Saturday, November 21, 2020

Nez Perce Treaties--a puzzle solved?

I have  been fascinated by President Grant’s proposed “Reservation for the Roaming Nez Perce Indians of the Wallowa Valley” since  I saw the map of it in Grace Bartlett’s Wallowa Country: 1867-1877 years ago. I thought that if those Nez Perce had just had the foresight to put up picket fences and stop “roaming,” they might not have lost the Wallowa. More recently, I have seriously wondered what went wrong with it.


As I learned more about Nez Perce history and culture, the joke to myself became serious. An important bedrock of understanding Indian-White history in the United States is white efforts at “assimilation.” Assimilation meant adopting white ways—which did not involve seasonal food migrations, but staying in one place to grow and harvest. 


I’ve also learned that President Grant was upset with the way that Indians had been treated by the War Department, and launched a “Peace Policy” that would remove corrupt Indian Agents and replace them with Christian Missionaries. (The missionaries were not immune to corruption.) So Grant had a heart, and with government officials at Lapwai sympathetic to the Indians, proposed his new reservation in 1873. The government went so far as to appraise the improvements on white settlers land. This list is also included in Bartlett’s important book, and indicates that 86 settlers and two corporations were responsible for some $67,000 in improvements. 


Grace believed, and others have said, that the maps got mixed up between here and Washington D.C., and that Joseph and the Indians were awarded the north half of the Wallowa, which included the major settlements in and around the town of Wallowa. Whites were to have the South Half, including Wallowa Lake and the upper Imnaha. Clerical error always seemed a little flimsy, but I had never seen anything that would support or contradict it.


Until a friend found and forwarded an article in the January 1999 American Indian Law Review by John K. Flanagan. It’s called “The Invalidity of the Nez Perce Treaty of 1863 and the Taking of the Wallowa Valley,” and argues that the 1855 Treaty, which left the Wallowa to the Nez Perce, had been legally signed by many of the Nez Perce leaders, including Old Joseph; the subsequent, 1863 Treaty which Joseph and many other band leaders did not sign is not a valid treaty binding on Joseph’s band. Flanagan argues that Joseph “had not signed the treaty with the belief that he was giving up rights in the land to the whole tribe.”


He buttresses this argument with the story of white government officials insisting on a “head chief” or leader of all the Nez Perce who could sign and obligate the leaders of all bands. This concept was totally foreign to the Indians. Flanagan finds instances where government officials acknowledge this.  His conclusion is that “for cultural, political and legal reasons… the [1941] Court of Claims should have found the 1863 Nez Perce Treaty invalid in so far as it pertained to Joseph's band, and therefore should have recognized that the band had rights in the Wallowa or at least should have awarded the band appropriate compensation.” 


That is Flanagan’s primary purpose in the article; the Grant “Roving Nez Perce” treaty is a side issue, but an important one. And here I quote him at length about it:


    A compromise was then reached between Joseph's band and the Indian agents. They agreed to divide             the Wallowa Valley between Joseph's band and the white settlers. Joseph and his people were willing to share and live with the whites so long as they could continue their way of life. A division of the region on an east-west basis would have permitted the band to fish, hunt and gather roots in traditional fashion. Perhaps for that reason, the Executive Order of 1873 issued by the government instead divided the land north and south, leaving the Nez Perce with the best agricultural land. The U.S. government wanted the Nez Perce to end their "roaming" and to settle and become farmers, and that was likely the reason why the executive order divided the land in such a fashion.


In other words, rather than a clerical error which swapped north and south sections of the Wallowa, there was an “on the ground” understanding that the division would be east-west, which would have allowed Joseph’s band to continue their ancient seasonal migrations, and a purposeful change to north-south by the U.S. Government. This slip of hand—had the Indians accepted it—would have radically altered their way of life. So they disregarded it. 


And, although General Howard made a plea to Washington in 1875, saying that it was “a great mistake to take from Joseph and his band of Nez Perces Indians that valley…, “ in the same year “the President rescinded his order and the entire Wallowa region was reopened to white settlement.”


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Monday, November 9, 2020

American Indians' “Sweet Spot"

I’ve just finished reading Philip Deloria’s Indians in Unexpected Places, an encyclopedic look at Indians and sports, technology, music, and the movies in the early years of the twentieth century. It was a time, Deloria says, of “paradox and opportunity,” when Indians were at a low point in numbers and economics, due to long history and the late nineteenth century cascade of legislation aimed at Assimilation. The end of Indian Wars—Custer, the Nez Perce and Modoc wars, the 1890 Massacre of the Lakota at Wounded Knee ushered in an era of final “pacification” and assimilation. The Dawes Allotment Act of 1887 reduced Tribal lands by half; in the 1880s and 90s boarding schools and laws and codes aimed at eliminating languages and cultures ate away at tribal traditions and strengths. 


The new century brought huge changes to all America, and Deloria argues that Indians were important—sometimes at the center of those changes. There is the famous picture of Geronimo in a Cadillac, and stories of oil-rich Osages buying new cars. The book is rich with photos, one of an Indian atop the hood of a Pontiac—a car that always had a richly Indian hood ornament. Pictures too of Indian women with Singer sewing machines, and one of a traditionally garbed woman under a hair dryer.


Why shouldn’t Indians embrace the new automobility, as they had the horse—easier to travel long distances on land-large reservations. The relation of Indians and automobiles goes all the way to Jeep Cherokees and Dodge Dakotas today, and those early days of the automobile remind us of Indians used as positive images of strength, naturalness, and the great outdoors. Advertisers—of cars and sewing machines, e.g., also liked the incongruity of modern and primitive, the humor that might catch a white eye.


In Deloria’s analysis, this “primitivism”—the thirst for natural, strong, and somehow “native”—carries from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show through the early silent movies, turn of century classical music, and early college and professional athletics. Jim Thorpe was the iconic Indian athlete, and a few of us who are sports fans and history nuts might know about “Chief” Bender of the Philadelphia Athletics, know that Carlisle Indian School beat Harvard and Army, and that Haskell played a major college football schedule. We didn’t know, but Deloria shows us, how Thorpe and other Indian athletes—including his own grandfather, Vine Deloria, Sr., the “greatest athlete” ever at St. Stephens College (later Bard)—were racially typecast as natural athletes with sharp reflexes. They were admired for their natural primitive strength and grace in an age that was going modern.


I’ve known about Buffalo Bill forever, and more recently learned that there were other touring Indian shows; Lucullus McWhorter arranged for his Nez Perce and Yakima friends to perform at fairs and rodeos across the inner Northwest. Deloria shows how Indians, some of whom had traveled England Europe extensively, were often more sophisticated than their American Audiences. They lived at the border of their mounted, sometimes-warring past and the new age of automobiles and movies. In fact, Bill Cody made a movie reenactment of Wounded Knee in 1914, and their were scores of Indian actors in New York and then Hollywood, as the movie industry moved West. And there were other honest attempts to portray Indians truthfully, even to explore Indian-white friendship and romantic relationships. Indians acted, wrote, and directed for early one-reel and two-reel silents.


And the music played for those silent movies might have come from a classical-popular mix of Indian sounds and rhythm being captured by turn of the century ethnographers and composers. Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” made that attempt, but there were less well-known American composers and Indian singers of the day who moved from classical opera to touring music shows in Indian regalia with some of the transposed Indian sounds. 



A World War, the 1918 Influenza (which Deloria does not explore, but which undoubtedly had a great impact on Tribal peoples who still remembered in family history and lore the diseases of the 1700s and early 1800s which had decimated them), and codification and consolidation of college and professional athletics, the movie industry, and technology all served to edge Indians out of the mainstream—“modernist”—movements, and back to reservations and fights for self-rule, for sovereignty. They’d made their pitch, been ridiculed and feted, but the sweet spot of full participation in a broad American movement towards a shared future faded.


African-Americans, denied the opportunities accorded Indians for that time, were engaged in the struggle to be integrated into America on an equal footing. They had no home ground to retreat to, no indigenous language to find comfort in, and no treaties guaranteeing them land or anything else. Women too found themselves left out of the political and economic mainstream, and like African-Americans, began their own march towards equality. 


Deloria’s book opens so much ground, including the opportunity to explore and contrast Black, Immigrant, and Women’s assaults on early founding principles and documents describing a new country designed by and for White, Anglo-American men. Importantly, it catches a moment when real pluralism—the use and celebration of all the people of these United States—drew American Indians into the American journey. It also shows the momentary, 30 year, weakness—resurgent racism, and lack of real economic power—that passed Indians by. 


And maybe, by moving then to the fight for land and sovereignty, it points to a time when Indian values of resilience and sustainability might be the most important things twenty-first century Americans can hang onto.


# # # 

Monday, November 2, 2020

Assimilation of African Americans and American Indians—some notes for discussion

One of the first axioms of White-Indian relations I remember hearing from Alvin Josephy was that from the moment Europeans hit the North American shore, indigenous peoples had three choices: they could move away; they could become white; or they could die. Assimilation—becoming white—has been the alternative favored most often by governments and by popular opinion. 


In the years since, I have learned how assimilation of Indians played out with missionaries, boarding schools, the Allotment Act, Termination Act, and Relocation policy. I have read about Colonel Pratt, Carlisle and the other Indian boarding schools, read too about Alice Fletcher, the “measuring woman” who came to allot Nez Perce lands, but, more importantly, wrote much of the Dawes Allotment Act. 


It is interesting but understandable that her books notating Omaha Indian culture—dances and music, work done before the possibility of recording, are still in print, and speak to her love of Indian history and culture.  But, like Pratt and other “moderns,” she saw assimilation as the only road to Indian survival. The old—or “vanishing”—Indian could live on in books, museums, and in Edward Sheriff Curtis’s photos; the new Indian would be an educated farmer—or domestic worker or trades-worker.


* * *


In Stamped From the Beginning, Ibram X. Kendi says that societal attitudes towards African Americans historically break down into racism and anti-racism. And he defines a racist idea as “any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.” (p. 5) How these ideas were and are carried out in practice has resulted in policies of segregation and assimilation. Even abolitionists, according to Kendi, were divided between those who favored sending freed slaves back to Africa and those who wanted to assimilate them.


If I understand him correctly, he believes that assimilation is ultimately a racist idea that posits “Black cultural and behavioral inferiority.” Assimilationists object to segregationists and their belief in biological inferiority, and suggest that Blacks can rise up by adopting the religious, educational, and cultural practices of Whites. Kendi sees many Blacks as well as Whites falling into this racist trap. Even W.E.B. Du Bois embraced assimilation—or straddled it—before becoming a firm anti-racist. By the 1930s, he was promoting the celebration of Black history, biology, and the institution of Black Studies programs, which was still controversial among Black intellectuals who saw “uplift” assimilation, as the step beyond slavery.


Kendi uses over 500 carefully researched and well-written pages to discuss racism and assimilation. And although he tells us how early Euro-Americans quickly adopted a philosophy of White superiority and Brown and Black inferiority, he does not compare the assimilationist arguments and practices aimed at African Americans with those involving Native Americans. Similarly, writers and activists critiquing assimilationist practices and programs targeting Indians—boarding schools, allotments, etc.—do not discuss them in relation to those targeting Blacks. 


It’s a complicated business. Indians were here—and European-American colonizers wanted their land. The first contacts, initial relationships between the colonists and the Natives, were most often friendly. Newcomers, from New England to the Oregon Territory, needed Native knowledge as well as resources, which the Natives readily shared. Romantic notions around Indians—their freedom in the natural world; their robust physical appearance and fitness—quickly reached the Old World in words and images by early artists. The drawings and paintings of John White, Peter Rindesbacher, and others were copied and widely distributed in England and Europe. Indian chiefs were sent to England, named “kings,” dressed in finery and painted in court.


But continued immigration, the need for more Indian lands, and cross-cultural misunderstandings over property, religion, and culture made conflict inevitable. By the time the founding fathers envisioned a new nation, African-American slavery was firmly established, and Native Americans were firmly seen as being below Whites—alongside or slightly above Blacks—in the human hierarchy. (Ironically, that human hierarchy was in part the result of the new European “scientific” ideas of taxonomy—and, eventually, evolution.)


* * *


Grappling with the differences and similarities in the way the white power structure has treated Indians and Blacks is an interesting and complicated affair. And honing in on assimilation does not reduce the complexity by much. I have, however, recently come on a statement and idea that might guide further discussion. It is in Philip J. Deloria’s fine book, Indians in Unexpected Places, which has gone through several printings since its 2004 publication:


“… the varied efforts to reshape Indian people so as to assimilate them had nothing to do with the sameness that might have characterized social or political equality. Rather, they had everything to do with the practice of perfecting conquered people into similarity—ghost forms of the white conqueror, coexistent but not equal. Americans meant to bring Indian people within social and cultural boundaries only to the extent that they could be shaped using the same institutions and ideologies that made white citizens into subjects—schools, churches, wage labor, and literacy among others.” (p. 28)


When “similar” replaces “same,” one can see the paths of assimilation imagined by a white power structure. Whites could imagine tamed and civilized Indians and African Americans as lesser reflections of themselves—as similar; meanwhile, Indians and African Americans espousing assimilation mistakenly envisioned equality--sameness. 


From this perspective, the way assimilation has played out—and continues, in some ways, to play out to this day—can be traced and compared in the government policies and public attitudes of majority society towards Indians and African Americans. Deloria chronicles the idea through centuries of popular culture in writing, art, film, sport, and technology. Another Indian writer, David Treuer, has written extensively of government actions aimed at assimilation, from the end of the Indian wars to the modern day, in The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee.


And Ibram X. Kendi’s detailed history of majority-white and Black relations and the role of assimilationist thinking provide a detailed measuring device for that side of the discussion. The side-by-side is out there; the opportunity for comparisons, and learning from both, is at hand.


# # # 

Friday, October 30, 2020

Indians are still invisible!

In today’s Washington Post, long-time columnist Michael Gerson, a former George W. Bush speechwriter and consultant, labels President Trump a racist, and says that’s all you have to remember in the voting booth. He’s another of the staunch Republicans who is switching sides in this election, claiming older Republican and American values. But like so many principled Republicans and Democrats, he forgets and omits the long struggle of Native Americans with the waves of European immigrants in the first centuries of colonialism and nationhood. And like many of his journalism cohorts and academic mentors, he labels slavery our “original sin.”


“The struggle for racial equality is the defining American struggle. Much of our history has been spent dealing with the moral contradiction of America’s founding — how a bold experiment in liberty could also be a prison for millions of enslaved people. That hypocrisy and its ramifications have been our scandal. Our burden. Our sin.”  Michael Gerson, Washington Post, October 30, 2020.


I’ve been at this serious examination of Indian history and culture for a little over a decade, spurred by the work of my mentor, Alvin Josephy, and the Indian people I have read, met, and tried to listen to. I remember Alvin harping on the invisibility of Indians, the conscious and unconscious lies and omissions of the misnamed Indians in the history of our country. He spent a working life—over 40 years—addressing the issue.


This is of course not to excuse the institution of slavery and the importation of Africans to do the work of building a Euro-American economy and country. American Indians, after all, were the first slaves—sent by Columbus back to Spain, and worked to death in the Caribbean. 


I cannot imagine the lump in the throat, the pain in the gut, that passages like this, and the continuing distortions and omissions by journalists, pundits, and historians, give to newspaper and textbook reading Indians every day of their reading lives.


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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

But Not Jim Crow: What I’ve learned from Pearl Alice—so far!

I’ve heard about the Black loggers at Maxville for the 50 years I’ve lived in the Wallowas, and about Amos Marsh, the only pro football player ever to come out of Wallowa County, for as long. In recent years, I’ve watched my grandson and teammates in football and basketball games and track meets with Jim, “The Cove Rocket” Puckett. Jim has stories. He and Amos must have been the two fastest sprinters in Oregon high schools in 1956 and 57. Jim beat him in the 100 and 220 in high school, but Amos turned the cards when he was at Oregon State and Jim was at the U of O.  

Pearl Alice Marsh was Amos’s little sister. She went to Wallowa schools grades 1-6 while Amos and Frank—one year younger than Amos and also an outstanding athlete—were turning Wallowa Hi into a sports powerhouse. The family moved to California after Frank graduated, and Pearl Alice graduated high school there, and went on to get a Phd in Political Science at UC Berkeley and have a distinguished career in public service. I met her a few years ago as she was making annual returns to the Wallowas—spurred in part by the return of Nez Perce for Tamkaliks, a powwow in Wallowa. Now retired, Pearl had begun assembling the stories of the descendants of the Black logging families of Wallowa County. Her book is called But Not Jim Crow: Family Memories of African American Loggers in Maxville, Oregon.


Pearl’s father, Amos Marsh Sr., was born in Louisiana, moved to Arizona where he worked in the sawmill and met and married Mary Patterson. Mary was the daughter of Pa Pat and Ma Pat Patterson; Amos and Mary followed the Pattersons to Maxville, Oregon in 1938. Eventually, the Pattersons settled at Water Canyon, along the Wallowa River, a few miles into the canyon between Wallowa and Elgin. The Marshes moved into the town of Wallowa. Most Black logging families eventually moved to La Grande; the men continued to work at Maxville, commuting and living in bachelor quarters during the workweek.


That’s the basic framework. Pearl’s book gives voice to the Black lives of Eastern Oregon, not only the stories of hard work and academic and athletic success, but of cross cut saws, logging accidents, dressing pigs and deer, good cooks, and a beautiful woman who weathered a series of abusive husbands. They’re the stories of the ordinary lives and troubles of work and children in Maxville, Wallowa, and La Grande, Oregon.


An early lesson in the book is that Black people were working in great numbers in the timber industry in the South in the late 19th and early 20th century. In 1910, as much as 25 percent of employment in the timber industry was black. As farms mechanized and “free” Blacks looked to sustain themselves, they moved to timber, and as logging declined in the South, the Southern companies moved west. 


A lesson of the book title is that Pearl’s caste of characters was all part of the Great Migration that took millions of Black families north and west from 1916-1970 in their escape from the Jim Crow South. The “But” in that title tells another lesson: there was prejudice in Oregon too. But it was not the brutal prejudice of the American South in the 20s-60s. White men and Black worked together, played pool and cards together at Haney’s pool hall in Wallowa; women visited back and forth and kids went to school together, although there were always lines hard to cross. Some of the most touching stories in Pearl’s books are of the good things that happened between Blacks and Whites. A rich batch of photos and interviews with a few White friends and classmates speak to that. “It wasn’t Selma, but we made our stand,” said one of Amos’s White classmates.


From the recollections of descendants of the original Maxville loggers and their families—all of the actual loggers, sawmill workers, and wives are long gone—we get a picture of a small but vibrant Black community in Eastern Oregon from the 1920s well into the 1960s. Maxville recruits were often family members or close friends from the South, and the marriages and interrelationships continued. There was some moving back and forth from Oregon to Arizona and to the South. 


From the 1930s forward, Maxville families gradually drifted to La Grande, which already had a few Black railroad families. One Black wife took one look at Maxville and found a house in La Grande; her husband could commute and stay in the bachelor barracks at Maxville during the week.  La Grande was a bigger place too. There were at least three Black churches, and there was a college and a movie theater. Black boys from Pendleton would come to check on the Black girls in La Grande. With WW II some of the families went to Portland for war factory jobs. 


When a white logger from Wallowa went to work in Northern California, Amos Marsh followed him. Amos Jr. was at Oregon State and Frank at Linfield, both on track scholarships. Pearl and her sister went to California schools and did well. There are still descendants in Eastern Oregon. Gwen Trice’s Maxville Heritage program speaks to that. But Eastern Oregon’s Blacks have also traced lines across the country—and indeed, as exemplified by Joseph Hilliard Jr. in Pearl’s book, from La Grande and Eastern Oregon College to directing Peace Corps programs in Africa and serving in the State Department across the world.


It’s a rich heritage. Thank you Pearl.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Columbus Day: the rest of the story

 “Columbus Day” was first celebrated by Italian-Americans in San Francisco in 1869, and worked its way into a national holiday in 1937. Those of us who went to school in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and probably through the 1990s and are not of Italian heritage, remember a school holiday and sympathetic portrayals of the Italian explorer in our textbooks.

We were not told of Columbus’s introduction of slavery—the Indian slaves he sent back to Europe or the “Indios” he enslaved in the mining of gold and introduction of European agriculture in the Caribbean. We did learn that Columbus thought he had arrived in Asia and his subsequent “misnaming” of Indians—a tradition that continued! He named the Indians he first met “Caribs,” a word derived from one meaning human flesh-eaters, cannibals. Columbus thought he had met the ferocious man-eating savages described by Marco Polo. They skipped that in our textbooks and didn’t tell us that he and his cohorts were responsible for the extermination of some entire tribes of indigenous people on those Caribbean islands.

We did not learn about the papal “Doctrine of Discovery” that gave Columbus’s Spanish royalty and other Christian European powers the “right” to claim lands occupied by “heathens” as their own. We did not learn about the learned discussions in Europe over the Indians in the New World: If the gospel had indeed been proclaimed across the world, some reasoned, how could these new human-like creatures be humans, have “souls”? In 1537, Pope Paul III issued an encyclical proclaiming that Indians did have souls, and that they could not be enslaved—but they could be converted.

Almost a century later, a century in which Indians continued to be sent from the North American mainland to those islands as slaves, the importation of African slaves to the islands and then throughout the Americas commenced. There are no papal encyclicals regarding the enslavement of Africans, who, beginning in 1619, were bought and sold openly in American cities, whose children and grandchildren were bought and sold until the Civil War. And whose great and great-great grandchildren ran from Jim Crow in the South and spread throughout the country—where to this day they make less money and die sooner than their White American neighbors. 

When people today say that we should go back to celebrating American history and traditional values, they mean to omit these crucial moments in our history. But times have changed since we went to school. The Civil Rights Movement, Voting Rights Act, Indian uprisings at Alcatraz and Wounded Knee, and the Indian Freedom of Religion Act of 1978 have wrestled up forgotten history and made it impossible to see an unblemished past. 

A parade of new histories is moving the big ship of American Education, ever so slowly, to consider old events in new lights, and to see stories long suppressed in the broader and more accurate narrative of our national past. 

Alvin Josephy wrote Indian Heritage of America in 1968, Vine Deloria Jr. published Custer Died for Your Sins in 1969, and Dee Brown Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in 1971.  Indian poets and novelists, from Scott Momaday and Leslie Silko to Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie, write from Indian country today but are celebrated as American authors. 

African-Americans too have seen an almost century-long welling up of authors, storytellers, and artists showing the real story of slavery, Jim Crow, and continuing persecution and discrimination to this day. Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, Aretha Franklin, and a host of hip hop artists I can’t name bring the rich cultures of African-America to all of America. 

Recently, in the shadow of the deaths of George Floyd, Brionna Taylor and many others, new non-fiction books accurately depicting the history and practice of segregation and racism in America are on best-seller lists. In the last few months, I’ve reread Baldwin, read Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, and Jill Lapore’s These Truths: A History of the United States, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

Pile these books and ideas on top of the new environmental histories—Alfred Crosby’s Columbian Exchange; Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel; Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created—and you get a much broader picture of Columbus’s “discovery” of the new world.

These chapters of American history, and others—American expansion into Mexican lands; Asian exclusion acts; Japanese Internment camps; Jewish, Hungarian, Vietnamese, Hmong, Syrian and Iraqi refugees, etc.—do not diminish the impact that Columbus had on our world and the bigger world. As students of what is now called the “Columbian Exchange” point out, his journey unleashed an improbable amount of changes to the entire globe—animals, plants, diseases, and people quickly ricocheted off four continents so that Italians could have tomatoes and Irish potatoes; smallpox could visit the Americas and tobacco and sugar become European luxuries; and America could begin its dance with slavery.

But Columbus himself was a small man in retrospect, made small by the ignorance, meanness, and greed of his times. 

 # # #

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Indian Horse--Richard Wagamese

The name—its explanation comes on the first pages of the book—pulls you into the story. The writing is measured and strong and beautiful—

“The Old Ones say that our long straight hair comes from the waving grasses that thatch the edges of bays. Our feet and hands are broad and flat and strong, like the paws of a bear… Our talk rolls and tumbles like the rivers that served as our roads.”  It keeps you going.

But it’s a rough road. Richard Wagamese, a Canadian Ojibwa writer well known in his own country but not much here, tells a brutal story of old wisdom, a vicious boarding school, the grace and beauty in sport, and the depth of irrational racial hatred.

I’ve said before that slavery is not the original sin; the racism that produced and supported slavery is the country’s original sin. And here I include our neighbors to the north, who were part of, and are today, like us, a product of the invasion of White Europeans, who stole, plundered, and installed a system that we are now learning to see as “systemic racism.”

Ideas precede actions, as Ibram X. Kendi says: “race craft” had to be developed before Black Africans could be routinely put in chains. Race craft meant a color hierarchy, with white Europeans at the top; the Brown peoples of the New World were displaced as Black Africans were imported to build an economy on their lands. 

The digression on race is because one cannot read Indian Horse without wondering at the viciousness, cruelty, and disdain of Whites towards Indians. And there is no room here to allow our northern friends a pass on racism. Their guilt is as deep as our own.

What Euro-Canada did give to Indians was hockey (as we have given them basketball). What will engage sports enthusiasts in the book are descriptions of the thrill of sport, and not the jaw-dropping crushes routine in hockey or football, or even the pure athleticism of any sport’s best. It is the intuitive knowledge of sport, and the grace with which the best go about it.

Saul Indian Horse sees “the rink”—from the shabbiest coldest outdoor rinks in backwoods Canadian Indian hockey to the indoor, Zamboni-groomed rinks of the pros—and the puck and all the skaters as they are and as they might or could be in the next micro-seconds.  Saul scores, but more profoundly, he passes and makes other players and his teams better. Teammates learn to skate where he will find them, and defenses are befuddled by the eyes in the back of his head. He sees the hockey rink as his grandmother saw the lakes and rivers—and a hard route in freezing cold that saved Saul’s own life.

Hockey is Saul Indian Horse’s ticket out of the boarding school—and into other worlds of discrimination and cruelty. I was in tears at book’s end.

And Richard Wagamese, the writer? He’s a Canadian Ojibwa, so there are two counts against him in the American (read US) book world. I think most of his books are only available from Canadian publishers. Milkweed from Minneapolis brought this book out in a beautiful edition. 

The man’s story. The scenes in Indian Horse must be close to those Wagamese lived—parents and their generation were forced into boarding schools; he himself was removed from them and placed in foster care. He ran away from abuse and intolerance at 16, lived on the streets and in prisons until finding his story-telling voice. 

I sometimes feel doubly and triply robbed: robbed of the stories that were all around me when I was young—the Minnesota Ojibwa were my neighbors; robbed of any true accounting of the racism that has permeated White America from its onset in 1492; and robbed of the work of fine artists because of political, ethnic, and cultural boundaries observed by the American literary establishment and publishing industry. 

Oh—one more: I should have known and invited this man to Fishtrap when I was in charge and he was still alive.

# # #

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Slavery is not our Original Sin

“No adverse impact visited on the 1492 voyage of “discovery” was more profound in its consequences         in every nook and cranny of the Americas than Columbus’s introduction of Western European ethnocentricity to the Indians’ worlds. Asserting the superiority of the white aggrandizers’’ religious, political, and social universe over each of the many indigenous peoples from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, this ethnocentricity was an arrogant vice, backed by superior firepower and boundless gall, that never faltered or weakened. It continues unabashedly on both continents today, and its impact has been felt long after the conquest of the continents was complete.”

Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus, page 4.

There’s the sin, the hubris, the tragic flaw in our origins. 

It is popular—almost automatic in some circles—to say that slavery is America’s Original Sin. It is also true that slavery existed in many parts of the world prior to the 1619 importation of African slaves to North America, prior to Columbus’s century earlier enslavement of “Indians” of the Caribbean (and exportation of some to Europe). 

Ibram X. Kendi’s brilliant Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racism in America, recounts the Western Europeans’ importation of Slavic slaves, the development of African slavery and the European—and eventually American—traffic in African slaves, and the development of color conscious superiority thinking in Europe. Kendi would, I think, agree wholeheartedly with Josephy’s comment, made on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World. 

There is no argument that slavery—the “legal” or culturally acknowledged ownership of one human by another—is evil. But Josephy’s point, echoed by Kendi and by Louis Farrakhan in a speech at the Black “Million Man March” on the Capitol Mall in 1995 (quoted by Kendi), is that “The real evil in America is not white flesh or black flesh. The real evil in America is the idea that undergirds the setup of the Western world, and that idea is called white supremacy.”

I love the word “undergirded” here. And if we think in terms of undergirded and white supremacy as visited on the indigenous peoples of America from Columbus forward, we have only to add Josephy’s “Western European Ethnocentricity” and the gradual expansion of what “white” means to get to where we are today.

Because White, for the first 400+ years of our United States history, did not mean Irish or Greek, Syrian, Eastern European, or Russian Jew. With the massive mobilization and movement of troops across the country in WW II, “White" began to include non-Anglo and non-Western European Americans. It became more fully realized, as Kendi points out, with the GI Bill and suburbanization after the War. Blacks, who were segregated through WW II, were largely excluded by the GI Bill (as were American Indians), and White emphatically did not mean Chinese American and Japanese American and Filipino-American as we enacted internment camps (there were of course no German-American internment camps during WW II), and embraced anti-Asian and miscegenation laws well into the 1950s. 

White was broadening. Levittown was open to Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans as well as Anglo-Americans, and although there were still quotas in colleges and universities on the number of Jews admitted, Jewish-Americans were leaving their “ghettos” with humor—all the major comics in the age of TV variety shows and LP records I grew up with were Jewish: Shelly Berman, Mort Sahl, Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce. American Jews too were making marks in book, film, and song: Philip Roth, Barbra Streisand, Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler...

On TV, Irish American Carrol O’Conner, as Archie Bunker, a lovable bigot with son-in-law “meathead” as his next generation liberal foil, replaced “Leave it to Beaver” as the standard American family. And an Irish-American was elected president!

African-Americans, Indians, and Asian-Americans were certainly not secure in the post-war world that created the "largest middle class" the country had ever known. They were only creeping in at the edges with policies and practices Kendi, Josephy, and the leaders and immediate followers of the Eisenhower administration called “assimilation.” Trying to become culturally—and sometimes, with hair, skin, and eye treatments, physically—White. 

Kendi argues--I think convincingly--that assimilation is not the answer to white superiority. “Inroads,” yes; success for some Blacks and Indians and “other” Americans on white terms, yes; but until we root out the Original Sin of Western European White Supremacy, all Americans, including White Americans (quoting James Baldwin), will not be free and equal human beings.

# # # 


Monday, September 21, 2020

White racial attitudes towards Blacks—and Indians: Parallels

Ibram X. Kendi’s book, Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, is an exhaustive catalog of religious, social, and economic attitudes and policies that began with the importation of African slaves and continue to this day. The number of actors and authors he sites in telling the story of racists, assimilationists, and antiracists and their multi-layered beliefs is mind-boggling. The way he weaves the three belief poles through US history—and especially the difficult journey of Black people themselves, but also the journeys of White abolitionists, politicians, and scholars—is a vivid and important telling.

Kendi’s treatment of Indians is sketchy at best. Weaving American Indians into the narrative of racism would have doubled the page count, and maybe he has done his job and it is up to others to tell the stories of European, mostly Anglo, settlers’ assumption of racial superiority over the misnamed Indian inhabitants, imported African slaves, and later immigrants from Ireland, Eastern Europe, and Asia. 

Kendi’s anti-Black racism story parallels the story of Indians and White racism in many ways, complicated by one huge and overwhelming factor: land. Indians had it and Whites wanted—needed—it in advancing a potpourri of their own visions of developing a new country. From plantation to Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, settlement of invited immigrants to establishment of Land Grant universities, White America has needed Indian lands. And took them—by war, honest and (mostly) dishonest treaty, and just plain squatting on them. People squatted, but so did the government itself, rural Indian lands being the right and easy places for bombing ranges and nuclear bomb-building. 

Racism and assimilation were part of the Indian picture even before 1619 and the importation of African Americans. Columbus’s original killing and enslavement of Indians are now well documented and admitted. Wars against and treaties with Indians always assumed White superiority. And “separate but equal occurred” on reservations as it did in Southern schools; send them back to Africa or move them to Indian Territory. Assimilate them—make them white with religion and boarding schools, or with Black colleges and Euro-White curriculum. Kendi calls assimilation “uplift suasion,“ and notes that Blacks who achieved—and still achieve—some success were and are evaluated on how White-like that success is.

There’s much more to be said about the parallels of assimilation and racism with Indians and Blacks over centuries—it’s worth a book. But for one minute let’s look at the post WW 2 period, 1945 into the 50s. Indians and Blacks both served in WW II; Blacks were segregated and Indians gained some notoriety as Code-Talkers. Blacks and Indians served honorably and received the praise of their services—until they got home. 

We know that Black veterans were disregarded, threatened, and occasionally lynched when they tried to parlay their patriotic service into voting or education or housing. Blacks moved North and West, voting with their feet, only to find that the promise of the G.I. Bill’s housing provision could not be exercised in neighborhoods deemed “unsafe” for lenders. Cities were “redlined” and Blacks shuttled to poorer neighborhoods which became poorer without means of getting mortgages. 

Similarly, The G.I. Bill’s housing provisions could not be applied on reservations, because banks would not loan money for houses to Indians on reservations. Indian reservations were lands held in trust by the federal government, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs would not sign a waiver granting title to the veterans. Without this waiver, there was no way to secure a loan, even under the GI Bill.

Black veterans wanted to eat in restaurants and travel freely after the War; Indians wanted to have a drink—as they had been able to do while in the service. It wasn’t until 1951, that the Oregon State Legislature removed the ban on the sale of alcohol to Indians and the prohibition of intermarriage with Indians.

And if voting for Black veterans in the South was still subject to the rules of Jim Crow—literacy tests, poll taxes, etc., Indian veterans—in fact no Indians—could vote in Arizona and New Mexico until 1948, and until 1957 in Utah. 

Kendi talks about Blacks pursuit of Whiteness with hair products, marrying lighter, and college and professions in the White world. Successful Blacks and social and government programs pushed along in this uplift suasion. For Indians, do-gooders had long held that the only way to “save the man” was to “kill the Indian” in him. Nineteenth century land allotment programs, boarding schools, and the outright banning of languages and ceremony had not been totally successful in stamping out Indian culture, and Indians still clung to some tribal lands. So in the post-war years the Eisenhower administration mounted two drastic assimilation programs to finally solve the nation’s “Indian Problem.”  The “Termination” program would buy out reservations and make the lands available to Whites and white-run companies. The “Relocation” program would give young reservation Indians a bus ticket to the city—with the possibility of training or work at the other end. It would certainly get more Indians off their land and striving white in the urban world.

The huge “stimulus package” to integrate American veterans back into society, was, as one author called it, “the most massive piece of affirmative legislation in U.S. history.” Some say the GI Bill created the middle class in America. Kendi shows, and Black Americans and Indians know, that it created the White Middle Class in America. It did finally make the Irish, Poles, Greeks, and Jews of European stock White—but that is another story. 

# # #

Friday, September 11, 2020


Reparations—government payments or amends of some kind to the descendants of Black American slaves—are not a new idea, but the current Covid-19-BLM crisis has brought them back into conversation. I’ve been skeptical, wondering where Indians and Latinx would fit into it.  But being open minded…

Reading Coates and trying to make sense of the Reparation argument.  

Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a powerful argument in his oft-cited “Case for Reparations” in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic. Although White indentured servants were the earliest low-wage, no-wage North American laborers, they were still “legal subjects of the English crown,” and thus had certain protections. As the European slave trade, which had relied on eastern Europeans but increasingly, in the 16th century, became dependent on Africans, the Americas joined in. As Coates says, “they became early America’s indispensable working class—fit for maximum exploitation, capable of only minimal resistance.”

Although we—mainstream, mostly white, America—see the South and its tobacco, sugar, and cotton plantations as the scenes of slavery and its reason for being, Ibram X. Kendi points out in Stamped From the Beginning that the growing manufacturing engine of the North relied on king cotton and the South, meaning slavery, for its success. And in fact, as international slave trade was banned and “breeding” and sale of domestic slaves replaced it, slavery also became very profitable. Slavers borrowed to buy, bought insurance policies on, and paid sales taxes on slaves. On the eve of the Civil War, the slaves in our country had more total dollar value than that of all manufacturing and the railroads combined. 

If the Civil War “freed” slaves, the failure of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow continued their oppression. No need here to recount the lynchings of Blacks, including war veterans returning from WW I and WW II. But Coates reminds us also that FDR’s New Deal largely skipped Blacks—domestic and agricultural workers, 65% of the Black labor force, were exempted from Social Security. Employers didn’t have to pay the tax; workers did not get Social Security on retirement. 

And the post WW II G.I. housing loans were effectively denied Black veterans by official red-lining: mortgages did not go to unsafe neighborhoods, and, by definition, Black neighborhoods were unsafe—so no mortgages. 

Coates argues articulately that wealth is a cumulative exercise, and that for most middle-class Americans the largest lifetime investment has been housing.  Denied housing as a way of growing wealth, and facing ongoing discrimination in education and job promotion (athletics and entertainment are exceptions that deserve their own discussion), the wealth gap between Whites and Blacks has remained static from 1970 to present. 

But reparations for descendants of those who were wronged? The catalog of White transgressions against Blacks is long and, some will argue, continues to grow. From a justice point of view, it’s hard to argue. From a precedent point of view as well. Germany paid reparations to Israel after WW II. Way before that, Quaker abolitionists gave land to freed slaves. 

In 1988, President Reagan apologized to the Japanese-Americans who had been interned during WW II and gave the ones still alive each $20,000. John Tateishi, who was incarcerated at the Manzanar Internment camp ages 3-6, and became a leader in the movement for reparations, says it was not about the money, but the idea that the internees had been patriots, not criminals.  “We were determined to pass [the Civil Liberties Act] as a way of having Americans recognize the injustice of what happened to us—not for our sake, but in order to make sure this never happened again.”

If some kind of reparations are due African-Americans, what is due the descendants of the first peoples, the misnamed Indians who greeted the white newcomers—and initially gave them the knowledge and help that would allow them to thrive—and then had their lands stolen. The stealing which started with squatting on lands communally “owned” by Tribes, continued with forced treaties, broken treaties, warfare, through the allotment and termination programs well into the twentieth century.  High Country News is now documenting the stealing of Indian lands to house or to endow the land grant universities (Oregon State, Washington State, Rutgers, etc.). Some still live on stolen land; some still live on the endowment.

Language, culture, and religion were stripped away from the Indians too—stolen, through government programs. Gradually, over the last fifty years, there has been some turning back, some acknowledgment of past sins, with the Indian Freedom of Religion Act and the Boldt Decision on Northwest Salmon. Treaties have consequences, Boldt said, and the government must help restore salmon. The Sioux continue to refuse compensation for the Black Hills taken away from them in the nineteenth century, although the courts have determined that the Black Hills rightfully still belong to them, and set aside government money to compensate them. Though many live in poverty, the proud Sioux continue to refuse.

The Mexicans of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and California have claims too. The ones “trapped” on this side when the border was moved, with Texas Annexation in 1845 and the Mexican American War in 1848, were immediately discriminated against in voting, land ownership, and leadership. The Texas Rangers ruthlessly suppressed Mexicans, Indians, and Blacks. 

Measuring human losses—especially losses from the past, inherited losses, losses of opportunity—and assigning dollar values to them is an impossible task. But Coates has something larger in mind:

Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely…  Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.

If we see Reparations as a reckoning with past actions, a coming to terms, if we have the stomach for addressing past moral mistakes made by “fallible humans” who were mostly White Euro-Americans, then I say we should try. 

Maybe some treaty rights would be restored, new educational programs initiated; maybe there would be actual cash payments and transfer of lands to tribes and to the descendants of slaves. But most importantly, there would be acknowledgement of histories, languages, and cultures that have been demeaned and buried for centuries. Quoting Coates again: “Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”

The “how” of it is not clear, but Coates suggests that “H.R. 40, also known as the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act,” an act asking for study with no commitment to cash reparations, introduced regularly by Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan beginning in 1989, would be a good place to start. 

I’d add Indians and Latinx…

# # #


Friday, August 7, 2020

Murder of the Southwest

I have a son living—and roasting—in an ever growing and warming Phoenix. And now there is the specter of Covid in the mix in an urban Southwest only made habitable by borrowed water and electric air conditioning. 

In 1971, Alvin Josephy wrote a blistering examination of power generation politics in the Southwest in Audubon Magazine. “Murder in the Southwest,” he called it. It’s important today as word creeps out from the Navajo Nation about Covid-19 and the underlying poverty and lack of clean water that are terrible in their own right and awful in contributing to the virus among the people. The Hopi tribe has also seen high rates of  infection and death from Covid-19, and there is even less national attention to the Hopi situation than there is to the Navajo.

Josephy wrote about the coordinated efforts of public officials and agencies, private and public electric power companies, and private business to promote growth in the Southwest. They needed water and they needed power. Water meant first the Colorado River; power meant Glen Canyon Dam and a series of dams, but when more dam-building struck opposition, power brokers switched to a complex of coal-fired power plants across the Four Corners region of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado.

The water would be channeled, or pumped over hills and mountains—with huge amounts of electrical energy—to the burgeoning cities and agriculture of the Southwest. The water would come primarily from the Colorado River, some of which had been or should have been allocated to Tribes. The coal would come from tribal lands.

The trick was to secure access to the coal. This was primarily Peabody Coal’s work, but involved the complicity of a coterie of business, government and industry leaders mentioned above. The tools were secrecy and dividing the Tribes. Divisions were there already between “traditionalists” and “progressives,” those intent on preserving culture and traditions of the past, and those who favored development to bring the people education and jobs that would improve their lives. Divisions had been established or exacerbated by the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, Roosevelt’s “Indian New Deal,” which asked Tribes across the country to conform to one model of Tribal governance—with Bureau of Indian Affairs veto power. 

The point here is not to argue Tribal politics, but Alvin’s showing how major development proponents exploited the divisions. (That’s how Great Britain built its empire, Josephy used to say, and how Euro-Americans moved across the continent at the expense of Indians.) 

One of the power plants that rattled Josephy in 1971, the 3,000 megawatt Kaiparowits coal-fired power plant in central Utah, was not completed, Southern California Edison citing “increasing costs, environmental constraints, and pending regulatory legislation.” The Navajo Generating Station in Arizona was shut down in 2019. But the power from Glen Canyon Dam, the Navajo and other plants has fueled growth in the Southwest for the last half century. Water—now low in Lake Powell and Lake Mead—is scarce. Power needs built up over time must now be met with conservation, gas, solar, and other means. 

Many jobs were provided over those coal years on and near the reservations, many of them to Tribal members. But now, in its wake, the Tribes are left with the pollution that Josephy warned about, the impacts of a boom and bust economy, and a dire water situation, with Indian water stolen from the Colorado for Phoenix and sister cities, and groundwater poisoned by uranium mining—but that’s another story.

In July of 1971, 49 years ago, Alvin Josephy cautioned that in the long run, we’d have to develop 

"geothermal or other non-polluting sources of power,… change the habits and demands of power consumers… halt waste and profligacy, [and] stop the headlong race for growth, development, and ‘progress’ that is suicidal, and to learn from the traditional Hopis’ religious view of their relationship to nature—of stewardship of the Earth."

It is, he wrote so presciently in 1971, “the only outlook that matters today.”

# # #

Friday, July 10, 2020

Paddling Upstream

Alvin Josephy passed away almost two decades ago, but time and again, during this coronavirus/Black Lives crisis, I have heard him shout in my ear that when our history books don’t lie about Indians, they ignore them.

When the NYT sends a reporter to the Navajo Nation to document the terrible impact of Covid-19 on the people, the world reads and sighs—and then the story goes to the back pages or to no page at all. When George Floyd is killed by police in Minneapolis, and Indigenous singers and jingle dancers from many tribes go to the site of the killing to pay homage and honor the man, a video from Indian participants sneaks out on Facebook. Indians and their tribute are barely visible in the national press.

When people come into the Josephy Center where I work and get the first pages of the Nez Perce story—the one about Wallowa lands left to the Joseph Band of the Nez Perce by solemn US Treaty in 1855, and then snatched away from them in an 1863 treaty after the discovery of gold—they shake their heads, maybe pick up a book about the Nez Perce, and go their ways. This story of past injustice gets told and retold more often than most Indian stories, but the fact that Nez Perce and other tribal people are still here is not part of the current American story.

Sometimes I feel like I am paddling upstream—and then I think of the years that Alvin labored to tell the Indian side of history, and think it’s a wonder that he kept at it so long and so hard.

When Alvin found the Nez Perce story in 1951, it captured his mind and soul. But he was working at Time Magazine, where publisher Henry Luce thought modern Indians “phonies” who should just get on with being Americans. Time editors followed Luce’s lead, and Alvin worked on his first two Indian books, Patriot Chiefs and The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest, without support or encouragement from Time.

When he published Patriot Chiefs, in 1961, Indians—many of whom had fought for the United States in WW II, thanked him for calling them patriots. But a historian at the Western History Conference asked him why the hell he was writing about Indians; “no one cares about Indians.”

After Patriot Chiefs, Alvin moved from Time to American Heritage, and there he hired and mentored historian David McCullough. They remained friends—McCullough emceed Alvin’s 80th birthday party in Jackson Hole in 1995. Unfortunately, I didn’t read McCullough’s award winning biography of John Adams until after Alvin died, so did not get a chance to ask him why he thought McCullough failed to address the issue of Indians in the first days of the Republic in his book. I wonder now if Alvin felt a sting with McCullough’s dismissal of Indians, who had become his own focus in writing and advocacy.

In 1969, Josephy’s Indian Heritage of America was nominated for an American Book Award. The New York Times said that it contained more information on Indians in one volume than most small American libraries had on their shelves. But its lack of impact on the standard historical narrative in American textbooks must have bothered Alvin. In 1973, in an article in Learning Magazine titled “The Forked Tongue in U. S. History Books,” he documented the lies and omissions regarding Indians in California textbooks of the day.

There are other upstream stories, but I’ll end this rant with Alvin’s 1992 book, America in 1492: the World of the Indian Peoples before the Arrival of Columbus. In the Introduction, he reminds us that 500 years earlier Columbus had landed in the Bahamas among a people he misnamed “Indians,” and a tribe he misnamed “Caribs,” or “cannibals.” Alvin wrote that “no adverse impact visited on the Indians by the 1492 voyage… was more profound in its consequences than Columbus’s introduction of Western European ethnocentricity to the Indians’ worlds.” The newcomers asserted the superiority of their “religious, political and social universe” over those of many “different indigenous peoples from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego…” The ethnocentricity that began with Columbus continued through Alvin’s day—and continues to the present day.

The final Josephy words that ring in my ears are from visits to bookstores as we traveled together to speeches and book signings for his 2001 memoir, A Walk Toward Oregon. He’d look for his books, and finding them with the “butterflies… dinosaurs, and dodo birds,” he’d mutter that “Indians don’t have history or biography, you know.” They have anthropology, and are consigned to “museums of natural history, not human history.” Next to the seashells and butterflies on bookstore shelves.

His was a hard but glorious fifty-year paddle.

# # #

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Dams and People

There was a story in the New York Times yesterday about the flooding of the village of Hasankeyf in Southeast Turkey. Some say the village is 12,000 years old, and certainly it and the surrounding area have stories of ancient civilizations that are part of a historical thread that goes back to the “Garden of Eden.” Hasankeyf is on the Tigris River, which, along with the Euphrates, framed the Fertile Crescent, land where we think the domestication of wheat and animals took place millennia ago, land the holy books and their followers say was home to Adam and Eve. 

I lived upstream from Hasankeyf, on Anbar Creek, one of two main tributaries to the Tigris, for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer over 50 years ago. I remember then some talk of big dams on the Tigris and Euphrates, but remember better the nearby city of Diyarbakir’s old walls, its mosques, churches, and market, and the Seljuk and Roman roads and bridges—and the people—in surrounding villages and cities. The area was primarily Kurdish, but there were Turks, Arabs, and Armenians who had been there for centuries. They’d fought, won and lost, got along and not. All of their faces came flooding back with the NYT photos, photos of homes and markets being destroyed and villagers moved from a place they’ve called home for hundreds of years to a “new” Hasankeyf built on higher ground. The new town looks like one look-alike government house after the other. 

* * *

Something else floods my mind as coronavirus and Black Lives Matter shine bright lights on our own national history. I think about the dams on the Columbia River, and the millennial villages and fishing sites that they flooded. Yes, there was Woody Guthrie and “Roll On Columbia,” and FDR and how Grand Coulee and some of the other dams on the main-stem Columbia helped lift us out of the Depression and make the aluminum that made the airplanes that helped us win WW II. But that wasn’t the whole story.

There is an American Experience film, “Grand Coulee Dam,” which covers jobs, irrigation, power, and flood—but it also covers the loss of fish and culture. It chronicles the quieted and disregarded voices of Indian opposition in the lead-up years, and shows the weeping and dumbstruck faces of the Indians as the dam waters flooded and stopped their salmon in 1942.

These things were happening in the first half of twentieth century, when Indians had been weakened by disease, wars, broken treaties, boarding schools and allotment programs designed to take away their remaining lands. In the wake of WW II, in which Navajo code talkers and thousands of Indians honorably served, the Eisenhower Administration set out to “terminate” Indian tribes once and for all. The government would buy out the lands not already stolen—at cheap prices—and make Indians assimilate, be “like us.” They’d also send young Indians to cities—away from their reservations—in a “relocation” program, to further this assimilation.

And the government would condemn more land for dam-building along the Columbia River and along the Missouri River, where there are six main stem dams. It was an era of progress, and Indians—and salmon, other wildlife, and a healthy Indian agriculture along the Missouri—were in the way of it. 

Maybe Celilo was rock bottom, and the flooding of Celilo Falls, where Indians had fished and gathered to trade goods and stories for thousands of years, would be the end of it. I heard once that Celilo was the sweet spot on the Columbia, where migrating salmon had lost and retained just enough fat on their upriver journeys to make them perfect. The Dalles Dam flooded Celilo in 1957, and again the dumbstruck Indians wept. 

In the ensuing and turbulent 1960s, with the Civil Rights Movement and legislation, with Black Power and Brown Power, Termination and Relocation were declared failures, and Indians began a long journey back to recapture land, pride, and culture. In the 1970s, Indians were given a boost by the Boldt Decision, which restored treaty rights to fish on the Columbia. Those rights, contested at first, are now accepted, and Indian fisheries programs are working to restore ancient salmon runs. 

There’s more than one “Indian writer du jour” now—I’ve read Beth Piatote, David Treuer, and Louise Erdrich in the last month. Indian elders and law-school trained Indians are fighting pipelines in the Dakotas and along the Atlantic Coast with new success. Casinos, ironically “taxing” white people at their gambling tables, have paid for some of this revival, but education and Indian resilience are driving it.

Somehow, it seems my old friends in Turkey are experiencing the industrial juggernaut that Indians in America experienced in the 1940s and 1950s. But they too are resilient people, and the hope is that their voices will be heard, and their 1960s and 1970s will come. 

# # #

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Sioux Nation, South Dakota, and Five Presidents

Amidst coronavirus and Black Lives Matter, President Trump has done what the news media and the public couldn’t seem to get to—bring attention to American Indians. Concocting something with the Republican governor of South Dakota, Trump is engineered a Fourth of July celebration at Mount Rushmore, site of the mountain carvings of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt. There’s been a ten-year lapse since the last such celebration due to forest fire danger—but not this year.

The mountain carvings were completed in 1941 on land that had been left to the Sioux twice with treaties in the 19th century. In a familiar series of events, gold was found, miners rushed in, and Custer galumphed in to “make it safe” for the white invaders. The mountain had been sacred to the Sioux before the carving, before Custer.

Trump didn’t check with the Indians before planning the extravaganza. Sioux President Julian Bear Runner said that Mr. Trump's attendance is “an insult to Native Americans on whose stolen land it was built… lands on which that mountain is carved and the lands he’s about to visit belong to the Great Sioux nation, and I have to tell him he doesn’t have permission from its original sovereign owners to enter the territory at this time.” He also cited health concerns, important, as Governor Kristi Noem confirmed that attendees are not required to practice social distancing or wear masks.

It had never occurred to me—and we visited often when I was young—that the presidents on Rushmore are all an insult to the Sioux:

Washington did want to treat “justly” with Indians, but he also wanted their land, by sale and treaty if possible, war if not.

Jefferson’s vision for America was sea to shining sea with white yeoman farmers, settlers who would replace the savages; in the Declaration of Independence he wrote of “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.”

Lincoln signed the Homestead Act of 1862, giving an easy path for white settlers to take Indian lands. And he hung 38 Sioux at Mankato, Minnesota in the same year. The Indians had balked at reduced lands and broken promises.

Teddy Roosevelt apparently softened towards Indian in the end, but didn’t think them equal. And told photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis, who had learned the true story, that the real story of Custer should not reach the American public; Custer must remain a hero.

Trump stands tall among them.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Indians Matter

Of course “Black Lives Matter”! And bringing attention to the large numbers of deaths by police and the cases and deaths by COVID-19 among African-Americans is the right thing to do. The press has gone some way towards reporting the heavy impact of the disease on the Latinx population as well. In both cases, reporting has brought out the disproportionate number of black and brown people working as house cleaners, health care aides, and in food processing plants, public transportation, and other occupations that put them at greater risk of contagion. Poor neighborhoods, poor water, and crowded living conditions have also been examined.

But what about the Indians?

The New York Times has had a few pieces on the Navajo Nation, and they are now a separate item on worldometers continuing graphic updates ( With a population of just 173,667, the Nation has 6,611 confirmed cases and 311 deaths attributed to the virus as of June 16. That is more than 3,650 cases per 100,000 people — a higher per-capita rate than anywhere in the U.S. For comparison, New York is at 2,082 cases per 100,000 people. Put another way, at that rate Oregon would have over 160,000 COVID cases and 7,500 deaths.

But coverage of the Navajo Nation is sporadic, and I can find almost no coverage of other tribal situations. I know from following Idaho news that the Nez Perce Reservation had a recent spike, and I know from a friend that the Yakama Reservation in Washington also had a surge. It seems to me that NPR interviewed an Indian from South Dakota, or was it North Dakota?

I do know that epidemic diseases killed more indigenous people in the Americas at the start of European colonialism than all the Indian wars. Measles, smallpox, and tuberculosis devastated the misnamed Indians from the 16th century fishermen along the Atlantic coast to the near extirpation of the Cayuse in the 1840s, and they continued to be damaging among tribes through the twentieth century. Charles Mann argues strongly in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, that diseases attacks on Indians had a genetic component. And, according to Indian friends, there are strong tribal memories of the 1918 flu—and that generational memory has some living in fear today.

Alvin Josephy said that when we are not lying about Indian history and Indians in American history we are omitting them. It’s been a long hard road that Euro-Americans have traveled over and around Indians. Most of it has had to do with land. They had it and we wanted it. Disease killed off Squanto’s people and the Puritans arrived to caches of food and an empty landscape. From King Philip’s War to the Nez Perce War, combat with superior firearms took more land. And when war didn’t work, treaties—and a continued rewriting of or abandoning them—took more land.

After disease and war and treaty-making, there was government policy: the Indian Removal Act of 1830 sent tribes to “unsettled” lands across the Mississippi; The Dawes Allotment Act of 1887 tried to divide remaining Indian lands into parcels for individual Indians to farm, selling the “surplus” un-allotted lands to settlers; and the Termination Act of 1953 tried finally to do away with all treaty and contractual relations and obligations with the federal government—freeing up more land to be purchased by Weyerhaeuser Timber and white farmers and ranchers.

* * *

There are complex histories of the relationships among today’s Latinx and Native Americans, and among African Americans and American Indians—stories too long, and ones I don’t know well enough to trace in short paragraphs. But Indians are still here, still invisible to many, but still here.

And Indian lives matter; Indians matter. Any true tellings of today’s pandemic and past ones, of our country’s history and vision of our future, must include the original—still misnamed—Indians.

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Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman

I’m not halfway through Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman—and I’m uncomfortable. Erdrich is Turtle Mountains Chippewa. The Turtle Mountain Reservation is about 200 miles due west of Fosston, Minnesota, where I was born and started growing up. Her book is set in the 1950s, with the story of her grandfather fighting Termination at the heart of it. I was born in 1942, and remember northern Minnesota—the summer heat and bugs and winter cold; ice skates too big with paper stuffed in the toes; Lutheran churches and church potlucks; summer baseball, and on and on. But I don’t remember The Night Watchman’s world.

The town names—Fargo and Grand Forks, Minneapolis—I recognize, but not the people. I don’t remember knowing the word Chippewa, or Ojibwa, and certainly not Assiniboine, all names for the Indian people who lived and live across northern Minnesota and North Dakota and into Canada. We just knew “Indian,” but then only the word and some mostly bad stories. On the plus side was the Indian girl on the Land O’Lakes butter package; and Tonto, who helped the Lone Ranger on the radio. Tonto’s accent was outlandish and led to mistaken stereotyping, but at least he was on the right side of the law. The negatives were all the stories we heard from elders and older boys—drunken Indians, lazy Indians, Indians with big cars bought with “government money” living in shacks on the gravel back road we took to Fargo.

Reading Erdrich, I’m thinking that my family hunted, so we knew duck, partridge, and venison, and we picked wild berries—but we didn’t know wild turnips or pemmican, or dipping bannock in duck grease. We didn’t know hunger.

Although the White Earth Reservation was just minutes from Fosston, there were no Indians in our school. We didn’t know about reservation schools and especially about boarding schools. We didn’t know that the government had spent almost 200 years taking Indian lands and trying to make it all right by making them white. Assimilation is a word I didn’t know into my 30s or 40s, and I’m still piecing together the steps along that road: treaties, missionaries, allotment, boarding schools, Code of Indian Conduct, termination, relocation, incarceration…

Mankato is not in The Night Watchman, at least not yet, but there was certainly nothing in our histories about the Dakota Uprising of 1862, and the public hanging of 38 Dakota men in the midst of the Civil War in Mankato, Minnesota.

In Erdrich’s beautifully crafted historical novel, I’m reading the other side—people and events omitted in the textbooks and the stories from Norwegian and German American elders—of my own story. Her people have tarpaper shacks with dirt floors, cardboard walls, and outhouses, and they carry water from somewhere else. My grandparents had an outhouse, and a pump on the front porch in nearby Lengby. But the water was clean, and after their house burned in 1947, the new house had a chemical toilet. Our house in Fosston, and all the friends’ houses I knew, were fully-plumbed.

In the book, Patrice, a strong young woman with a saintly mom and a dad lost to alcohol, goes to Minneapolis to find her sister, who’s “relocated” to the city and fallen into its scummy backwaters. I didn’t make it to Minneapolis in those years. It was a far-off foreign place. There was the Sunday Star Tribune, with its brown sports pages—where I really learned to read, and the Minnesota Golden Gophers I rooted for. My dad had worked in a meatpacking plant there before the War; it hadn’t been a clean place. But none of this was like the Minneapolis where Erdrich’s—and many other—relocated Indians ended up, prey to petty thieves and pimps, staying in fleabag hotels, wondering where they were—and who they had become. Relocation, Termination’s stepsister, had its successes, but it destroyed many, and I ache knowing I’ll learn how it ate up Patrice’s sister.

I try to remember any positive images of Indian in those Minnesota days. Two come to mind. First, my favorite Uncle Al, a southern Minnesota farm-boy who’d come back from WW II with some gumption and an ache to hunt and fish, bought a small resort on Island Lake. The “Hideout” was about a dozen miles from Fosston, a mile or so off that gravel back road to Fargo as I recall. The last mile was two-track with turnouts in case you met someone coming the other way.  There were a few rustic cabins, and a few boats tied to a dock with a minnow tank at its end. There was a small caf√© with coffee pot and jukebox at a counter and maybe a booth or two.

Uncle Al invited me to come stay with him for a week when I was maybe 8. This was before he married my Dad’s youngest sister, so maybe I was his way of cozying up to the family, although I know from later years that Al loved all kids—and I was the first nephew/grandchild in the family. We slept in one of the cabins; “Pete” the dog jumped through the window to wake us, and Al went to put the coffee on and make us pancakes. He had work to do around the place, so gave me a rod with line and hook and told me to go fish off the dock.

I sat on the end of that dock, struggling to catch a minnow out of the tank—or maybe I got one from the tank with that small net and was struggling to put it on the hook—when a brown boy about my size and age asked if he could help me. The hook goes through the mouth and out the gill on the side and then through the body of the minnow so that it is in a swim-line with plenty of tale left to wiggle.

Itasca State Park 1948?
He did that and I learned it and I don’t remember whether I caught a fish that day or whether I asked where he lived or whether we talked more or not. He just disappeared from my life as silently and quickly as he’d come into it. Island Lake was right next to the White Earth Reservation—maybe on it in one of the Rez’s earlier configurations, so I guessed he lived in one of those tarpaper shacks we drove by.

One day when I was younger than that Uncle Al and some other uncles, girlfriends and aunts took me to Itasca State Park. One or two of them went ahead and when we got to our spot Uncle Al asked if I knew about money trees. “Well,” he said, “you might shake that one over there and see what happens.” I did, and pennies and nickels tumbled from the branches, and I scooped them up and planned on telling my folks about the magic tree and my fine adventure.

That same day there was an Indian Chief sitting in front of his teepee at Itasca, and for a quarter you could sit on his lap and have your picture taken. I don’t know now whether I remember that event or just remember it from the photo of it. Early events are enigmatic like that. I might have been scared, although I don’t look it in the photo. I’m more impressed now at the teepee with the hand drum. I wouldn’t have known it was a hand drum at the time.

I didn’t know much. It’s my good fortune to have a writer as talented as Louise Erdrich come along with this book at this time in my life to show me what I’d missed.

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Monday, May 18, 2020

Good news in Pandemic times

With all of the fear and uncertainty of recent weeks, we had a blessing fall into our laps. We had commissioned a video account of our Main Street sculpture project last summer, and we now have the completed 4-minute video.

The work, by artist Doug Hyde, brings up a very difficult time in the life of the Nez Perce people, their exile from this Wallowa country, but it celebrates a return.. It is not an all at once return; it is not return to what it was in pre-settler days. But a “return from a very difficult journey,” has begun, and we at the Josephy Center are proud to be part of it.

The sculpture installation on Main Street in Joseph was completed on June 22, 2019. The name of the sculpture is ‘etwey√©·wise, which means, in the Nez Perce language, “I return from a difficult journey.” The artist is Doug Hyde, born in Hermiston, raised at Lapwai, sent by a wise teacher to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe at 17, Viet Nam veteran, and now one of the leading sculptors in the country.

For photos and the video account of June 22, go to:

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Navajo Nation

“If Navajo Nation were its own state, it would have the highest per-capita rate of confirmed positive coronavirus cases in the country, behind only New York.” (PBS News Hour) As of today—May 14, 2020, at 2:45 p.m. Pacific Time, 3,392 of its 356,890 citizens have tested positive; 119 have died.

When you say “American Indian” in the rest of the world, the image that comes to most minds seems to be Navajo or Sioux. And even in our own country most of us do not know much about the diversity of custom, religion, livelihood, and language among Indians. Most of the time, we don’t much acknowledge their continuing existence—they are the “Vanishing Indians” of 1900—vanished.

Alvin Josephy wrote strenuously about these omissions in our textbooks—and consciousness. He said that many people still thought that “Indian” was a language shared across the continent. And, my guess, uttered gutturally ala Tonto!

The Navajo have been an anchor against the Sioux myth—the idea that all American Indians rode the plains with feathered headdress. (The Sioux were not originally plains-dwellers, and the horse came to them from Europe—but that is another story!) And they have been and are a reminder that Indians are still with us.

The Navajo code-talkers became heroes in WW II—a proud reminder. But it was years later, when I read about Chester Nez, the last of the WW II Marine code-talkers, that I learned that there were other code-talkers from other tribes—going back to WW I! It was the Choctaw who started the practice in that earlier war. How soon we forget—especially when it comes to Indians.

Fry bread, identified now by many as a pan-American Indian food, was brought to us by the Navajo. If you know that much, do you know the origins of it in the “Long Walk”? Or know the Long Walk? The Cherokee Trail of Tears is better known. The Long Walk followed it by a few decades, as the United States marched south and west, acquiring lands from Mexico and the Indian nations. Kit Carson, that legendary Indian fighter married to an Indian, conducted a “scorched earth” policy, destroying Navajo villages and then leading their forced removal:

“… 8,500 men, women and children were marched almost 300 miles from northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico to Bosque Redondo, a desolate tract on the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico. Traveling in harsh winter conditions for almost two months, about 200 Navajo died of cold and starvation. More died after they arrived at the barren reservation. The forced march, led by Kit Carson, became known by the Navajo as the ‘Long Walk.’” (

They were apparently provided flour, sugar, salt and lard by the government on that awful trek, and out of it fashioned fry bread. Fry bread is still with us; so are the Navajo.

Indians from other tribes are suffering inordinately from the COVID, and like the Navajo there are reasons for their dire straits. They are poor; their water is poor—or their water has been stolen for irrigation or, like Navajo water, contaminated by strip mining and exhausted in slurries on its way to power plants.

And there is genetics—although most of my liberal friends do not want to talk about genetics, fearing that such talk will take away from efforts to right environmental conditions.

That’s good, but if a higher percentage of Americans of Scottish or Irish or German stock were dying with COVID, or with sickle cell anemia or measles, my guess is that we would be looking for genetic factors and trying to solve the riddle of viruses entering some cells more easily than they do others.

But there is a study, based on computer modeling and not field testing, of  authors of genes and COVID. The authors conclude the study with this statement: “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to evaluate the relationship between viral proteins across a wide range of HLA alleles.” (

They obviously had not read Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, or, more importantly, Yale virologist Francis Black, who did field studies in the 1960s and 70s among South American Indians.

Maybe now someone will study the Navajo—or some other tribe. Indians, and latinx who share so much of their genetic heritage, are still with us.

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