Thursday, April 27, 2017

Osage--and Lucky to be Here


Where to start?

I just finished reading Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. I thought first about people I know—people of Osage blood—who are indeed “lucky to be here” in light of what happened in Osage County, Oklahoma in the first decades of the twentieth century.

And then “Osage Outrage” came to mind, as what started out as a novel-paced mystery became a litany of lies, deceit, greed, and cold-blooded murder. A novelist would not have left as many dangling unanswered questions, or so many people dead.

Finally, thoughts that could not be as easily captured in a few words came to mind: “It is a question in my mind,” said an Osage Tribal member prior to trial, “whether this jury is considering a murder case or not. The question for them to decide is whether a white man killing an Osage is murder—or merely cruelty to animals.”

“America’s original sin” came to mind. I remembered the first Europeans, Columbus’s crew, having to go to the Pope to decide whether new world people were indeed humans, possessed of souls, or some lower form of life. But three hundred years had passed from the time of the Papal Bull, which said that Indians did indeed have souls (and were thus capable of conversion), and the murders of scores—maybe hundreds—of Osage Indians in the pursuit of wealth. Were the killings mere evil deeds in pursuit of gold—or were they a continuing statement by White America that American Indians are lesser humans, or not humans at all?

I first heard bits of the story from the poet Elise Paschen, the daughter of prima ballerina Maria Tallchief. Tallchief was born in Oklahoma, the daughter of an Osage Indian father, and went from there to the world stage. Elise was at Fishtrap because she is a fine poet, and we were celebrating Indian writers that year. We called the celebration “Circling Back.” Elise read her poems, a couple of which hinted at the dark Osage past, and in conversation said that there was much more to learn and tell.

Sandy Osawa, the fine documentary filmmaker, who is Makah and was raised on that reservation in Washington, was at that Summer Fishtrap. Sandy produced an early morning NBC show on Indians in the mid-70s, and is now a highly regarded documentary filmmaker. Her credits include: In the Heart of Big Mountain, focusing on Navajo matriarch Kathrine Smith; Pepper’s Powwow, the story of Kaw-Muscogee jazz saxophonist Jim Pepper; and Lighting the Seventh Fire, a film about Chippewa spearfishing rights in Wisconsin.

Sandy and Elise became friends, and in 2007 Sandy released Maria Tallchief, which has been shown on PBS stations across the country.

The film mentions, but does not explore in depth, the Osage murders. In Killers of the Flower Moon, author David Grann does. It is a wicked story, beginning with government displacement of Indians, moving to oil discovery on the scrubby lands given the Osage, chronicling the extraordinary wealth of the Osage (the “wealthiest county in America,” for a time); exploring racial attitudes in Oklahoma and the country in the early 20th century, and then following the greed of a few white men—a trickle of evildoers that became a river of corruption and destruction. Reading it was a journey from interest through disbelief to disgust. I set it down sick to my stomach.

But the Osage survive. Maria Tallchief survived to give pleasure to millions as a dancer; her daughter Elise Paschen—we might call her a second generation Osage survivor—survives to give voice to Indian stories; and my friend Nancy Crenshaw, whose father was born on the Osage Reservation in the time of the murders, teaches the children of Wallowa County and, with her teacher son and a growing group of local community members, works with the Nez Perce towards reconciliation of white and Indian in their traditional Wallowa homeland.

Elise and Nancy are really “lucky to be here.” The woman or man murdered could have been grandfather or father rather than aunt, grandmother or mother rather than uncle. And we of course, are lucky too, richer—and not in oil or gold—for their survival.

# # #

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Indian Art is American Art

A recent piece in the New York Times described a large collection of “modern” and American Indian art being donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The headline is telling: “Native American Treasures Head to the Met, This Time as American Art.”

Alvin Josephy talking in my ear again: “Indians don’t have biography or history; they have anthropology and archeology.” To that we can add “art.”

Peter Rindisbacher Circa 1822
Alvin scoured the country for art by and related to Indians, finding, for the first Indian book he edited, The American Heritage Book of Indians, the earliest European depictions of Native Americans. He wrote a book about Peter Rindisbacher, the European artist who introduced the world to Plains Indians in the early 1800s with drawings and paintings that were taken back to Europe by Hudson’s Bay people, engraved and sold across the continent. In 500 Nations, Josephy easily mixed the art of John White, George Catlin, and other early Europeans who drew and painted Indians with ancient Mayan and Mississippian art objects and photos and artwork of contemporary Indians.

I digress. If we remember anything of “Indian Art” from schools and popular culture, it is probably the totems and masks of the Kwaikutl and related Pacific Northwest tribes. Or the basketry and clay of Indians from the Southwest. But, in our own minds, we—and certainly most American textbooks and museums—are more likely to consider it the stuff of religion and function, artifacts and everyday living tools, rather than art. As Randy Kennedy points out in the Times piece, it is most often found “in the galleries for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas.”

I wonder if Alvin and Betty ever met Charles and Valerie Diker, who are making the donation to the Met? According to Kennedy, they “live in an apartment brimful of Native American pieces and American modernist painting just a few blocks from the museum, the Met’s curatorial decision is nothing less than a groundbreaking affirmation of the way they have thought about their collection for more than 40 years.”

20th century New Mexican Tewa potters
Maria and Julian Martinez 
“We always felt that what we were collecting was American art,” Mr. Diker said in a recent interview with the couple in their apartment. “And we always felt very strongly that it should be shown in that context.”

What a revelation! Indians make art, and they have for thousands of years, and Indian art, like that of European cave painters, the Impressionists, and Pablo Picasso, is art. In this case, it falls into the stream of American Art collected by a couple who always saw it as such, and are allowing the most famous American art museum to make the case for it.

And here is the rest of the Diker story:
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/06/arts/design/native-american-treasures-head-to-the-met-this-time-as-american-art.html?emc=edit_th_20170407&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=66175474&_r=0

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Another Nez Perce book

Oregon Public Radio’s Dave Miller interviewed Daniel Sharfstein, author of the latest Nez Perce book, Thunder in the Mountains, yesterday on his “Think-Out-Loud” program. That came right on the heels of my reading David Osborne’s just released novel, The Coming, which is the Nez Perce story with William Clark’s Nez Perce son at its center.

Daytime Smoke, William Clark’s Nez Perce son
We know, by the way, that a Nez Perce woman bore Clark a son, Halaftooki (Daytime Smoke), and that he became a tribal elder who hoped his mixed heritage would insulate him from growing conflicts between Indians and white miners and settlers. When conflict broke out, however, he joined the non-treaties, and, as far as I know, died in captivity. Osborne’s book is a fine retelling of that story, with fictional characters and events scattered among the real ones to get Daytime Smoke from birth through the War.

But I digress. This new book, according to Miller’s interview with Sharfstein, follows the pre-Nez Perce career of O.O. Howard in the Civil War and as head of “The U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands,” popularly known as the “Freedmen's Bureau,” established in 1865 to assist freed slaves in the reconstruction era.  Follows him to Portland, describes lectures on the Civil War he gave there (a general’s retirement program), and then describes Joseph’s prewar meanderings among the Cayuse, Umatilla, and white settlers of the Grande Ronde Valley.

Examination of the Nez Perce—and especially of the Nez Perce War—is a small industry. My friend, Mike Andrews, who grew up in La Grande, has read a lot of it, and wonders what kind of patterns there are, and why the burst of new books NOW. William Vollman’s The Dying Grass, a 900 page novel with footnotes!, came out less than two years ago; Osborne’s book a couple of months ago; and T.J. Stiles, in Portland recently to talk about a new biography of Custer, announced that his next book is Joseph.

Mike asks why all the Nez Perce books; I think the more specific question might be why all the Chief Joseph books. Joseph was handsome at a time when photography was new; Joseph had a proper Christian name people could pronounce. The Nez Perce had kicked the army’s butt during the War, and as that could not have been accomplished by a bunch of ignorant heathens, Joseph must have been a military genius, the “Red Napoleon,” as the newspapers called him. And this last of the Indian wars was indeed reported by Eastern newspapers. As Joseph learned as his people were transported from Bismarck by train after surrender, the new telegraph had played a part in the War. His surrender speech and later eloquent speeches about his lost homeland, the white man’s forked tongues and rules, and requests for fair treatment, would be published, and he would be photographed.

Although early books called it Chief Joseph’s War, later books pointed out that Joseph was never a war chief—but Looking Glass and his brother Ollokot, who had been war chiefs, were dead at Bears Paw, White Bird crossed to Canada, and it was Joseph who surrendered.

And Joseph, the diplomat, who would lead his people in captivity for eight long years in the “hot country,” and, eventually, after meetings with Congress and Presidents, badgering of generals and politicians, and astute lobbying of the local and national Presbyterians, lead them back to the West.

As some one—or many—have said, history is often more about the time it is written in than the time it is written about. I would like to line up all of the Nez Perce books –455 titles now in our SAGE Library System—and see what patterns emerge.

More importantly, what histories might our times call for?

I’ve heard much about Joseph’s War, the Nez Perce War, Indian wars; it might be time to look at Indian diplomacy, at patience and endurance amidst chaos, at survival against all odds, at revival of culture and language in an electronic age, at purpose and will and heroism off the battlefield that have kept the Nez Perce, and Indian peoples across North America, alive.

# # #

Friday, April 7, 2017

So the President lied?

Which president, which time?

President Ulysses S. Grant
Indian trails of tears are littered with Presidential lies. We could pick almost any one, but why not take the hero of the Civil War and the man on the $50 bill. He had some interesting dealings with the Nez Perce, so I am somewhat familiar with President Grant’s “Peace Policy” and stated attempts to do better by Indians than had his predecessors.

The Nez Perce had signed a treaty with the nation in 1855 that left them much of their traditional homeland, including the Wallowa Country. In 1863, gold was found on that reservation in Idaho, so the government negotiated a new treaty, centered in Lapwai, Idaho, which reduced the size of the reservation by about 90 percent. Old Joseph and the chiefs of several other Nez Perce bands did not sign, and Joseph went back to the Wallowas, where no gold had been discovered, and where he was briefly left alone.

Grant was elected in 1868. The Wallowa Country, which had been surveyed with the 1863 treaty (during the Civil War!), got its first white settlers in 1871, about the time that Old Joseph died and his son became the band’s headman. The first settlers and Indian hosts tried to get along, though fences and seasonal migrations immediately brought conflict.

Encouraged by the Presbyterian Indian Agent John Montieth (the Peace Policy gave tribal administration to the churches), knowing that Joseph’s Band had not signed the 1863 treaty (and that no Wallowa gold had been found) President Grant proposed a new treaty in 1873, giving the Indians half of the Wallowas. The government went so far as appraising improvements on the way to buying out settlers.

It of course didn’t happen—the “Proposed Reservation for Roaming Nez Perce Indians in the Wallowa Valley of Oregon” died when Indians did not build picket fences and “settle down” on the land and new settlers came into the Valley. The end of that series of broken promises was the Nez Perce War of 1877.

But here’s a new one I just learned about Grant’s dealing with Indians. The article in the March issue of the Smithsonian Magazine is titled “Ulysses S. Grant Launched an Illegal War against the Plains Indians, Then Lied About It.” And here are a couple of pertinent quotes:

“He had no legal reason for seizing the Black Hills, so he invented one, convening a secret White House cabal to plan a war against the Lakotas. Four documents, held at the Library of Congress and the United States Military Academy Library, leave no doubt: The Grant administration launched an illegal war and then lied to Congress and the American people about it. The episode hasn’t been examined outside the specialty literature on the Plains wars…

“In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that the Lakotas were entitled to damages for the taking of their land. The sum, uncollected and accruing interest, now exceeds $1 billion. The Lakotas would rather have the Black Hills.”

And they would rather not have a pipeline either, but that is another series of lies. Here’s the link to the full story on Grant, the Sioux, and Custer:

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/ulysses-grant-launched-illegal-war-plains-indians-180960787/