Sunday, December 24, 2017

In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat at Christmas

In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat—Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce to the world, wondered about the white man’s religion. Henry Spalding, the Presbyterian, had baptized his father, Tuekakas, and given him the name Joseph, and on his father’s death he had taken leadership of the band of Nez Perce—Nimiipuu—who called the Wallowa Country home, and he had taken his father’s name. At least that is the name the whites called him. What he wondered about was a religion at odds with itself—Presbyterians and Catholics had fought bitterly over theology and converts in his Country from their arrival in the 1830s.

In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat saw and understood many things that whites gave him little credit for; they always managed some workaround of the Indian’s intelligence and logic in pursuit of their own agendas.

At the Josephy Library we give copies of the famous Chief’s speech at Lincoln Hall in Washington D.C., delivered in 1879, just two years after the sad conclusion of the Nez Perce War in Bears Paw, Montana. People sometimes cry when they read it. I think it is a good starting point for understanding a people and history that live with us still—an invitation for scholarship and friendship.

I am privileged to know Nez Perce people and to be learning some of the Nez Perce story. I say some, because a lifetime would be not enough to learn a story of thousands of years, and because my learning would always—will always—be through my own white eyes.

Nevertheless, I get glimpses—in stories from elders, in the way things happen here at the Nez Perce Homeland in Wallowa and at the Josephy Center when Indian people are involved. We’re privileged too to have some written history—oral stories Indians have passed down that have been transcribed; the written accounts of traders and even missionaries; and in my case especially the work of Alvin Josephy.

Alvin waited to reconstruct the story for the white world until he “found” Yellow Wolf and Hear Me My Chiefs, books that are Indian accounts taken down by an eccentric white rancher named Lucullus McWhorter. McWhorter was a friend to Indians who met Yellow Wolf and the Nez Perce as they worked in the Washington hop harvest. Yellow Wolf was a War survivor. McWhorter traveled the route of the famous War Retreat towards Canada with Yellow Wolf, and the books were published by a little known Idaho company named Caxton.

Josephy also scoured missionary and fur trade accounts, and he was just in time to meet and sweat with the last survivors of the War of 1877. His work—The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest, is important in learning the story, but there is no better way to emotionally understand it than to read In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat’s words. And there is no better time to hear them than at the primary Christian holiday:

Whenever the white man treats the Indian as they treat each other, then we will have no more wars. We shall all be alike - brothers of one father and one mother, with one sky above us and one country around us, and one government for all. Then the Great Spirit Chief who rules above will smile upon this land, and send rain to wash out the bloody spots made by brothers' hands from the face of the earth. For this time the Indian race are waiting and praying. I hope that no more groans of wounded men and women will ever go to the ear of the Great Spirit Chief above, and that all people may be one people.

In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat has spoken for his people.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Indian Way of Life

I just finished teaching a “Pacific NW Ecosystems and Tribes” class for OSU on the Eastern Oregon University campus. It was my fourth year, and as I am not a regular teacher, I have tended to revamp the class each year—and sometimes mid-year.

What is consistent is that I try to present the region—the Old Oregon Country; the land occupied by “The People of the Salmon,” as Richard Dougherty elegantly described it in Alvin J’s American in 1492—as it was in 1492, and then the changes that came with each intrusion of the white Europeans: the horse, diseases, explorers and fur trade, missionaries, treaties, settlers, farmers and fishermen, the Wars, the Columbia River dams and irrigation projects, up to the EPA, Boldt Decision, and tribal fisheries programs today.

One of the tasks of the class is to explore “Difference, Power, and Discrimination,” so we follow the power shifts from tribes to whites, from agriculture to industry, rural to urban, and we discuss how Indians and women and others have been treated along the way.

I was on my way to La Grande for class a couple of weeks ago, wondering how to get 33 students involved in more discussion, and a little experiment occurred to me as I drove. I divided the class into three groups, and asked them each to take 10 minutes and come up with lists: Group 1—the tools white men have used to dominate women in our country; 2—the tools white men have used to dominate African-Americans from slavery to present; and 3—the tools white men have used to dominate Indian tribes and people for 500 years.

I said “white men” in each case because when you talk about power, it is white men who have historically held—and still hold many of—the seats of American power. (Current tensions, the results of news reports and confession, are testimony to this fact.)

The lists were remarkably similar: physical strength, religion, education, money, politics—including the vote, etc. But in the middle of the discussion something else occurred to me. “What, I asked, did Indians have that women and African Americans did not have for years and decades in our country?”

Students had little trouble with the first answer: land—property. Early African-Americans, most of whom were slaves, did not own property. And one can argue that white women were considered property themselves for the first 150 years of our national experiment. We had learned in class that it was basically 1900 before women could own property across the country, and of course it was 1920, not yet 100 years ago, when women got the vote! Although one might point to marriages which consolidated lands and the occasional matriarchal land baroness, they were exceptions, while Indians occupied and held onto lands that white men wanted from the time the first fishermen stepped off their boats and the first pilgrims landed. The diseases, treaties, duplicity, and conflicts that allowed white men to confiscate Indian lands from coast to coast is the earliest—and often most neglected—chapter in the nation’s history!

The second thing that Indians had that neither white women nor African-Americans could boast of was an attractive lifestyle. From Rousseau and his “noble savage” and the European painters who dressed King Hendrik in regal gowns, from John White’s 17th century drawings of muscular, handsome Indians, to Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and scores of French-Canadian voyageurs who went into the American wild with and as Indians, a certain small number of Euro-Americans—including some “captured” women and children—have embraced an Indian way of life.

There is an entire literature of this, possibly beginning with Benjamin Franklin, and certainly running to the recent tale of a young girl captured and raised by Kiowa Indians being “returned” to her white family by a grizzled old veteran named Captain Kid. It’s News of the World, and it’s a good read, based, I’m sure, on extensive research into the literature.

But let’s begin with Franklin:

“When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return. [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.”

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