Monday, September 12, 2016

It’s the Water

I’ve been following the protest in North Dakota over the pipeline, watching it swell with tribal people from across the country. The New York Times says that members from over 280 tribes are now involved. Some are coming in caravans, some by plane and foot, some Northwesterners made their final miles in large, brilliant canoes.

The Times profiled a few of the protesters. Thayliah Henry-Suppah, Paiute, of Oregon, wearing a traditional wing dress with ribbons and otter furs, said she kept this Indian proverb in mind: “Treat the earth well. It was not given to you by your parents. It was loaned to you by your children.” In her own words: “We’ve lived without money. We can live without oil, but no human being can live without water.”

Most of the Indians profiled by the Times spoke of water: “We say ‘mni wiconi’: Water is life,” said David Archambault II, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, the site and center of the protest over a pipeline designed to ship oil out of North Dakota, under the Missouri River. “We can’t put it at risk, not for just us, but everybody downstream.”

It’s easy in this lush Wallowa Valley to take water for granted, although murmurs from California exiles and smoke from miles-away forest fires are troubling. This gathering of Indian peoples should be just as troubling.

It has to do with an attitude that natural resources are basically inexhaustible, and that, even as we run out of one, another resource or another technology will rise to take its place. Indians are telling us that water is the fundamental resource, and that the beaver and salmon that were taken almost to extinction by the fur trade and Columbia River canneries in the 1800s were indicators of a fundamentally flawed economy.

Beaver had been exhausted in Europe when that business marched across the middle of North America from the 1600s into the nineteenth century. In a dispute over the “jointly occupied” Oregon Territory, the British set out to trap out all of the beaver in the Columbia watersheds, thinking that this would dissuade American trappers and immigrants from occupying it. Eventually, silk or some other commodity replaced beaver felt for hats, the crisis was averted, and Americans found other reasons to settle the Northwest.

In the first Alaskan oil rush, American whalers, who had depleted sperm whales in the Pacific Ocean, killed over 13,000 bowhead whales north of the Bearing Strait in just two decades in the mid 1800s. Needless to say, Inupiat culture, which had revolved around whaling for millennia, was severely damaged. Survivors are now rearranging lives around the twenty-first century oil business, adapting while trying to hold onto vestiges of sea culture threatened by oil spills and warming and rising oceans. It’s the water.

Our economy seems based on the consumption of whatever resource is readily available in the moment, trusting that science and capitalist good sense will discover and exploit the next resource. Good we found petroleum to replace whale oil, shale oil to replace crude, wind to replace steam and water generated electricity. And, eventually, we’ll mine the moon, asteroids, and distant planets.

The Indians bring us back, back to land and water. The Umatilla Natural Resource program has developed a presentation on “First Foods.” They argue that ancient longhouse ceremonies served foods in order of importance, and if we do the same we will be healthier and will live in a healtier environment. Clean water, of course, is first, and then salmon—think good spawning grounds, deer, roots, berries, etc.

Our Wallowa waters are the envy of many. And while local cattle ranchers argue that “there is no such thing as a bad rain,” and grass growers and ranchers measure the snowpack and gauge hay cutting and pasture moves against the year’s weather, most of us not making our living in agriculture and timber are blissfully unaware of local water dynamics. We like the look of snowcapped mountains and the rush of  rivers. We fish, or ski, snowmobile, hunt, run rivers, or sit on the beach at Wallowa Lake and enjoy the sun—and water.

A few people work to rectify twentieth century technology by putting meander back in rivers, cooling water and increasing spawning grounds. Some think about our dam—and how sockeye salmon who once flooded the Lake might be brought to it again. Immigrants from California and Central Oregon shake the dust off and water lawns and pastures. And Washington irrigators follow the dam condemnation and potential reconstruction thirstily—they’ll buy that extra water from us.

Indians from diverse cultures across the country camping in North Dakota remind us that water is not just a commodity to be bought and sold, but the fundamental principle of all life.

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Thursday, September 1, 2016

Indians—and many Mexicans—were here first

Only Louisiana Purchase & Alaska were larger additions
Earlier this week, a Library visitor talked about her “roots”: specifically about a grandmother who was Apache and Mexican. At this point her proud, and very non-Indian or Mexican looking husband chimed in: “Mexican from when Colorado was part of Mexico.”

I grew up, at least partially, in Southern California, close to the San Luis Rey Mission and the Pala Indian Reservation. In 2010, at my fiftieth high school, I learned that some of the Mexicans I went to school with were Indians, or of mixed Indian and Mexican ancestry. I learned too that at least one blonde, crew-cut haired white guy was an Indian too. When I said that I was surprised to learn that he was Indian, he said that he’d been told by family not to talk about it at the time, but that he had years of photos, regalia and artifacts, and the next time I was in California he’d show it all to me.

If you were Indian growing up in Southern California in the 1940s and 50s, it was easier to be Mexican—if you were dark skinned, or Anglo, if you could “pass” as white. My Monday visitor nodded her head as I told my story, although she did say that her grandmother quietly taught things about herbs and customs. She also said that the Mexican side of the family was firm about their pre-U.S. roots in what we now know as the American Southwest.

That’s a fascinating story. Her corner of Colorado was part of a large chunk of the United States ceded by Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. The machinations that went into this huge land takeover—present-day U.S. states of California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, about half of New Mexico, about a quarter of Colorado, and a small section of Wyoming—were complex, because the Republic of Texas and the US accession of Texas was also part of the mix.

Notice where Mexico is in 1846
US wanted border at 54-40
Britain wanted border at Columbia
So the Southwest joined the Northwestern US as areas where our government engaged with another government—Great Britain and the “joint occupancy” of the Oregon Country in the NW; the US and Mexico in the Southwest—in determining the future of land primarily and for millennia actually occupied by indigenous tribal people, Indians. And the two are tied together. President Polk, despite objections of more expansionist fellow Democrats, concluded the NW question with the 1846 Oregon
Treaty (at the 49th parallel, and not at “54 40 or fight”) as we were going to war with Mexico. The huge land accessions of Hidalgo—third largest in our history—came at war’s conclusion in 1848.

The Northwest is less complicated in one way; Indians were far and away the major occupants of the disputed lands in 1818, when Great Britain and the US agreed to joint occupancy (for 10 years, which became almost 30) and, in a sense threw the matter of ultimate jurisdiction into a race for white settlement.

The Indians were of course the earlier inhabitants of the Southwest as well, but Europeans, primarily of Spanish descent, were well into their takeover of the region in the 1840s. Mexicans—Mestizo descendants of Europeans and Indians—were the major occupants of the territory at cession in 1840. There were still Indian tribal people of course, and Indian raids on border settlements were part of the treaty talks—again another story!

I could find no firm population numbers, but did learn that the populations of California and Texas were small while New Mexico was a robust 40,000 in the 1820s. And I saw one estimate of 80,000 for the newly acquired territory in 1848, and a claim that 90 percent of them had chosen to stay in the new United States rather than relocate to what was left of Mexico. Throw in additional lands in New Mexico and Arizona gained peaceably through the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, and there must have been close to 100,000 Mexicans in the newly configured US on the eve of our Civil War.

Fast forward to now, and to intermarriages with Bracero workers who were recruited to the US during WW II, and others who came through various legal immigrant worker programs, and there are many Mexicans—millions certainly—who were “here” before most of the rest of us. (Most African-Americans too can claim older US roots, but that is a different story.)

Which makes ironic most nativist rants about sealing borders. This might be the bigger story: moving borders, as described in accompanying maps, did as much to determine the current makeup of the United States as has the long history of immigration legislation, legislation that has alternately encouraged and discouraged immigrants by country of origin, color and race with the economic needs and the political sentiments of the day.

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