Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Race in America

I don’t know where I first heard or read that history books are often more about the time they are written in than the time they are written about. Several new books on Indians, and specifically the Nez Perce, support the idea.

O.O. Howard and Chief Joseph
I’m only 80 pages into the Vanderbilt professor Daniel Sharfstein’s just published Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard and the Nez Perce War. The first pages take us from the Civil War to Howard’s tenure as head of the Freedmen’s Bureau and responsibilities for the care of four million freed slaves. An early agonizing account follows General Howard, newly appointed head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, as he is dispatched to South Carolina by President Andrew Johnson; his task is to tell freed slaves who had been given “forty acres and a mule” by General Sherman that they must return the land to their former masters. This is a book about Reconstruction and race in America.

I’ll not argue about the horse and cart, whether a renewed interest in race helped propel Trump and his people into office, or whether Trump and his followers’ statements on race—and the opposition to them—have become the national conversation.  “Black Lives Matter” preceded this election cycle, and my thought is that the topic—race—has been welling for some time, that it emerged pronouncedly in the campaign, and that the authors and books dealing with race, which have always been there in some measure, are now moving through publishing channels at a fevered pitch.

Slavery and the Civil War have always been the starting points for discussion of race in America. What is different is that American Indians are now part of the discussion. General Howard of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Nez Perce War is a natural vehicle for Indians’ entry into the race conversation.

But his is not the only story that brings Indians into the discussion of race in America. Another recent book, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, by Andrés Reséndez, reminds us that Columbus sent Indian slaves back to Europe, and that enslavement of American Indians was practiced on a grand scale across the continents.

Benjamin Madley’s An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 recounts the decimation and brutality carried out against the Indians of California. And in In the Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, historian Peter Cozzens, who has written much on the Civil War and on Western tribes, ties the stories together.

The Nez Perce story has been used to tell stories of military competence—and incompetence, of Westward expansion and the inevitable white progress across the continent that begins with Lewis and Clark. It has revealed stories of heroism, and of government betrayal, eloquent speech and the storybook endings of former foes in battle talking in comfort and mutual admiration in their retirements. It’s as though generals Howard and Gibbons sought opportunity to sit with Chief Joseph and, somehow, make things right. (The looks on Joseph’s tired face tell you that they are not.)

Now the Nez Perce Story becomes part of the conversation about America’s racial struggles.

David Osborne’s The Coming follows the Nez Perce story through the life of Daytime Smoke, William Clark’s Nez Perce son. Daytime Smoke is a true character that we know little about—he probably died in captivity after the War—but Osborne uses the story to talk about a failure of Indian-White relations with tragic consequences.

I’ve not made it through William Vollmann’s The Dying Grass, a 1300 page volume of historical fiction with footnotes, but know that it is the fourth or fifth volume in a projected series of seven—Seven Dreams—focused on the European conquest of America.  

In other words, expect more. And, as a friend with academic creds told me, “it’s about time that Indians become part of this conversation.”

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Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Bears Ears, Standing Rock, Indians and the Press

Well-known Utah writer Terry Tempest Williams wonders in a recent New York Times piece about the Trump administration’s executive orders and National Monuments. “Will Bears Ears Be the Next Standing Rock?” she asks.

Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition
Terry’s piece ran a couple of days ago. Two friends, one local and one in California, wanted to be sure that I saw it. I did.

My first thought was… good for Terry. She has the national reputation and the local knowledge to get the NYT to listen—and maybe to shake a few boots in Congress (this is not her first run at that noble body).  But…

my second cynical thought was that the Indian voices she raises will soon be drowned out. In the normal course of events, Indian stories and claims, even stories explosive or important enough to get immediate national press attention, move quickly to the back pages (if that even works as a metaphor anymore), and then out of everyday consciousness altogether.

More importantly, this series of front to back to nothing has repeated itself endlessly in the course of American history, so the sad legacy that precedes today’s story gets little attention. Maybe we in the majority do not want to see that history, or we have seen enough and think “not again” and go on to other thoughts.

For example: Never, with all the hoopla at Standing Rock—which made national news on and off for months—did I see analysis of the entire string of events going back to the Laramie Treaties of 1851 and 1868 and through the endless and most often futile-for-the-Indians historic interactions between Indians and the numerous federal agencies that led up to the crisis.

Reporters and politicians should have been required to read “Coyote Warrior,” Paul VanDevelder’s 2004 book about the government takeover of Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara homelands upstream from Standing Rock on the Missouri River. Rick Bass called it “Intense, heroic, patriotic... uplifting, wise, and instructive.” John Nichols said “compassionate and important.” Vine DeLoria Jr. said “this book captures the modern struggle for Indian rights.” But 2004 is a long time ago, the Mandan and Missouri a long way—well, a few hundred miles—from Utah and Bears Ears.

About Bears Ears, Terry Williams says that “After seven years of organizing, the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition — made up of the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni Nations — played a key role in securing the protection of 1.35 million acres surrounding Bears Ears from development and resource extraction just before President Obama left office.”

So here again—in Utah—we have Indians dealing with the federal government for decades over sacred ground. When the Obama administration does something—designates land already in federal hands as a National Monument—there is immediate reaction by oil and mineral interests, and the “locals” who see their way of life upended by more tourists or fewer tourists or whatever— upended by putting Indian claims ahead of their own. My cynical take is that no matter what the outcome, the Indian story surrounding Bears Ears will move to the back pages quickly.  We will get the story quietly from the oil and mineral interests if they win, more vocally from the Sierra Club and environmental interests if the Monument designation stays.  Patient tribes will adapt—as they have for centuries, hoping for eventual vindication from the American public and the law.

We can and I do hope that with the good work of Terry Tempest Williams and others, Utah tribes will get their sacred lands secured before they are desecrated or flooded.  That they won’t have to wait for the flood and 40 years for legal and financial compensation as did the Mandans and Arikaras and Hidatsas; that they won’t get rolled over by Presidential politics as did the Sioux at Standing Rock.

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https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/06/opinion/sunday/will-bears-ears-be-the-next-standing-rock.html?emc=eta1&_r=0