Saturday, May 28, 2016

Geneticists, Linguists, and American Indians

There’s an interesting piece in today’s NYT about genetic testing African Americans. The researchers covered in the article calculate that “the ancestors of the average African-American today were 82.1 percent African, 16.7 percent European and 1.2 percent Native American.”

More interesting than that, by examining the length of matching DNA strands, they claim that the Native American genes got into the African American mix very early, as slaves were first brought from Africa, and that the European genes got into the mix later—primarily during the time just preceding the Civil War.

Furthermore, by tracing X and Y chromosomes—Xs come only from mothers; fathers can pass on Xs or Ys—and the fact that the X chromosome of contemporary African-Americans shows more African ancestry than do the Y, leads them to the conclusion that the 16.7 percent European ancestry is primarily due to white slave owners fathering the children of their black slaves.

Here is a link to the story: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/28/science/african-american-dna.html?emc=edit_th_20160528&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=66175474

This is all very interesting, but haven’t historians been telling us most of this for a long time—if we were listening? Linguists too, and folklorists have traced languages and cultural patterns, and thus the movements of peoples across time and geography.

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I always introduce Library visitors to Alvin Josephy’s Indian Heritage of America (published in 1968) by pointing out that he begins with languages. Although scarcely 50 years ago, this was a time before the “human genome.” But common sense and Josephy tell us that we can trace people’s movements, and to some extent the development of their cultures, through language. Josephy found early that one of the gifts left by missionaries, furmen, and adventurers is a chronicle of Indian languages.

Speaking of gifts, a donor recently left the Josephy Library a copy of John Wesley Powell’s 1891 report to the Smithsonian. This Powell—the same who floated the Colorado—sent a team of a half dozen researches across the country gathering language information for two years. He then analyzed and classified the Indian language information they brought back in his annual report. Powell broke them into 46 major language groups—I believe this was the first classification of North American Indian languages.

Josephy had later research to work with. But it has always struck me as a mark of his genius that he began a book intending to paint a broad picture of the Indian heritage of North and South America by talking with linguists. And it occurs to me that his advantage in being a journalist was that he was not discipline-bound—he reached out to linguists, archeologists, anthropologists, and others who were, often quietly and for an audience limited to their own field, building pictures of the past.

There are a dozen ways to go with this: genetics is incredibly interesting, but let’s not forget the human stories of slavery, the “Great Migration” of African Americans out of the south, and, always, the Indian presence in all subsequent “American” history. How do we make sure the human stories don’t get lost in the science?

Or, we can celebrate the new emphasis on tribal languages across the country. One of my early Peace Corps language memories is a Turkish saying that where there is “one language, one man; two languages, two men.” Taking away the gender issue, the point is that language is intricately tied to culture, and the loss of language is a loss of culture and history. So good for the tribal language programs and linking tribal peoples to history and culture.

We’ll continue to get stories from geneticists, but let’s also remember and thank those missionaries and adventurers for their roles in preserving languages. And let’s remember the stories that language, oral history, and culture tell us about the past as we keep them alive in the present.

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Thursday, May 12, 2016

Loving the Game, the Rez Game

I’ve not followed professional basketball—or even college basketball—much over the past few years. The “posting up” business is boring, and the spectacle of who might be the most athletically talented individuals in the world running up and down a court that seems too small for them, dunking basketballs in a hoop that seems too low for them, just didn’t stir me.

Mary Stewart of Nixyaawii Golden Eagles (credit: East Oregonian)
But I have watched a lot of high school basketball, where the size of the court and the height of the rim seem to be in proper proportion. And this year I’ve taken special interest with my freshman grandson playing at Joseph High School. One of the treats has been watching Nixyaawii Community School, the boys and girls teams from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation. Both beat Joseph handily, with great ball control and great three-point shooting, and both went on to take third place in the state small schools tournament. It was fun watching the shooting, passing, and ball control—“they’ve been playing together since elementary school,” we were told. And, when we played at Nixyaawii, it was fun sitting in a small gym with the parents, and the grandpas and grandmas, aunties and uncles, watching the game, soaking up the joy, pride and community.

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As a sports junkie since my own playing days who doesn’t watch much of it on TV, basketball interest started growing this year with my grandson playing and news stories about the Golden State Warriors and a new kind of pro basketball. So I watched some pro ball, including almost all of that last Golden State game, when Steph Curry and the Warrior crew tore up the record books. The way that Golden State moved the ball, and the long threes that opened up alley-oop dunks was different from a big man posting up and backing down another Goliath. And it looked like the whole team and coaching staff—and the fans of course—were having fun as they wrote their way into the record books—for most wins, most three pointers, most most most. It was, I thought, a bigger version of Nixyaawii.

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I ran across another basketball piece in the New York Times this week. It was about Baron Davis and a documentary film—The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce—the former NBA all-star made about this thing that has been going on in South Central Los Angeles since the 70s called the “Drew League.” In the heart of the ghetto, where Davis grew up, and started playing at the age of 13, a bunch of hoopsters from high school and up play basketball for the camaraderie and the love of it.

Yes, most of the young black players in the Drew League want do be like Davis, go from Drew to UCLA to the NBA, But the Drew also catches players like Davis after they’ve been to the top and, with injury stopping careers, still need the game. It catches players on the way up and the way down, makes a place for high school and college players, old pros and aspiring ones to play the game for gain—and for the love of it. Right there on the “home court” in South Central.

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Not many rez players make it to the NBA—or the WNBA, but if you hang around tribal people at all, you know that basketball is the rez game. When you sit in the stands at Nixyaawii, you hear pride in the next generation and stories of uncles and cousins who played the game well. You get a sense of community that spreads across ages and genders, pride when a full scholarship to Stanford is announced for one of the girls. You know that the people on the court, on the bench and in the stands all love the game that’s brought them together that night.

Schimmel sisters at Louisville (Indian Country Today)

Which reminds me that the Schimmel sisters, Shoni and Jude, started on the Umatilla. I remember watching the 2013 NCAA women’s final when the Schimmels and Louisville took on Connecticut—hoops were rattling and nets swishing into early morning hours on the rez—and probably on rezes across the country—that day in 2013.   They lost—Connecticut has been almost unbeatable for years—but they lost well, and Shoni played her way into professional basketball.

Googling “Native American professional basketball” players will only get you a handful, but you’ll also be introduced to “Indian Country Today,” and some great stories of basketball in Indian Country, where, like the Drew, there are aspirations for the college and pro games, and a whole bunch of love for the game.

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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Westerner

Walter Brennan and Gary Cooper in “The Westerner”
We celebrated the life and work of actor Walter Brennan this weekend at the Josephy Center. Grandpa McCoy of TV’s “Real McCoys” bought a ranch in Wallowa County in 1940, long before he played on television, but well into an acting career that stretched from the silents to “Rio Bravo,” “The Westerner” to “The Over the Hill Gang.” Brennan was a political conservative who admired the Actors Guild, and a WW I vet who’d suffered mustard gas (and said later that if offered the chance to volunteer again he would decline). He built and owned a motel and movie theater in Joseph, was in on the founding of a rodeo named Chief Joseph Days, and walked Main Street, ate at the Gold Room, and in general saw himself as another resident of Wallowa County.

Some local wags have it that he came to Wallowa County as a friend of silent film star Eugene Pallette, a notorious right winger who feared apocalypse and built a heavily armed and provisioned retreat far up the Imnaha River. Pallette, it is said, planned to blow the Imnaha Canyon shut if the bad guys—communists, Asians, whoever—came to get him.

In contrast, Brennan bought a working ranch, and worked it. He moved here because son Mike’s North Hollywood agriculture teacher (yes, Hollywood had ag teachers and the Brennans had chickens in the yard) had taught in Enterprise, and when Walter said he was looking for a ranch and thinking about Jackson Hole, the teacher steered him to Wallowa County.

Son Mike carried on the ranching and farming, and grandchildren and great grandchildren still live and work here. A gaggle of heirs—some of them coming from California for the event, joined biographer Carl Rollyson and actor Kevin Cahill for our three-day celebration, which included watching “The Westerner” and a one-man play of the “Old Character,” crafted by Rollyson from Brennan’s own words and played by La Grande teacher and actor Kevin Cahill.

What did we learn? That Brennan started in New England, didn’t much like school, worked hard at many things, volunteered for service in WW I, where he saw heavy action, was gassed, and from which he later suffered from what we now call PTSD. After the War he worked for a time in a bank, which he hated, and married Ruth, a local sweetheart, quit the bank, and headed West. In California, Brennan made a fortune in real estate—then lost it. He had done some acting in the East, and in California found work as a stuntman and extra, finally finding speaking roles in “Barbary Coast” and “Fury,” and soon winning three Oscars for best supporting actor. He is thought of as the quintessential character actor, a man who worked at his craft, his accents and his appearance (“do you want me with teeth or without,” he would ask directors). In all, Brennan appeared in over 200 motion pictures and scores of TV shows.

Why did he buy a ranch? “Doesn’t everybody want to be a cowboy?”

And here he could be a kind of cowboy, shoot squirrels, eat lunch, and promote Chief Joseph Days with cowboy neighbors. I suspect that some of Walter’s Wallowa County friends shared his right wing political views, but when he was here being a local attending to local things seemed more important. It’s also worth noting that he named his motel The Indian Lodge to honor, he said, Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians who were wrongly kicked out of the Wallowas.

I guess for white folks the West has always been a place to create and recreate the self. And movies have been vehicles to review history and human story—and to explore the issues of the day.

Or, as writer friend Molly Gloss would say, of telling and retelling the same story—stranger comes to town to resolve some kind of dispute and save the schoolmarm or barroom floozy.

But the nature of the disputes is interesting. We watched “The Westerner,” in which Brennan plays Hanging Judge Roy Bean and Gary Cooper is the stranger who comes to town to resolve the dispute between cattlemen and sodbusters and ends up with the sodbuster’s daughter. What an interesting reminder that all of agriculture was not—and is not today—on the same side of an issue.

My thought is that, in time, Walter Brennan realized that sodbusters and cattlemen were all operating on land that had been lived on and with by Indians for millennia. “The Westerner” did not address the issue—not an Indian to be seen in that version of post Civil War Texas. It was years before “Little Big Man” and “Dances With Wolves” took Indians seriously…

but decades after Walter Brennan had become a Westerner, found the Wallowa Country, and named his motel The Indian Lodge.

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