Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Friendship and freedom; Indian and White

Young Joseph’s Monument, Nespelem
This weekend a Nez Perce friend handed me a copy of a letter, written in 1940, by Walter Copping, a white man who had been a storekeeper at Nespelem, Washington. The letter writer says that Chief Joseph died in the fall of 1904 while most of the Nez Perce were gone picking hops, and that the funeral was on June 20, 1905, when there were again few Nez Perce around and he and some Indians of “other tribes” were made pallbearers. He was sure of the date, because he wrote it in his “Masonic Monitor.” He explains that when the Indians came back from hop picking that year they had another ceremony, and adds that there was a third ceremony, which Professor Meany and railroader Sam Hill attended, and at which a monument was placed at the grave site. He gives no date for this third memorial.

The man talks easily of languages—English, Nez Perce, Chinook, and it is not clear from the addressee and the names of husbands and wives that he mentions who exactly was Indian and who was white. He simply had been asked by someone to write down his memories of Joseph, and his response had been delayed—“If I wasn’t the world’s worst letter writer you would have heard from me long ago.” But he goes on to write like a good neighbor and friend would write—sometimes humorous, always respectful.

“I remember that Joseph used to come into the store and sit on the counter for an hour or two at a time and would not talk very much.. When he would talk he would speak to me in Nez Perce and if I did not know what he said he would explain in Chinook to me. He would help me to learn the Nez Perce…. I liked Joseph very much and thought he was a very fine man. Was a large  (about 240# and 6’3” tall) and a fine looking fellow.”

I just finished reading Daniel Sharfstein’s Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard and the Nez Perce War. It’s a good book, and I will write more about it, but what strikes me now, as I read this letter and think of the friend who gave it to me, is how good, curious, and moral Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce were before, during, and after the War of 1877, and how utterly clueless of their own prejudices the white politicians and generals were.

The Indians were, from the arrival of Lewis and Clark, trying to understand these new people with the upside down faces. What were they looking for? What did they have to trade? What did they need? How many of them were there? What foods did they eat? What did they do with cloth, leather, steel, seeds, cattle, horses? What was their religion? And how did it fit their lives?

The whites, on the other hand, were confident in their own superiority and in their God-given right to take land not being efficiently “used’ by the Indians.

There were of course many exceptions: the fur traders who took Indian wives and adopted many Indian attitudes; the many white women, children, and men who had, from New England west, “gone native” to a place where women seemed to have more say and the social and religious demands were less restrictive; and Eliza Spalding, who, alone of the Spalding-Whitman contingent, seemed to genuinely like Indians, who learned their language and invited them into her home.

But most whites, and especially the male Anglo-Americans of political power who would eventually declare “Manifest Destiny,” were mostly dismissive of Indians, at their worst brutal towards them. The “best” of the whites thought the Indians’ only hope was assimilation—missions, boarding schools and Allotments in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “termination” and urban relocation in the 1950s the final rush at it.

In Sharfstein’s book, Joseph is constantly trying to understand white laws and ways, and trying to put his own case in those terms. Howard is a stubborn assimilationist: the Indians needed Christianity, farms, and education.

Joseph’s requests were simple and straightforward:

“We ask that the same law shall work alike on all men…. Let me be a free man—free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself….”

I sense from this letter that for occasional moments, at a white man’s small store in Nespelem, Washington in 1900, Joseph and the storekeeper felt equal as friends. The freedoms Joseph dreamt of, were, of course, never realized.

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Saturday, August 19, 2017

Eli Parker and Robert E. Lee at Appomattox

Ulysses Grant and staff. Parker at left. 
The most amazing thing to come my direction after the Charlottesville disaster was a piece by Mark Trahant in High Country News. Trahant is enrolled Shoshone-Bannock, the author of a book on Scoop Jackson and Termination, and, currently, a professor of journalism at the University of North Dakota. And, I am proud to say, someone we had at Fishtrap during my tenure there.

On reading Trahant’s “History Tells Us Donald Trump’s Presidency is Over,” I thought immediately of Alvin Josephy’s contention that Indians have been systematically omitted from the standard version of American history. They are, Josephy contended, seen as impediments to Euro-American progress across the continent, or as a side show, literally or figuratively participants in Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.

But Trahant reminds us that “Eli Parker, a Seneca Indian, drafted the documents that spelled out the surrender to be signed by General Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865.”

Parker had gone to law school, but could not take the bar exam to practice law, because Indians were not citizens and one had to be a citizen to practice law. So he became an engineer, gained wealth, and in one of his engineering projects met and befriended a down and out Ulysses S. Grant. Years later, Parker was at first rebuffed in gaining an officer’s post in the Union Army, but, eventually Grant found him, he was made an officer, and at the Appomattox courthouse, Parker was an officer, Grant’s scribe, and the man who drafted the document of surrender.

That fact, and Eli Parker, have been effectively scrubbed from the standard history. Which makes the irony of Parker’s interchange with General Lee all the greater:

 “I am glad to see one real American here,” Lee said while shaking his hand. Lt. Col. Parker responded: “We are all Americans.”

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http://werehistory.org/ely-parker/

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

JFK on Indians

In 1961, Alvin Josephy moved from Time Magazine to American Heritage, where The American Heritage Book of Indians was his first major assignment. The text was written by William Brandon, but Alvin oversaw designers and assistant editors who fact checked and copy read, and I am sure it was Alvin who scoured the country’s libraries and museums for images to accompany the text. The early reviews, neatly summarized by American Heritage staff members and stuffed behind the cover of Alvin’s own copy of the book, which sits in our library, extol the effort, and comment on the breadth and depth of text and illustration. General readers will love it, one reviewer says, but even scholars will find something new.

I think I’d glanced at the one page introduction by President John F. Kennedy at some point, but recently found myself reading it again—and it struck me that Kennedy’s message was or became Alvin’s message throughout his long career as writer, editor, and Indian activist: “American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all,” says JFK. And he goes on to say that we have things to learn from Indians, etc.

I don’t know how editor Josephy got JFK to introduce this volume, or who actually penned the words—speechwriter Ted Sorenson? Or JFK himself, who had a strong background in history and was no slouch as a writer. But this one page “Introduction” could neatly serve as our mission statement here at the Josephy Library of Western History and Culture.




Friday, August 4, 2017

Canoe notes #2

My childhood recollections of New World history move quickly from Columbus and the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria to Squanto and the Puritans on the other side of the continent. In neither case did we get much real history, but rather sloganeering echoes passed from teacher to student for decades, now centuries. And we got holidays—Columbus Day and Thanksgiving—that were and probably still are occasion for grade school pageantry.

But Allen Pinkham, Jr., our Nez Perce canoe carver, sends me back to Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., my mentor and the “Great Reminder.” Alvin reminds us that Indians were here for millennia before Columbus and the Puritans, that they had fashioned high civilizations as well as many simple but effective ways of living on their lands, that there had been catastrophes even before the Europeans came with the great upset, but that Native peoples and the land have been resilient. (I mistakenly typed “had” in place of “have” in that sentence; these things go on.)

In researching The American Heritage Book of Indians, published in 1962,  Josephy combed the nation’s research libraries, and in them found the words and images of Fernandez de Oviedo. Oviedo apparently did his own art work; he was no great artistic talent, but with him we have some of the first European artistic renditions of the people of the New World.

And some of these images include canoes. This image appears in a book by de Oviedo, La historia general y natural de las Indias. The drawing is dated 1535.

One learns immediately that even in the early 1500s, men were of different minds on the treatment of Indians. In the Caribbean and Central America, beginning with Columbus, it had been brutal. It was too much for one Spaniard, Las Casas, who turned reformer, entered the clergy, and was officially named “Protector of the Indians.”

While all agree that Oviedo’s  Historia furnishes a mass of information collected at first hand, Las Casas, the fellow contemporary chronicler of the Spanish colonization of the Caribbean, denounced Oviedo and the Historia thus: "one of the greatest tyrants, thieves, and destroyers of the Indies, whose Historia contains almost as many lies as pages.”

Las Casas own tome is titled, pointedly, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.

And I’ll take it that the canoes were not part of the lie, but real—and recognizable today, 500 years on, as part of a world that Allen Pinkham is revisiting with his own canoe carving here at the Josephy Center.

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