Friday, June 23, 2017

Indians, African Americans, and the Persistence of Racism in America

I think a lot about the Euro-American treatment of Indians. It’s impossibly complex—from the “noble savage” to the “savage savage”; from the Mohawk chiefs paraded before painters and courts in England, named “King Philip” and “Prince Hendrik,” to Squanto, captured off the Atlantic coast and sent to Europe as a slave; from conquest by war and by meticulous—and quickly broken—treaty making to reservations and boarding schools; from admiration to forced assimilation through missionaries and schools forbidding of religion, dress, language, and even hair style. As Alvin Josephy said, prior to the Indian Freedom of Religion Act of 1978, what Indians in the United States had was not religion, but “mumbo jumbo.” That is 19 and 78!

Euro-American treatment of African-Americans is often lumped together with the treatment of Indians. Even by sympathizers. Josephy said that liberals who had worked hard during the Civil Rights campaigns of the 60s sometimes offered to help Indians secure civil rights—and the Indians often told them that they were not as interested in civil rights as they were in their treaty rights.

For all its complexities, and for the complexities wrapped around the Euro-American enslavement of African-Americans (Indians were enslaved by the Europeans prior to importation of Africans, but this “other slavery” is a story too big to address here), the routine discrimination and occasional brutal racism against Indians and African-Americans shares much. Today brought two reminders. One, a quote from Sherman Alexie talking about his new memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me:

“So my mother and her mother, in being raped physically, were also raped spiritually. They had salmon taken away from them by the Grand Coulee Dam. They had their entire history shrunk by being placed on a reservation. And despite all that, their love shone through despite all that. I'm here. My siblings are here. And we're pretty good people.”

The other, from a NYT op-ed piece by Lonnie G. Bunch III, the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture:

“The person who recently left a noose at the National Museum of African American History and Culture clearly intended to intimidate, by deploying one of the most feared symbols in American racial history. Instead, the vandal unintentionally offered a contemporary reminder of one theme of the black experience in America: We continue to believe in the potential of a country that has not always believed in us, and we do this against incredible odds.”

I think that what all Americans can continue to learn from African Americans and Indian Americans is resiliency in the face of discrimination. And, in these times, when overt racism is loose again, it is important that all Americans acknowledge this history of racism and discrimination, from the slave sales of Jamestown to today’s nooses in Washington D.C.; from the treaty breaking at Standing Rock in the 1800s to the disregard for treaty and water rights at Standing Rock today.

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Monday, June 19, 2017

Baby Boxes and Cradleboards

We have a beautiful new Nez Perce cradleboard in our current exhibit, and two historical photos of children in cradleboards. Tomorrow’s noon Brown Bag talk will have Cece Whitewolf talking about cradleboards.

All the talk and the pictures sent me in two directions: first, remembering a recent NPR story on cardboard “baby boxes” as a safe way to raise children; and secondly, my 1965 discovery as a new Peace Corps Volunteer in a Turkish village that babies there were still “wrapped in swaddling clothes.”

Seventy-five years ago Finland was suffering from a very high infant death rate—65 of 1000 births. The government developed a program of information and tools to give to new moms to attack the problem. A small cardboard box with a firm mattress, basic baby clothing, nail scissors, bath thermometer, etc. was given to all poor families. The box itself served as baby’s first bed. A few years later, the program was extended to all Finnish families, and the results have been dramatic. Infant SID deaths dropped dramatically—Finland now has one of the lowest rates in the world; moms loved the feeling of safety, and children loved the security.

(check out Finnish baby boxes)

I heard the news on National Public Radio, where I learned that the State of New Jersey and some cites are giving out baby boxes, and that private companies are picking up the Finnish idea and running with it. You can buy one for about $70 shipped to your door.

Looking at the well-crafted doeskin cradleboard in our exhibit, one American mom couldn’t help a smile and “of course!” How safe a baby—and a mom—must feel, and, with the cradleboard, you can—and Indian moms have always—propped the baby up so that he or she can watch you at work and see whatever else is going on.

Which reminded me of the Turkish babies I had seen wrapped tightly in swaddling clothes, packed easily from one mother task to another, propped up in the field or the kitchen to watch mom work.

So—looking again at the real cradleboard and the cardboard baby box pictures online, I applaud the cities and states that are adopting the Finnish model. Something must be done to curb the high numbers—3500 annually—of babies who succumb to SID in America. But I wonder when US states and cities will look further back, to cradleboards and swaddling clothes, to make for happier children and moms, and further improve our dismal SID statistics.

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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Josephy Library at the Josephy Center

Many of you in this blog-land get other information about the Josephy Center and our programs through newsletters, press releases and letters—including fundraising letters. Thanks to those of you who have made donations, attended exhibits and workshops, and brought children to Josephy Center classes. Thanks to all of you who read the blog posts—and sometimes even comment on them.

What follows is a brief account of what the Josephy Library does beyond the blog—and a specific appeal for Library support.

First and most importantly, we live the legacy of Alvin Josephy. Every day we tell people that American Indians are still with us; that Indians have always been agents and actors, and not wooden standbys in American History; that the history re Indians we’ve been fed in school texts is incomplete at best and often wrong; that Indian treaty rights are real and legal; and that Indians continue to contribute to the common good with activism and hard work, especially in the fields of natural resources, but increasingly in healthcare, politics, and other fields.

Blog posts are a small part of these messages. At the Josephy Center we bring in Indian artists and historians—a current exhibit uses historic photos from the Nez Perce National Park and the University of Idaho to imagine the Indian past. Some of it will be used in a small permanent exhibit aimed at showing visitors, local school children and citizens “who lived here and how they lived.” Brown Bag lunches next week will feature Nez Perce Fisheries on Lamprey restoration, and Cece Whitewolf on the cradleboard. A college intern has just begun bibliographic work on Nez Perce materials—why does that story resonate in book after book published today?

And then the Big Dream Project—we’ve passed the first round in a grant competition—to invite a Plateau Indian artist to create a three-dimensional work on our property or the adjoining street with his or her vision of what we should know about this place. It is weird at best that the large, bronze statue of Chief Joseph on Main Street in Joseph was created by a white artist from another place imagining a Nez Perce Indian in this place. It seems to us that some corrective is needed.

Friends told me before this Josephy Library became a reality that “libraries don’t make money.” That is painfully true—but it is also true that libraries promote knowledge and understanding, that we help ignite interest and passion in young people and nurture professional writers and lay readers in their work and avocations.

Our Library budget is roughly $50,000 of a $290,000 budget. We get some grants, but bibliographies and talking Western and Indian history to visitors from Idaho and Israel isn’t grant-flashy, isn’t a “new” program every year (although it is new conversations every day).

About 400 of you get notices of these blog posts. If half of you could find $20 or $30 to further our work; if those of you who make it to the occasional Brown Bag could drop in a $10 bill in the offering plate; if a dozen of you came to the Center for a basketry or beading workshop this month; and if a few of you who share these passions could send us $500 or $1,000—if, if, if… we might raise half of that $50,000 and make the grant writing and overall fundraising for the Josephy Center a walk on a new Main Street with Indian artists helping to tell the story of Indians, salmon, game, agriculture and culture in this wonderful Wallowa place some of us are privileged to call home.

To make a donation now, go to https://josephy.org/support-the-josephy-center-for-arts-and-culture/

Monday, June 5, 2017

Misunderstanding Indians

Alvin Josephy with Allen Pinkham Sr. at Betty’s Memorial
In a talk at the Josephy Center on Saturday night, Nez Perce elder Allen Pinkham Sr. said that non-Indians have never understood that Indians, even while succumbing to Euro-American diseases, arms, numbers, and policies aimed at their cultural destruction, continually borrowed from and adapted to European science and culture. His examples included learning to use horses, cattle, guns, iron, and words on paper.

He had a different take on missionary zeal and the supposed longing for “The Book” that is cited in most histories of Indian-white relations in the West. Indians were sent to Hudson Bay’s school in Red River, Canada, and a group of four was sent to St. Lewis to find William Clark in search of information about writing and books, not “The Book." But Europeans interpreted all as a thirst for knowledge of their—Christian—religion. What we wanted, Allen’s father had told him, were the “tools,” the way to make words on paper to pass on and extend the store of tribal and human knowledge.

Pinkham said that Indian veterans coming home from World War 2 reignited an interest in treaty rights and traditional culture. Although language, traditional dress, culture, and agricultural habits had been suppressed for decades, they had survived, and it was often the veterans who said, “wait a minute,” we too deserve to speak our traditional languages, practice our traditional religions, and observe practices guaranteed us by our treaties.

Of course those Indian veterans ran into a centuries-old buzz saw of policies, laws, favoritism—and misunderstandings—that had brought European miners, buffalo hunters, railroad builders, missionaries, and settlers into their lands.

Indians have of course been caught in one misunderstanding after another since the day that Columbus and his crew declared them “Indians.” They’ve been mythologized as “noble savages” by European romantics upset with the forces of enlightenment. And called “savages” for the early defense of their lands. Indian agriculture too was misunderstood—although the Europeans quickly adapted corn, squash, beans, and other American crops, the Europeans didn’t understand the companion planting of corn, squash and beans (remember Squanto!) and eventually put everything in neat rows, forgetting the herbs and medicinal plants that were scattered in Northeast Indian gardens

Tribes in our area that hunted, fished, and gathered in seasonal patterns were accused of misusing land because they didn’t plow it and plant it and live on a single piece of it year-around. The Indian pattern was to leave enough roots and berry plants to ensure the next year’s harvest, and put the first salmon back in the river so he could tell his relatives to keep making their runs.

The whole notion of individual land ownership brought from Europe was antithetical to most Indian forms of land usage and tenure, and probably, as the whites moved west, the most crucial misunderstanding of all.

World War 2 veterans had seen other parts of the US and the world, were literate and capable of measuring their own lives—the boarding schools and the takeaways of languages and cultures—against those of other Americans. It’s been a long hard slog, and there is a long way to go, but Allen Pinkham was generally optimistic on Saturday night. “We’re teaching Nez Perce in the schools, from elementary to college classes,” and, of course, they are practicing traditional religion.

And adapting some of their traditional practices—Allen said that beading and basket-making, traditional women’s activities, are now done by men and women, and that women are now drumming and singing the ancient songs.

And he hinted that we—the huge non-Indian population, might be paying some attention to the old Indian ways of dealing with the water, forests, and other natural resources that we now share.

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