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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