Sunday, December 23, 2018

At Mid-winter

Dear Friends,

It’s hard to know where to start. Should I tell you about kids and grandkids, triumphs and setbacks over the past year? Or muse about the state of the country and the world, the places I visited or lived in years ago—and are still close to my heart—that are now in turmoil or in ruins? Or should I tell you about the peace and hope that I find in my work with American Indians, how my old mentor Alvin Josephy, gone now for a dozen years, gets smarter every day as I learn from Tribal people? And learn not just about the past, but get glimpses of hope for tomorrow.

Yesterday there were visitors at the Library. Two families from McMinnville, Oregon and their two YES exchange students, one from Pakistan and the other from the West Bank in Palestine. YES, or “Youth Exchange and Study Programs,” brings students from predominantly Muslim countries to the US, and sends American students to those countries. YES involves full scholarships, is administered by the State Department, and was instigated by Senators Kennedy and Lugar, a Democrat and a Republican. It is difficult to imagine how the program survives.

But it does, and my 16 year-old Palestinian visitor—his English was flawless, and he had a good basic understanding of American history and official Indian policy—asked fine questions about the Nez Perce story and Josephy’s understanding of Indians in new world history. We talked about languages—about the 2500 distinct languages in the pre-Columbian Americas and the dialects of Arabic across the world. He was hungry to know what we can learn from the flow and development of languages—I told him how Josephy had gone to linguists to explore the early movements of peoples across the Americas, and to make estimates of their numbers. He promised to look for Charles Mann’s 1491 for a better grasp of the pre-Columbian Americas, the impacts of diseases and the interchanges between the new worlds and the old.

Not fifteen minutes into the conversation, my new friend remarked on the similarities between the plight of American Indians and that of Palestinians—peoples visited and lands settled by foreign colonists.

At this point one can become pessimistic. A YES exchange student from Palestine who lived in Wallowa County a couple of years ago had serious trouble getting back to his family home. Will these bright young people who spend a year exploring America and ideas of peace and friendship get lost in a decades-long fight for home and culture on their return? Or will they be part of new flowerings of peace-making in their home countries, and in the “work” they have done in their brief stays in ours?

We’ve just celebrated my favorite day of the year, the winter solstice, the day that brings more light. It’s also a reminder that our linear understanding of history is always punctuated by the cyclical—or rather that the cyclical is fundamental, and the events and actions done in the present punctuate the rhythms of light and darkness, days and years. Summers and winters come and go; listening to the people who know that the land needs fire, salmon need free-flowing water, that the earth we live on persists through plagues and tyrants, we might begin to live saner lives. As Alvin Josephy said so many times, we have much to learn from American Indians.

And whatever the reasons for the perennial mid-winter calls for peace—shalom—that emerge in many languages and religions, and always in perilous times, let’s listen to them too. Let’s listen to and hope with YES and the students who are bridging the divides in their worlds and ours.

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Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Invisible Indians; Invisible Nez Perce

Alvin Josephy said many times that the greatest injustice done to the Indian people in this country was not the takings of land, language, and culture, but a continuing failure to acknowledge that they existed—or at least that they ever existed as people in their own right.  For the Euro-American, Indians were important for a moment—to teach them tools of survival, but then immediately became hurdles to their domination of the continent. Those other terrible thefts—of land, language, and culture—pale when compared to the taking of history. That taking means erasing the unique lives of individuals and tribes as agents, actors in their own stories, reducing them to asterisks in the Euro-American story of conquest.

If that. In the introduction to America in 1492, Alvin quotes from the 1987 edition of American History: A Survey, a popular text written by three prominent historians: “centuries in which human races were evolving, forming communities, and building the beginnings of national civilizations in Africa, Asia, and Europe—the continents we know as the Americas stood empty of humankind and its works… The story of this new world is a story of the creation of a civilization where none existed.”

But now, you say, we go to powwows and interpretive centers, read Indian writers, and include tribal representatives in discussions of the management of fish, fire, land and water. I’ll grant you that, but remind you that following the original extreme Euro-centrism of Spanish and English explorers and settlers, American government policies of allotment, boarding schools, missions, Termination, and Relocation did everything possible to erase Indians as distinct peoples with unique histories. It is only in recent years, as a result of enormous courage and fortitude, of holding majority America to historical treaties and agreements that assimilationists have worked so hard to remove, that those voices have survived.

Local historian David Weaver recently pointed out a very local example of making Indians invisible. I had just picked up a new book for the Library, Theodore T. Geer’s Fifty Years in Oregon. David suggested we turn to page 281 for the first photo known to have been taken in the Wallowas. It was, according to the author, in August of 1875, when he and a handful of friends left the Grand Ronde Valley for a two-week camping trip in the Wallowas. Thirteen of them, men and women, left from Cove on August 16 with six horses, camping gear and a skiff in the back of a wagon. On the second day they reached the confluence of the Wallowa and Minam rivers, where A.C. Smith had just completed a toll bridge. They camped that night on Bramlette property in lower valley, and the next day reached the shores of Wallowa Lake.

Geer gushes over the Lake and the surrounding territory—“The location is not surpassed for beauty anywhere in the United States”—and he or someone from his party takes that first photo. They launch the skiff, and row to the head of the Lake,

Geer then talks fish, and in his only nod to Indians, calls the Lake the “favorite fishing resort” of the Nez Perce Indians from time immemorial. He goes on: “it was to retain possession of it and the valley surrounding it that Chief Joseph made his stand against white settlers.” And that is the end of his remarks concerning Indians!

David reminded me that 1875 was a turbulent year in the Wallowas, and I reached back to Grace Bartlett’s month-by-month account in The Wallowa Country: 1867-77 to see what was happening in August, the month of Geer’s camping trip. One would think that Geer and his party might have encountered over 100 armed troops from Walla Walla that arrived about the same time they did, or that he would have seen 45 Indian lodges, or even Chief Joseph himself and about 75 tribal members who visited Captain Whipple and his troops. Or, more seriously, that the man who would become the 10th Governor of Oregon, and the first born in the state, serving from January 9, 1899 until January 14, 1903, would have something more to say about the Indians and their removal from his state.

Geer didn’t write the book, subtitled Experiences, Observations, and Commentaries Upon Men, Measures, and Customs in Pioneer Days and Later Times, until 1911, so maybe the Nez Perce and the soldiers that he must surely have seen—and the history of the state he later governed, had drifted away by 1911, when the summation of his trip to the Wallowas remained a glowing pastoral memory—and one without Indians:

“The following days were spent in the enjoyment of the unequaled facilities which the place afforded for a happy camp life—hunting, fishing, boat-riding, reading, story-telling, attempts at singing, cooking, and exploring the surrounding country.”

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