North American Indian languages. (see https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a5/Langs_N.Amer.png for a current language map)

Alvin picked up their work, and began Indian Heritage with detailed maps and accompanying “updated” classification tables of language groups (Powell had grouped them into 56 linguistic families).  “The study of Indian languages,” Alvin said, “can be extremely valuable in the knowledge it provides of the backgrounds and historic origins, movements, and cultural developments of individual tribes and bands.” This, in a time before DNA analysis, was a remarkable way of marrying biology and history.

The number of languages—Alvin quotes one source suggesting over 2200 mutually unintelligible pre-Columbian languages in the Americas—was fuel in the debate over the length of habitation and the number of migrations from Asia. Some have proposed three major migrations related to three language parent stocks, but as far as I can tell, this is still an open field. Estimates on times of migration vary greatly as well, but increasingly, the first are thought to have been more than 30,000 years ago.

Language, for similar reasons, also enters into the argument between “long counters” and “short counters” as regards pre-contact populations (languages have “half-lives,” and linguists estimate the time it takes for languages to grow and change). According to Charles Mann in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, the gap on this score was huge: short counters arguing that there were probably fewer than 10 million people on the continents when Columbus hit shore; long counters suggested as many as 112 million.  In 1968, Josephy thought some high middle number the best current estimate; in a radio interview 30 years later he upped his numbers to 90 million or more.

And here we come to cataclysmic events—diseases, it is agreed, decimated huge numbers of indigenous Americans, often before the affected Indians saw a European. Slavery and violence took huge tolls on Indian populations as well—some Caribbean peoples were exterminated in Columbus’s quest for gold.

1492 was a signal year in the history of the planet, and the movement of its peoples and languages. Not too far on either side of that date were major disease epidemics in Europe—and climate change.  The Great Warming brought the Norse to Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland and multiplied Europe’s population; warming and drought killed civilizations and thousands of people in Africa and the Americas. The plague, poxes, typhus and a myriad of diseases hit and killed millions in Europe before they were brought to the Americas. Mann says that a world population of 500 million at the beginning of the sixteenth century might have been reduced by one-fifth by the early seventeenth century. Maybe the greatest die-off in human history!

History is full of such catastrophes. In recent memory, WW II and its fallout killed millions, created other millions of “stateless” people, and scattered refugees around the globe. The Little Ice Age and accompanying droughts and freezes sent Europeans to the New World; slavery sent Africans in all directions; the Inquisition scattered European Jews; the Potato Famine scattered the Irish. In all cases languages traveled, collided, morphed, and joined as well.

We might now be in the middle of something as significant as any of the above. The pretty plans of the WW I victors for nation states cooperating on oil and speaking English as a strong second language are fast disintegrating in the Middle East. The European Union is being stretched by African and Middle Eastern refugees as some of its members and member citizens cling to cultural and religious identities. Refugee camps bulge—old ones dating to the 1947 Palestinian War; new ones in Turkey, Jordan, and Africa.

And language is again a measure of movements and adjustments. There is little talk now of English as “the world language,” and Spanglish and Arab hip-hop are in the media. As Syrians, speaking in English to reporters, describe hopes of learning German, one is reminded of an older Middle Eastern dispersion, described in Genesis:

“Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”

Syrian refugees LA Times




Other Powells and Josephys will trace these movements 500 years from now.

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