Monday, October 30, 2017

Indians, their land, and refugees

Alvin Josephy said that reservations and the continuing attachment to land they afforded have been instrumental in the survival of American Indian cultures. Reservations were, for the most part, diminished versions of ancient tribal landscapes, but however diminished, they were pieces of those larger lands—particular lands that had sustained particular tribal peoples for millennia.

Policies of removal and assimilation have of course taken many—most—Indians away from ancestral grounds over the last five centuries. There are now more urban Indians than rural Indians, and tribal enrollments are covered in confusion, with each tribe establishing its own enrollment requirements, and individual Indians finding themselves descendants of many tribes and sometimes living on a reservation where they are not, maybe cannot be, enrolled.

There have of course been movements of indigenous tribes through history, brought on by famine, weather, natural catastrophe, intertribal warfare and European colonization. Alvin Josephy began his landmark book on American Indians, The Indian Heritage of America, published in 1968, with maps and charts showing language distribution. Before we knew what DNA was, languages were leaving traces of peoples’ histories and movements, even people without written histories. One can follow these movements through the long lens of language, find the Athabascan languages of the north in the Southwest and Central America, the spread of Algonquin speakers east to west across the middle of North America, with Algonquin speakers even now lodged in small spots along the Pacific Coast.

Yet an Indian friend told me that he has a letter from the Danish paleo-genetic scientists confirming his relationship to “the Ancient One,” the man found years ago along the Columbia River and recently determined to have been there for some 9,000 years. Despite conjecture and maybe hope by some American anthropologists that a later, European connection would be uncovered, it was not. The Ancient One, aka Kennewick Man, is related to present day Indians of the Plateau.

When the greatest world-wide refugee crisis since that following WW 2 is ripping people from ancient roots and throwing them together in places totally removed from places of origin, there is something comforting about the people who were always here. Like ancient trees, mountains and rivers, we can marvel at the perseverance of people that have withstood awesome odds to remain in place.

But what about those who must move, those who have been stormily chased from traditional landscapes by hurricane, volcano, drought and other “natural” disasters, and by the tyranny of governments, the force of armies, and the violence of civil wars?

When their world is in turmoil, people move--and others take them in. Joseph and his remnant band of Nez Perce were taken in on the Colville Reservation in 1885, after the Nez Perce War, after years of exile in Indian Territory. Many descendants still live there.

We as a nation can, like Germany and other European countries, acknowledging the difficulties, but with some memory of the post-WW II chaos and its huge refugee crisis, take in the strangers. Or we can further close our borders and hunker down in historical ignorance.

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Saturday, October 21, 2017

African-Americans and Indians

Two weeks ago, friend Anne Richardson arranged a discussion of Daniel Sharfstein’s book on Chief Joseph and General Howard, Thunder in the Mountains, at Portland’s Black Hat Books.  And this week, on Thursday, 14 of us from Wallowa County spent the day with Director Bobbie Conner and her staff at the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute on the Umatilla Reservation. The story of the gathering of tribal history of the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla—indeed of all the related Plateau tribes—and the skill and pride with which it is displayed and used to teach new generations of Indians, is inspiring.

In the end, the two experiences help me understand what my mentor Alvin Josephy called the miracle of Indian survival, and something of the big and small differences between Euro-American treatment of African slaves and indigenous Americans.

Sharfstein teaches history and law at Vanderbilt University, and is steeped in the Civil War and Reconstruction. The short version of his book is that the load General Howard carried from his time managing the post-Civil War Freedmen’s Bureau in Washington D.C. followed him West, and that he had tried to do for Indians what he had been unable to do for freed slaves: give them Christianity, education, and agricultural land.

Thwarted in his effort to give the freed slaves land as Reconstruction tumbled and pre-war landowners regained control of the South, knowing that his clients were mostly Christian, Howard had concentrated on education—most famously, of course, with Howard University. In the end, his eastern career was shrouded in stories of mismanagement and corruption, some of them true. But most importantly, Reconstruction and his early goals for the freed slaves were shattered by others, and he was sent West—to deal with Indians.

The assignment as Commander of the military Department of the Columbia in 1874 gave Howard a chance to skip back past Reconstruction to his Civil War experiences. He became a popular Portland speaker on the subject, and in the course of it was able to recover from personal debt incurred in the East. The new position also allowed Howard to revive old ideas of making new citizens of the country, this time Indians.

Although there had been missionaries in the territory for over 30 years, Christianity was not firmly seated with the Indians of the Northwest in the 1870s. And the efforts at educating them in the Euro-American tradition, primarily by those same missionaries, had been minimally successful. Ditto with agriculture: corn seeds and potatoes, cows, and sheep had come West with the fur trade, south from Canada with Spokan Garry, north from California with gold miners. But most of the bands of Plateau Indians—Cayuse, Nez Perce, Umatilla, Walla Walla, Yakima, et al—were still making seasonal rounds, gathering the camas roots and huckleberries, fish, lamprey, deer, elk, pronghorn and buffalo that had sustained them for millennia.

Although Howard kept thinking he could make the Indian cultures and peoples in his Department of the Columbia fit into his boxes for religion, education, and agriculture/land-use, he couldn’t. The cultural differences and cognitive distances between Howard and the Indians in all three areas were huge—and ultimately insurmountable. In fact, Sharfstein shows that after the Nez Perce War, right up to and through the time that he met amicably with Joseph years later, O.O. Howard never really understood the Indian point of view, or the vast distances between it and his own.

And here is where it gets tricky. What has struck me since reading Sharfstein is the distance between the African experience with Euro-Americans and the Indian experience with Euro-Americans. Africans were forcibly stolen from many lands and cultures, brought to a new place, and, it seems to me, homogenized. Although bits and pieces of their previous languages and cultures clung on, the Africans of many tribes were thrown together, forced into new work, new language, and new religion, treated by the white culture as all the black same, until most of what they came from—except their color—was erased.

On the other hand, five or six hundred distinct North American Indian cultures were confronted by diverse Euro-American economic, religious, and military interests—by French, Dutch, Spanish and English Americans; Protestants and Catholics; corporate functionaries and free spirits. Alliances were made and battles were fought one by one by one. And for 500 years, attempts to consolidate and treat Indians as one, from war to removal to assimilation, have never completely taken hold.

Indians in this country have been enslaved, beaten, hung, and dehumanized, as have their African-American countrymen. There have been conscious and unconscious attempts at genocide; some tribes have been exterminated. Government programs moved Indians West, and moved them to smaller and smaller reservations. Assimilation—the most persistent treatment of Indians, has employed missionaries, agricultural training, land allotments, boarding schools, tribal “termination,” Indian relocation, and the banning of potlatches, languages, dances, and regalia, to make Indians white. But indigenous Americans, misnamed from the beginning, have remained Indians; more importantly, they have remained Modoc and Lakota, Delaware, Cherokee, Umatilla, Makah, Paiute, Shoshone, and Nez Perce.

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Monday, October 2, 2017

Ken Burns and “The Americans”

Hollow Horn Bear--1923 US Postage Stamp
I’ve been a big fan of Ken Burns’ documentaries—like many I watched the Civil War series as it came out; like many (though not as many) watched “Baseball” explore the post Civil War Civil Rights journey; and I caught most of the recent “Vietnam” series the first time around and will watch the one episode and parts of others I missed as they come back to my screen.

Yet there is a giant hole in the work of Ken Burns. In the September 4 issue of the New Yorker, author Ian Parker profiles the documentarian, and the headline writers call it “Mr. America.” Parker recounts many of Burns’ triumphs, from “The Brooklyn Bridge” to “Mark Twain” and the “Dust Bowl.” And he quotes Burns on at least ten ideas for the future, including “Hemingway,” “Crime and Punishment in America,” and “Country Music,” which is already in the can and set to run. He’s also considering “Winston Churchill,” and chuckles that it fits into his pantheon because Churchill had an American mother.

Burns is a history buff, an American History buff. But something big is missing: Americans. Here I step back to the original meaning of that term. The current issue of American Indian Magazine announces the fall exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian, “The Americans.” It then explains that

“The exhibition’s title is a play on words. In the Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition provided for ‘American’ is ‘An indigenous inhabitant of (any part of) the Americas; an American Indian.’ This usage was common until the early 19th century.”

I googled. Here is the 1828 Webster’s Definition: “A native of America; originally applied to the aboriginals, or copper-colored races, found here by the Europeans; but now applied to the descendants of Europeans born in America. The name American must always exalt the pride of patriotism.”

The NMAI exhibit traces the use of Indian images by government and industry over the entire course of US history, from a 1792 “Peace and Commerce” medal with a bare-breasted and beautiful Indian “queen,” to the “Tomahawk missile” and (my favorite) the Pontiac car, named after an Ottawa Indian Chief who’d beat the British.

Maybe the most dramatic image is that of Hollow Horn Bear, and I quote at length from the American Indian Magazine article because it says it all:

Already a familiar face in Washington, D.C., Sicangu (Brule) Lakota chief Mat ó Hé lo e a, or Hollow Horn Bear (c. 1850–1913) became the iconic, if unnamed, “American Indian” by 1923, when his likeness appeared on the new 14-cent U.S. postage stamp. He also appeared on the five-dollar bill, the first and only historic Native to be shown on U.S. paper currency. Hollow Horn Bear fought alongside Oglala Lakota Chief Red Cloud in Red Cloud’s War of 1866–68 and participated in the defeat of Gen. George A. Custer in the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. Yet he later served as a delegate to the federal government and marched in the inaugural parades of Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 and Woodrow Wilson in 1913. His transition from feared enemy to national symbol is one of the mysteries explored in the major new exhibit “Americans,” opening this fall at the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall.

The complications: an Indian who lived through the Indian Wars and fought against one-time hero George Custer, but did not live long enough to see the true story of Custer explained to the public—or to see his own image on a US Postage Stamp! Somehow exemplary of the crazy many-sided ways that later Euro-Americans have addressed, and continue to address, the people who were here to meet the Mayflower, Columbus’ boats, and those of the slavers. The “500 Nations” of North America and the many more of Central and South America.

I’d challenge the historian in Ken Burns to take on this story, one that makes the complications of the Civil War and Vietnam pale, a story about Americans who saved the Plymouth colony and Lewis and Clark, influenced Benjamin Franklin and the first colonialists, and excited Rousseau, the fur traders, mountain men, and generations of movie makers. And these Americans—unlike the Civil War heroes and the fading population of World War II veterans and Rosy the Riveters, are alive today and holding on to languages and cultures that sustained them long before the new Americans hit the shores of the American continents.

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