Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The milpa: more to learn from Indians

The article in the New York Times last week about Oglala Lakota chef Sean Sherman was so good, so inspiring, that I just have to pass it on: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/17/dining/new-native-american-cuisine.html?emc=edit_th_20160817&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=66175474

I was born and lived my first ten years in Minnesota, so the talk of walleye, deer, and game birds, chokecherries and wild rice is all familiar. Not so the other wild greens and spices that Sherman has traced back to tribal usage and brings now to sophisticated tables.

What I know about American Indian cuisine is small—because the subject is so big. But the article reminded me that the role of Indian agriculture and the adoption of Indian foods worldwide are constantly overlooked. I know I have said this in other posts, but it is always worth repeating: over half of today’s world food crops started in the Americas! Where would Russia, Norway, and Ireland be without potatoes, Italy without tomatoes, Africa without cassava (manioc)? The Americas are huge, and the food gifts to the rest of the world are immense—think beans, squash, maize, sweet potato and more, which, in the decades after Columbus, changed the faces (and tastes) of Europe, Africa, and Asia. American Indians before the Europeans were not all hunter-gatherers, and most who hunted and gathered also farmed.

This piece on Indian cooking got me thinking in another direction too, the milpa. In 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles Mann describes “maize milpas” in Central America in which a dozen plants are grouped in a small field. A dozen plants that feed each others’ needs as they provide a balanced diet to their farmers. Some milpas have been productively “farmed” for 4,000 years!

Milpa four months after planting the maiz canopy shades
beans, squash, macal, amaranths and quiniopods and
much more. Credit: MacduffEverton.com
One of the earliest images of Indian North America which many of us learned as third or fourth graders mimicking the first Thanksgiving is of an Indian named Squanto hunched over a hole in the ground in which he is placing a fish in preparation for planting corn, beans, and squash. The fish will succor the plants, the corn will provide stalk for the beans to climb, and the squash will cover the ground and keep down weeds and enhance moisture for it all. Squanto was really Tisquantum, and the scene which we all saw was about indigenous American agriculture. There is no doubt in my mind that there were other useful plants in Tisquantum’s milpa—herbs and medicinals, plants the English probably saw as weeds.

The English and Spanish adapted the American plants, took many back to Europe, and planted them all in rows on both sides of the ocean. They ignored the milpa, and one can argue that the agricultural journey that they launched led to monocultures that eventually depends on hybrids and fierce amounts of chemical fertilizers while ignoring companion planting and even the related idea of crop rotation.

Jack Weatherford, in Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World, says that North Americans continued to plant corn in hills until the 1930s. Even without the entire milpa, Weatherford argues that moving away from hilling has increased soil erosion in the Mississippi River system dramatically.

Mann recognizes that the milpa might be impractical in today’s large-scale agriculture, but suggests we might learn a thing or two from “gardens” that have been around for thousands of years.

And, I’ll add, from chefs like Sean who are exploring the same cultural legacy.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Canoe People

A year ago, Allen Pinkham Jr. worked for a few weeks as an artist in residence at the Josephy Center. He beaded and made drums and taught workshops in beading and drum-making. At the end of his stay, Allen said that he’d enjoyed himself, and that he would like to come back—and he had an idea.  “We were canoe people. I’d like to come back and build a Nez Perce dugout canoe.” We’ve been working with Allen and aim to help him do that this year.

Nez Perce Canoe--photo by E.S. Curtis c. 1910
It turns out that there are only a handful of Nez Perce dugout canoes in existence. The Nez Perce National Historical Park has four of them, so I went and looked at them, and talked with Park curator Bob Chenowith, who has studied them and written about them.  And with help from the US Forest Service, Nez Perce National Historic Trail, we are on the road to helping Allen realize his dream. Excuse me, the “water.”

In the course of this year, thinking about the history and cultures of tribes and reading about Indian canoes, I’ve had another historical aha moment. Allen’s right. The Nez Perce and many other Plateau tribes, other tribes of the inland Northwest, and coastal tribes as well, were canoe people. Because we live in a world of wheels and wings, automobiles, planes, roads, railroads, and airfields, it is another thing about Indian Country that most of us have to work at to understand. As Chenowith points out, we are so used to seeing the world from the road, we have a hard time imagining it from the river.

So the “aha” involves recognizing the obvious: the Northwest is ribboned by river systems, primarily the Fraser and the Columbia with their huge networks of tributaries. For the Nez Perce, it was the Snake and Clearwater and Columbia. Commerce and trade traditionally took place on riverbanks; Celilo was a physical and spiritual meeting place for peoples from the far north, coastal tribes, and inlanders to the Rocky Mountains; the diets of these river peoples were salmon and lamprey, whitefish, sturgeon, and other river offerings. Coastal tribes fished and hunted whales—in canoes!

And the first white people depended on rivers and canoes as well. The Lewis and Clark journey was mostly by water—although the Corps of Discovery was staffed with men used to traveling on water and making their craft, the Nez Perce probably helped them build five canoes that took them to Celilo. Canoes propelled the fur trade in the 18th century, and botanist David Douglas was canoed up the Columbia and the Willamette in the 1820s.

Even after the horse, which the Plateau people gained about 1730, Indian people of the inland Northwest, “Salmon People,” were still tethered to rivers. The Nez Perce no longer had to backpack to buffalo country (evidence is that they did so prior to the horse), and horses became huge items of trade and prestige, but there were still canoes. Lewis and Clark saw hundreds on the Columbia, and Clark says “I saw few hourses they appeared make but little use of those animals principally using Canoes for their uses of procuring food etc.

Of course the Nez Perce were proficient with horses. In 1855, Looking Glass came to the Walla Walla treaty grounds horseback from the buffalo country. Looking at Sohon’s drawing of their dramatic entry, one can imagine Stevens trembling a bit, and helping him to decide that the Nez Perce would get their own reservation rather than one shared with other peoples.

And if you ask people who know a little bit about Indians how they think of the Nez Perce, horses is usually one of the things that comes up. Right up to current  controversies over the origin of the Appaloosa horse.

Nevertheless, Allen’s question has changed my own thinking, and having him build a canoe here, in some proximity to the Josephy Center and nearby Nez Perce Fisheries, should help us all understand more of how life was lived for thousands of years before it was interrupted by horses, European diseases, missionaries, white settlement, dams, roads, railroads, and airfields.

And remind us that the salmon and the Nez Perce, in spite of all kinds of such disruptions, are with us still.

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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Nez Perce Return

Few Indians live in the Wallowa Country now, but Indians come here every year—maybe, even through war and exile, some few have always made their ways here to hunt and gather foods and be in this place. Now, they come to run Nez Perce Fisheries, to manage a small piece of Precious Land in the canyons, and in the summer for dances and parades. And there is a 320-acre place we call the Nez Perce Homeland Project near the town of Wallowa.

Tamkaliks, Nez Perce Homeland, 2016
Last Sunday, Nez Perce peoples from Colville, Umatilla, and Lapwai—Washington, Oregon, and Idaho—drummed, sang, and danced in the new Long House at that Nez Perce Homeland grounds. Most were descendants of the Joseph, or Wallowa, band of Nez Perce who made this country home for thousands of years before being forcibly removed in 1877.

The drumming and singing seemed louder and the dancing more spirited than I remember from past years, when services were held in the dance arbor; some of that heightening might have been my own emotions. There were smiles and tears among the bell ringers, drummer-singers, and dancers. Words too. Words of homecoming and thanks to the Creator and to all who have gone before and all who came together to build this Long House and make this homecoming possible.

I stood with Indian and non-Indian men on the north side of the Long House, facing the women on the south side with the sacred earthen floor, the wash, on which the dancers moved between us. Dancers were boys and girls, women and men, young and old; the drummers all men, included elders and sons of elders I have watched and listened to in the past.

Indians honor age and wisdom in ways that we in the majority culture seem less capable of. They mentor the young as well, passing on names and ceremony and regalia. Restrictions on these things, and on language and the length of hair, were pervasive a century ago; that these cultural artifacts and practices are alive today is a miracle.

No—it is fortitude and resilience, belief in land and place and people. When Europeans came to this continent, Indians died by the millions. They died in wars, but more of them of diseases that crept eerily among them before most Indians ever saw white men and women. In the northeast, diseases came ashore with fishermen who supplemented their fish-takes with furs and sometimes slaves for the old world. This before the Puritans landed in the early 17th century. On the north Pacific coast they came ashore with English and Russian and Spanish ships seeking otter and looking for rivers from the interior in the late 18th century. Inland, they preceded and followed free fur traders and Hudson’s Bay Company men as they made their ways from the East.

Lewis and Clark estimated 5,000 Nez Perce; an Indian friend thinks there might have been 20,000 before smallpox and measles and other European diseases.

Pieces of the Nez Perce story are carried from generation to generation in Indian country, and are told in books and carried too among whites. Last week a Marine pilot—announced by his cap—of Vietnam era told me that Marines still study the Nez Perce fighting retreat of 1877.

The story is carried in the hearts of tribal families whose ancestors endured exile and injustice. In 1877 these prayer songs sustained families struggling through the 1,400 mile-long retreat that we call the Nez Perce War, then bolstered them on the trains headed to Oklahoma after the surrender at Bears Paw and through years of exile, and carried them on the return train trip to the Northwest in 1884.

In order to bring us to Sunday, here is the briefest recap: Nez Perce (Niimíipu) and related Plateau people of what is now the Northwestern United States lived here for millennia. In the 1730s they got horses from the Southwest, probably through the Shoshone. In 1805 they befriended Lewis and Clark; in the 1830s allowed missionaries Henry and Eliza Spalding to put up a church in what is now Spalding, Idaho. In 1855 most bands of Nez Perce signed a treaty in Walla Walla negotiated by Isaac Stevens, allowing them to retain a huge chunk of territory stretching from present-day Wallowa County, Oregon to northern Idaho and northeast Washington.

In 1861 gold was discovered along the Clearwater, and in 1862, 18,000 illegal white miners flooded the reserved lands. In 1863 some bands signed a new treaty, which reduced the reservation by over 80 percent. This divided the Nez Perce into treaty and non-treaty bands. Joseph didn’t sign, but went home to the Wallowas, where no gold had been found. In 1877, crunched and dislocated by post-Civil War settlers, harassed by government troops smarting from Little Big Horn, Joseph and his people crossed the Snake River and headed for the reduced reservation in Idaho.

There were killings, and there was a war. Almost 1400 miles and six months later, Joseph surrendered, just 40 miles short of Canada at the Bears Paw, Montana. They were promised a return to the Northwest, but spent seven years in exile in Kansas and Indian Territory. The Nez Perce called it “the hot place.”

The Nez Perce did return to the Northwest, but were scattered on three reservations: those close to Joseph were sent to the Colville Reservation in Washington; some of the old and young were allowed to go to Lapwai, Idaho. Some who had escaped to Canada or elsewhere returned to the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon. Joseph himself was rebuffed when he tried to buy land in the Wallowas in 1900. He died in Colville in 1904.

On Sunday the Nez Perce returned to the Wallowas with singing and dancing and Nez Perce prayers. They shouted and banged, and after all of this they thanked the white people of this place who are trying to take care of the land now. And the Indian elders invited ministers of other faiths to use the new Indian church for their own prayers.

And then we all ate salmon and buffalo and elk. And we non-Indians watched the Indian dancers, and, invited, danced ourselves. They were proud in regalia passed down, maybe since the time of War, maybe hidden for decades, and maybe augmented by aunties last week.  Proud in the language long suppressed in boarding schools. And all of us—maybe 600 Indians, whites and blacks—listened and looked out the east ends of the Long House and the dance arbor and knew this was a homecoming of special people to a special land.

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For photos and words from Bobbie Conner and the Sunday, July 24 Longhouse celebration, go to my share on Facebook: 
https://www.facebook.com/rich.wandschneider.1?fref=ts