Sunday, January 29, 2017


The election and the first days of a new and controversial Presidency have captured the news and national attention. For the most part, Standing Rock has slipped to back pages and Indian media websites, even as President Trump tweets and signs executive orders demanding a speedy resumption of pipeline building. The sheer number of tweets and executive orders helps obscure this news.

Water problems on one reservation and a lawsuit over education on another creep into the news, but, for the most part, Indians and tribal concerns are background noise once again, caught occasionally by a local press, or by an environmental media newly awakened to Indian allies, covered regularly only in Native news outlets.

But, I would argue, now is exactly the time we should be looking at and to tribes for guidance in dealing with current social, environmental, and political issues: Indians have the kind of history and standing that might instruct us now—while reminding us of past errors in their regards; it is becoming increasingly obvious that Indian environmental and legal concerns are concerns for all Americans; and, more than anything, Indians can remind us of and teach us about resilience.

Indians were here first, here to meet the boats from Spain, England, Holland, Portugal, Italy… Indians were then decimated by European diseases to which they had little resistance, enslaved, killed in wars over land, “removed” by Andrew Jackson, restricted to reservations, coaxed into assimilation by the Dawes Allotment Act, boarding schools, the Termination Act, and an urban relocation program.

But they have survived and, incredibly, retained tribal cultures and values.

And, they have survived from coast to coast and border to boarder, even made hay of their mistreatment in boarding schools by meeting one another, learning from one another, and emerging now, in 2016 and 2017 to stand together at Standing Rock.

After decades of Indian concerns over water, fish, and other natural resources, often in the face of majority opposition (see the “great fish wars” in the Northwest prior to the Boldt Decision), the environmental community is acknowledging Indians and the Indian stance in the natural world rather than over the rest of it. After water contamination in Flint, Michigan, Portland, Oregon and dozens of other places, we—majority culture environmentalists—see that clean water is precious and fundamental in North Dakota and everywhere.

And, as Standing Rock illustrates, Indians can teach us to bridge the rural-urban divide. In the 1950s, in the Eisenhower era, a last gasp at assimilation called termination policy aimed to erase the reservation system, Trust responsibilities, and the whole doctrine of Tribal Sovereignty. As an accompaniment—Indians were to join the main stream in America—thousands of young Indians were loaded on buses and moved to urban outposts across the country.  As a result, the Federal government and State and corporate interests terminated the Klamath and scores of Oregon tribes, and built the Garrison Dam on the Missouri River, coal fire plants in the Southwest, and the Kinzua Dam on Seneca land.

However, by standing their ground and established legal doctrine, Indians beat back termination—President Nixon famously said that “there will be no further termination of Indian tribes, but self-determination for Indians.”

Even then, Indians learned from their misfortune, met people from other tribes, studied at universities, learned to have a foot in two worlds. And now they are still in urban areas, at colleges and universities on reservations and off, and have trained their own as lawyers and battled in courts over land, water, and sovereignty. They have also retained family and tribal links, and move back and forth between city work and rural tribal work. They are trained in fisheries and wildlife management, business and gaming, and move from government to non-profit to tribal to private fluidly.

They run huge gaming and entertainment enterprises, and assist tribal programs and local non-tribal educational, cultural, and government programs with their winnings. (The Wildhorse Foundation on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation has given millions across northeast Oregon.)

Indians are everywhere, and more often than not they are on the side of the angels. As my old mentor, Alvin Josephy often said, “Indians are still capable of ‘group think,’ of thinking beyond the self and immediate family for the good of all.”

So now, in these troubled times, it is up to us, the majority white culture and African-American and Latino and Asian-American groups, to find them, support them, and learn from them. They know these roads. They know resilience.

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Monday, January 9, 2017

Cold winter and climate change

I’ve not gone back to look at past winter temperatures and snowfall statistics on Wallowa County, but I know the 40 degrees on the outside thermometer as I write this, and the wind doing the warming, are breaking a month-long cold chill.

“This is the coldest it’s been and the most snow we’ve had in my 20 years living here,” says a friend. And “where is that climate change?” someone asks at the post office. The change deniers like this as much as they don’t like the cold—though I don’t really hear much about that from locals, who are busy dealing with the weather given them, figuring out how to stretch the hay, keep the driveway open, or get to a scheduled airplane departure or pick-up in Boise, Walla Walla, or Lewiston.

I remember 40 years ago learning that some sort of wet cycle had given hope to homesteaders on the County’s north end at the turn of the last century. Then wells went dry and the lucky ones with water bought out their neighbors and consolidated land and water. I heard about 7 year cycles, 30 year cycles, and even 100 year cycles, but nothing about a changing climate.

Polar bear talk and sinking island nations have caught my attention over recent years, but it was only after I started poking around early American history, reading Josephy and Charles Mann and wondering what really drove the first immigrants across the oceans in the early days of European settlement that I began to wonder about climate. What about that Little Ice Age? I thought, and then read about cold and hungry European parents taking their teenage children to the docks, handing them over to a ship’s captain who promised to get them across the sea and into the hands of a wealthy somebody who would indenture them for 3 or 5 or 7 years and then allow them freedom and a chance to feed and clothe themselves and make their own ways in the New World.

I told Al Josephy I needed to know more about the Little Ice Age, and he said that he had had a professor at UC Santa Barbara named Brian Fagan who had written a book about it. Oh—“and dad had him write some stuff for American Heritage in the ‘70s I think.” Then, on a trip to Portland and Powell’s, I found The Great Warming, a book Fagan had written about the period from about 800 to about 1300, which preceded the Little Ice Age, which runs from about 1300 to 1850. I’d start there.

I learned that over half of the pre-American Revolution European immigrants were indentured, fleeing failed crops and cold poverty in the old countries smack in the middle of the Little Ice Age.  And when I looked in an old “Western Civ” textbook that I used in 1962, the Little Ice Age didn’t show up, nor did its predecessor, the Great Warming and the rapid increase in population that accompanied it. Even The Plague, which wiped out maybe half of the European population in the mid-fourteenth century, just as the warming slowed, got only brief mention. History was about kings and queens, religions, writs, constitutions and forms of government, wars and great men, not about changing climate and diseases.

Fagan first tells us that the causes of ancient climate change—which remain contributors to current warming—are difficult to measure. Ocean currents—now named—and sun activity are involved, but just how is still being explored (“El Nino” was not even in the vocabulary as I grew up on the California coast!). He then recounts the Nordic exploration and settlement in Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland; the growing of wine grapes in England and wheat in Norway, and the development of the moldboard plow to turn over new agricultural ground. In Europe, the results of warming seemed sanguine.

But in the Western Hemisphere and in Africa the results were dramatically different. Drought was in fact the largest factor in die-offs of large segments of live oaks and Pacific populations, and in the collapse of Mayan city-states, where sophisticated irrigation systems could not cope.

Fagan’s most striking finding in this warming exploration was its erratic nature: temperatures did not increase in a straight line, but bounced upward relentlessly; rains didn’t come for years, and then came in torrents. The hallmark of climate in that period in the earth’s history—the roughly 500 years beginning about 800—was its erratic, in the short term unpredictable, nature.

So this winter’s snows and cold might—or might not—signal next winter’s warmth and rain. But read Brian Fagan’s The Great Warming for some understanding.

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