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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1 comment :

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