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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