Friday, September 28, 2018

The hearings—and the listenings

Like many, I have been semi-glued to the judicial committee hearings over the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. And today, showered and ready for work, I paused to listen to Senator Cory Booker—and immediately had a flashback to 1954.

We’d recently moved from Minnesota to California, and my dad was the new owner of a small Mobil gas station on Highway 101 in Oceanside. We lived two blocks from the station, and dad would walk home for lunch and watch the McCarthy hearings as he ate. He’d go back to work, but the TV stayed on, and would be on when I got home from school. I remember no content, but remember the smirk on McCarthy’s face as he hoisted a sheaf of papers or a daily newspaper with new knowledge of communists everywhere, and then he would blare at the TV audience in his gravelly baritone.

I didn’t know my dad’s politics at the time—although I do remember wearing an “I Like Ike” button before the 1952 election, and I remember getting out of school and going to Mrs. Drummond’s house to watch Eisenhower sworn in on TV—a first, I believe, which is why our good teacher thought it worthwhile leaving school for the event.

Although I rarely talked politics with my parents, I guess I came to see them as moderate Republicans, which didn’t matter much until Nixon and Vietnam. Today, I believe my parents were caught in a bind—wanting to stick with country and LBJ and then Nixon. We argued over that, but not to any conclusions, and not to rupture.

Unfortunately, I do not remember ever having a conversation with them about those McCarthy hearings. My guess is that when attorney for the Army Joseph Welch rose to say "Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness… You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?", my father and mother, along with millions of Americans, breathed sighs of relief and thought the country had righted itself, come back to its common senses.

As the hearing today wound down to a vote, one of the Democratic Senators—I think it was Richard Blumenthal—spoke to Christine Blasey Ford’s son: “Your mother,” he said, “will be remembered as a hero.” In five or ten years, he opined, her words and her role in the unfolding development of women’s rights in this country would be remembered; her words and work would be honored by posterity.

Another Senator reminded everyone that the truth would eventually come out—just as it did, I would argue, with the rampage of Senator McCarthy.

And why do I, sitting in my enclave of books about history and Indians in the West, think to use this blog to talk about today’s hearings. Nothing about Indians here… Well, maybe there is. There are so many parallels with black and women’s and Indians’ struggles for fair treatment in our country that what touches one touches all.

And the first step in fair treatment is always to listen—to listen beyond the shouts of the demagogue to the voices of the oppressed. I believe the truth on this matter will come out, and my guess is that behind Brett Kavanaugh’s rants of yesterday, and the alcoholic mists of his past, we will find women’s truths.  Ford’s son will be proud. And if we can hear women’s voices and find women’s truths, we can go back to the men of power who stampeded the Indians at Standing Rock. Go back and add another chapter to the slow drive for fair treatment of the first peoples of this continent.

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Monday, September 10, 2018

Fire--and another failure to listen to Indians

The June exhibit at the Josephy Center was about dams and fish. One of the many things I learned in researching and preparing that exhibit was the ways in which 19th and early 20th century scientists and government officials ignored Indian knowledge about the habits of salmon and all anadromous fish. The progressive white voices of the time—from roughly 1880 until 1938—submitted that Pacific salmon returned from the sea to spawn in any random stream or river that caught their swim. Natal streams were insignificant, and in any case we—progressive, scientific Americans—could better nature with hatcheries. We could more than make up for the tremendous numbers of salmon taken from the Columbia to feed the 60+ canneries that lined the river. So we built hatcheries—on the Columbia, the Willamette, and even, in the early 1900s, on the Grande Ronde and Minam rivers.

Alvin Josephy said on many occasions that the most damaging historical treatment of Indians was not the lies—although there were many, but the continuing neglect of Indians as we, as a nation, constructed the narrative of our past. Indians—their voices and their actions—are missing in the standard histories of schools and academe. And of course in discussions of natural resources.

Fire now dominates the news—and lives—in much of the West. As I write this, 35 miles of the I-5 highway at the California-Oregon border are shut down. There are still smoke warnings in Central Oregon, and we in Wallowa County wait and hope for cool nights and fall rains to beat lightening, human carelessness, and wind to the rank grass and dry forests around us.

The Indians burned, purposefully and regularly, in this country and across the West. They burned to invigorate the soil and enhance berry and root production, to make travel easier, and, we might guess, to guard against large, catastrophic fires as much as they could. I understand that agricultural Indians in the East used low slow regular burns to sequester carbon in the soil. I.e. Across the North American continent, fire was the primary land management tool of the people who lived here prior to the Europeans.

I’ve heard that early US Forest Service employees followed this Indian knowledge for a time, but their voices were soon drowned out by the German-trained foresters from Yale who dominated Forest Service administration—and emphatically discredited by the Big Fire of 1910 that raged across the Northwest. Those western Forest Service employees were denigrated as “Paiute foresters,” and the “10 O’clock Policy” came to dominate Western land and fire management for the next 100 years: All fires should be put out by 10 O’clock the morning after their discovery.

The idea that fire is part of the natural regimen of forests and necessary for forest health has been making a slow comeback, but it is difficult to embrace and implement with 100 years of ladder fuels waiting for their match. And with clear-cutting and over-cutting in some places having left a sour taste and environmental outrage in their wake, a reasonable conversation about how to get to baseline—how to reintroduce fire into the landscape—is proving hard.

So here we are with fish and fire, looking for ways to get things back to where Indians told us they should be all those years ago. But that is not right either; getting back to living with the changing world we are part of, which includes big fires and hurricanes, volcanoes and other natural “disasters”—those major events that change the mostly cyclical world we live in.

There is much talk about “white privilege”; maybe there should be more talk about white hubris.

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