Friday, March 17, 2017

It’s the Water!

Photo by Edward Sheriff Curtis of Nez Perce Dugout Canoe
A couple of summers ago Allen Pinkham Jr. was here at the Josephy Center teaching workshops. He did a few days of beading and a few making drums with a handful of people interested in the crafts and the Nez Perce Indians who had developed them. At the end of his stay, Allen told me that “We Nez Perce were canoe people you know. I’d like to come back here and carve a dugout canoe.”

That conversation sent me on a journey that landed enough grant funds to bring Allen back—in fact, he’s due in tonight with his father and with Bob Chenoweth from the Nez Perce National Historical Park in Spalding, Idaho. Bob’s made a study of historic Nez Perce canoes— there are only a handful in existence, and the park has four of them—and will do a program based on his research. Allen Sr. will chip in with stories of canoes and Nez Perce traditions.

Without stealing any of their thunder, I’ll say that that initial conversation with Allen and subsequent talks, reading, and thinking have me looking at regional history in different ways.  I asked Allen Sr. one time if you stopped someone in downtown Lewiston and asked him or her what two words they associated with Nez Perce, what would they say. “The War and horses,” we almost answered my question together.

Water was here before the horse (which the Nez Perce didn’t get until about 1730), and Indians were using canoes on rivers and lakes well after the advent of the horse. Think about it. Lewis and Clark traveled a good share of their miles by water—rafts on the Missouri; and the Nez Perce helped them build canoes that took them to the sea.  In the Journals, they note few horses and many canoes on the Columbia.

David Thompson and the fur traders would pack trade goods on boats and horses, moving from one to the other with the terrain, building new canoes, trading canoes for horses, and on and on.  Locally, it’s obvious that historically, traveling the length of Wallowa Lake would have been a lot easier by water than horseback.

On the other end of the scale, Dr. Loren Davis, an archeologist from Oregon State University, told a recent audience at Wallowology next door that the first immigrants to the Americas probably came by sea, bouncing along the Pacific Shore to the tip of South America. That, and not the land bridge (the times of newer finds are pushing that date back and taking their toll on land bridge theory) is how the Americas were populated as extensively and widely as we now know they were.

Stories go on. This week’s local paper heralds the return of coho salmon to the Lostine River and the Grande Ronde Basin. Similar efforts by Nez Perce Fisheries, and by the Yakima Nation and the Umatilla have reinforced or reintroduced salmon populations across the region. Aaron Penny, a Nez Perce Fisheries worker and tribal member, says that the losses of fish over the last 100 years were like “losing your soul.”

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation Natural Resources Department has a program called “first foods.” The tenant of the program is that if we take care of our foods in the way they are served in the longhouse, we’ll have a healthier environment and healthier bodies. And it all, of course, starts with water. Without clear, healthy water there are no salmon, and then no deer and the other four-leggeds and two leggeds that comprised traditional diet. And without clean and good rain there would be no strong roots and abundant huckleberries to finish the longhouse meal.

The biggest and most important water battle fought by tribes in the past 100 years was probably the fight on Northwest Rivers that led to the Boldt Decision and the determination that half the catch belonged to Indians. For their part, the Indians are restoring habitat and doing all they can with mitigation money to increase the size of that catch.

And simultaneously, from coastal tribes in Washington to these Nez Perce in their traditional Wallowa Homeland, Indians are building canoes again, reclaiming cultural heritage, showing the world that the water has always been and is still primal.

I’m tempted to go on, and tie it all to Standing Rock. But water is water everywhere, and you can do that.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Great White Father

The Dakota Access Pipeline says they have drilled under the water and have just a bit of work to do before oil begins to flow. Earth Justice has filed an appeal on behalf of the Standing Rock Sioux, and other tribes have filed other suits, but there is no word that the courts will step in and halt this threat to water and affront to Indian sovereignty.  

This after: years of deceptive practices by the oil companies in obtaining clearances for the pipeline; years after another route, one above the town of mostly-white Bismarck, was rejected; months after Obama’s executive order to halt construction and the Army Corps of Engineers’ agreement to do a full environmental impact study (rather than the cursory, expedited one they did in the first place) halted construction; and weeks after President Trump erased that effort with another Presidential executive order contravening the previous one and demanding a speed-up of the whole affair. And this drilling and flowing despite months of vigorous protest by water protectors from some 300 tribes across the Americas and allied environmental and veteran groups from across the nation.

Where have they all gone? The protectors? The veterans? The environmental action groups? The Press?

I am sure that many of the tribal people went home to confront like issues on their own reservations.  Home might be Oklahoma, where there is a Pawnee lawsuit against oil companies over the earthquakes that are disrupting their lives. The earthquakes that are conclusively tied to the fracking perpetrated by the oil companies. Some of the Indians maybe went home to Navajo land, where there are uranium tainted water troubles. Or to any number of other tribal places where water and fish and game are still important to tribal members.

And maybe the veterans, the environmental activists, and the press have gone on to other important causes not related to the Pawnee or other Indian tribes. Maybe they are busy with the women’s day protest this Wednesday. Maybe they are fighting the Republican answer to the Affordable Care Act. Or worrying about the new anti-EPA appointments in the EPA office.

But from my perch in the Josephy Library, with Alvin looking over my shoulder, and with a new novel of the Nez Perce and their tragic history my current reading, another idea comes to mind. It’s not an idea I like much, or one white Americans can be proud of, but Alvin’s words, and the Lewis and Clark scenes in David Osborne’s novel, The Coming, remind me that from the beginning and for generations, white America greeted tribes with a story of the Great White Father in Washington who had their best interests—as well as those of the missionaries, the settlers, the oil and uranium and coal companies—at heart.

Lewis and Clark brought Peace Medals, and encouraged the tribes to get along with each other and the white newcomers. The fur trade brought pots and pans, potatoes and trade cloth—and guns—and encouraged the tribes to trap and participate in the new economy. Missionaries brought seeds and plowshares, and The Book, with stories of sin and redemption, divine intervention in this world and burning or exalting in the next. (They of course brought their messages in different versions—Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, etc.—and, to the consternation of tribal peoples, fought over them.) Settlers and developers have brought “progress” always.

The way Alvin put it, a predominant white view of Indians from the beginning was that they were like children, and we—the white interveners—would, with education, religion, seeds and plows, grow them up to be like us. It strikes me on this gray day when Indians are losing their pipeline fight, and waging lonely fights to keep land, water, game, and fish in places across the country, attitudes haven’t changed much.

They—tribal peoples—are quaint and parochial, still needing education and training in the ways of the civilized world. We—the white majority and the leaders in politics, business, and environmental activism; the Governor of North Dakota and the Great White Father in Washington himself—know how the world works and what is best for All Americans.

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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Two World War II Heroes

Gwen Coffin with Senator Bob Packwood
February 19 marked the 75th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, authorizing the removal of any or all people from military areas “as deemed necessary or desirable.” The military then defined the entire West Coast, home to the majority of Americans of Japanese ancestry or citizenship, as a military area. And although race or ethnicity were not mentioned in the order, the Japanese-Americans on the West Coast—citizens or no—were targeted for removal.

In the middle of a “just war” against Fascism and Imperial Japanese expansion over peoples across the Pacific, Gwen Coffin, the editor of the Wallowa County Chieftain, rose to challenge President Roosevelt and Executive Order 9066. From his far outpost in Wallowa County he spoke to remind people of who we are and why we were fighting. It was a brave thing to do. I remember him saying once, with a chuckle, that the barber would not cut his hair; I am sure there were more serious threats.

In the troubled times in which we live, when religion and national origin are again topics of the day, and again related to real battles with real bullets, it is worth carefully reading Gwen Coffin’s courageous words of April 8, 1943:

“Much of the resentment on the West Coast toward the Japanese was not the outgrowth of the war but arose during peacetime as the Japanese achieved some success and prominence in their pursuit of agriculture and trade. Many employers preferred to see the Japanese remain in the ranks of the low paid wage earners. Others were resentful at the sight of Japanese prospering….

“It is foreign to our conceptions of democracy, however, to distinguish between peoples on the basis of color or nationality. There should be only one test for the right to share in the opportunities which this country provides, and that is the test of belief in our democratic ideals and government, and a willingness to work with other Americans to further those ideals and to support this government.”

This anniversary reminded me that we addressed WW II in 1994, at the seventh annual Summer Fishtrap Gathering at Wallowa Lake. My vivid memories of that July meeting involve three people: Jean Wakatsuki Houston, Richard White, and Alvin Josephy. Houston had grown up during the War in a Japanese Internment camp in California, and written a book about it, Farewell to Manzanar. Manzanar is most widely known as the site of one of ten camps in the United States of America to which over 110,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly moved and then held under Order 9066 during World War II.

And I remember historian Richard White telling us that the Japanese in America were not a threat—any with dangerous ties to the Japanese government were known to our government, and if Americans of Japanese ancestry were serious threats, those on Hawaii should also have been rounded up and incarcerated. They were not, because the Japanese there were crucial to the economy and our war effort.

The internment, White said, was done out of war hysteria for purposes of propaganda.

As it turned out of course, many Japanese-Americans served with great distinction in the European theater, no Japanese Americans were prosecuted for spying, and, in 1988, President Reagan apologized and awarded $20,000 to each of over 100,000 camp detainees still alive at the time.

Finally, I remember Alvin Josephy playing his recording of the Marine landing at Guam. Alvin, a Marine Corps Combat Correspondent, had walked the last quarter mile with a microphone covered by a condom against the seawater, tethered to the recording machine in the belly of a halftrack by a 40-foot cord. He said later that he became numb as he talked his way to shore, passing bodies of comrades—over 20 of the 32 on his boat were hit in that quarter mile. On the day in 1994, tears in his eyes as he and we listened to a recording of shouts and cries, gunfire and engine noise, he rose and said that “some of us felt guilty about coming home alive.”

He stepped down from the stage, where Jean Wakatsuki Houston stood to give him a hug, tears in her eyes too.

I replayed all of this in my mind as I listened to news reports on Sunday, February 19, the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. World War II was a dangerous juncture in our nation’s history. Thousands of Americans and millions of Germans, Russians, French, English, Japanese and others died in that War.

There were heroes in the War, as in any war. Alvin Josephy would not have called himself a hero, but in my mind he was, putting his own life on the line to write about his fellow Marines, and to remind them and the American public of how and what they were fighting for. Gwen Coffin was a hero too, reminding us of our better selves in a time when it was not easy or popular to do so.

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