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 (https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/us/). 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.


# # #


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 café 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.

# # #

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 ‘etweyé·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:


https://josephy.org/library/plateau-indian-art-on-main-street/




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.’” (legendsofamerica.com)

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.” (https://theconversation.com/your-genes-could-determine-whether-the-coronavirus-puts-you-in-the-hospital-and-were-starting-to-unravel-which-ones-matter-137145)

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.

# # #

Friday, May 1, 2020

Nature and Nurture

On Monday night, on NPR’s coronavirus question and answer show, a listener asked whether there might be something in African Americans’ unique vulnerability to sickle cell anemia that related to their high rates of infection—and death—with COVID-19. The medical person answering questions thought it an interesting observation that deserved study—she knew of none. The host then turned the conversation immediately to related environmental issues: jobs, neighborhoods, stress, diabetes, etc.

We—and especially those of us who think of ourselves as “liberals”—know that bad water, crowded living conditions, jobs that keep people cheek to jowl with others, overall poverty and its attendant diseases, and the well-documented conscious and unconscious racism in treatment by police, ambulance drivers, schools and the medical establishment—and the stress of it all—are significant factors in the high rates of infections among black and brown people. We lean to “nurture” for understanding.

Nevertheless, if there are genetic factors in addition to these social and environmental factors, we should know what they are. We might consider “nature.” It might help us learn more about the disease!

It’s a question I have been trying to ask in recent blog posts: Is there something genetic that makes some more susceptible to this coronavirus, something in the long string of genes that reaches to Africa (always) but then bobs and swerves across continents and climates, settles in South Asia where it learns to eschew milk; goes north and lightens the skin; hunkers in Europe and picks up some of Neanderthal; crosses to the “new world” in small numbers with—say some—a more limited number of DNA and RNA combinations; and then scrambles all up with slavery, conquest, and colonization? With all of this, is there something in the genes that is helping to make African Americans, Latinx, and American Indians more susceptible to this COVID-19?

Smallpox
In the 1990s, virologists determined genetic factors in indigenous Americans that might account for the super-high—unbelievable by many in the anthropological establishment—rates of death when old world infectious diseases came to the new world. Anthropologists had been divided between “High Counters”—those who thought the Americas might have had a pre-Columbian population of 70-90 million, and the “Low Counters” who thought the population numbers lower than 10 million. Low counters argued that the plague had only taken one-third of the European population; how could smallpox, measles, and other infectious diseases have taken 75 or 90 percent of indigenous Americans?

In 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, author Charles Mann says that the court of academic opinion is moving to the High Counters. He summarizes two forms of “vulnerabilities” to infectious diseases that spelled high mortality for Indigenous Americans. The first had to do with lack of exposure to specific diseases and their precursors, e.g. small pox, chicken pox, cow pox, etc. The second had to do with a more restricted range of genes, due to a relatively small number of original American immigrants from Asia. This meant there was “genetic homogeneity” among them, which had its positives: “In 1491 the Americans were apparently free or almost free of cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s chorea, newborn anemia, schizophrenia, asthma, and (possibly) juvenile diabetes, all of which have some genetic component.” (p. 114)

In a quick Google search, I learned that current studies of people in Mexico show a wide range of genetic variability, with percentage of pre-Columbian indigenous profiles being as high as 90 percent in some populations. I also learned that Puerto Ricans register 60 percent European, Dominicans have more African genes, etc. In my quick survey the studies found different susceptibilities to renal and lung diseases. So maybe the woman with the question about sickle cell had a point!

In a few conversations I have had with Indian friends now about COVID-19, I hear a concern that goes deeper than clean water, poverty and today’s virus. I hear a generational awareness, a feeling in the bones that goes back through family experiences with infectious diseases, back to the flu of 1918, back, in fact to the colonization period and original loss of life and land.

We—as a country and society—have never been very good at listening to Indians. And I think the same can be said of our listening skills with Africans and people we call Mexicans and Hispanics—people who trace ancestry to old California, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, to Central and South America. We—of European stock—are incredulous of the damage our infectious diseases inflicted on the New World—or we have left that all in the past. But maybe we should open ears to these people and cultures, and to the academics who plod away at old diseases and population numbers. Maybe we should look at nature while—not instead of—improving nurture.


Thursday, April 23, 2020

Not with a bang….

In junior high in the 1950s we read secreted copies of Battle Cry on the bus—there were four-letter words—and watched movies of war heroics. I remember real war hero Audie Murphy in “To Hell and Back,” actors William Holden and Alec Guinness in “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” I watched my first war movie, “God is My Co-Pilot,” with my dad. It was in black and white, and flying “the hump” from India over the Himalaya to China and the Flying Tigers was what my Uncle Sid did during the war.

The stories were of young men—some only in their teens—in war, under fire on the ground, in ships, or in the air.

In the early 50s—after a hiccup and grizzly, cold, still black and white, pictures from Korea, attention shifted from shooting wars to the Cold War, and we watched and listened to nuclear explosions in the Utah dessert on TV—and strained to see if we could see the real mushroom cloud from Southern California.

In the 60s, Civil Rights protests in the South were met with clubs, fire hoses, and dogs, and, even as legislation moved forward, expectations and backlash intensified. There were riots and fires in New York, Watts, and Chicago, and then another shooting war, this one in faraway Vietnam. And assassinations: John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, and dozens of cities across the country erupted in riot and flames.

As the 60s wore on, the riots and the war in Vietnam became staples of television—now in living color. There was shooting from noisy helicopters, daring pick-ups of the wounded at Khe Sanh, wailing children fleeing napalm, and nightly body counts of the American wounded and killed. People we knew, people like us, were going to Freedom Summer in Mississippi, working in Watts, dying in Vietnam. The dying in Vietnam and Mississippi—Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner made it into song—were like us, young.

President Kennedy was young too, only 46 when he was killed; Martin Luther King was 39, and Bobbie Kennedy was 42.

COVID-19 hits the weak, the people without clean water and air, the old. It takes them not with gun-bursts, but with the slow squeezing of organs. Nursing homes and the elderly are hardest hit. There are no gaping wounds for the medics to close and the cameras to catch, just ambulances and emergency rooms, people wrapped in protective gear, a weary doctor saying he had pronounced six dead on his last shift.

Like war, COVID has secondary effects: there is a scramble for food because the old supply chains aren’t geared for this. Farmers dump milk that isn’t wanted in closed schools and can’t get to supermarkets; meat processing plants close because the disease is coursing through the ranks of workers, most immigrants, many undocumented.

The president shouts, blames immigrants, but in addition to those food processors, half the workers bringing in the food crops are undocumented immigrants, and hospitals are staffed by doctors and nurses from India, China, and Africa, and the Philippines. Meanwhile, other immigrants cluster at our borders, hungry and sick. The president’s shouts ring hollow for most of the country, his noise somehow unnatural, his noisy, protesting followers a small and squeaky minority.

There is some noise in otherwise quiet cities. Songs are sung from Italian balconies, and New Yorkers clang pots and pans in appreciation for health care workers at 7:00 each night—the good noises. And then ambulance sirens. Otherwise eerie silences and TV panoramas of empty Times Square, empty Rome, and an empty Vatican.

The rural and the young—as long as they don’t work in meat plants—seem to have the best of it. Small communities like ours in Eastern Oregon can come together to help those in need—we know each other. Our schools deliver meals to students’ doors. Our hospitals wait for a shoe to drop. And we fear out of state license plates and even those we know coming home from Arizona winter or from another home in Portland to escape the COVID—we’re afraid they will bring it to us.

It’s a topsy-turvy world. Those of us who are older don’t fear for our children’s deaths in war, but our own silent demise, shut away from friends and family, wrapped in quarantine, attended by heroes in space suits. It’s not the way the world was taught to us.

We remember the crowds and the noise. We fought in a war or we fought against a war; we rioted or put down riots or tried to calm them; we marched and shouted, found heroes in song and sang along; we cried together and loud over the assassinations; we were young and maybe our parents didn’t understand us, but they mourned when we died.

Ours was a noisy world.

# # #

Friday, April 17, 2020

Genetics & COVID-19: An Update

In my last post I told a story about Native Alaskan firefighters, who had come south to fight fires, getting sick on MRIs (“meals ready to eat”) and being fed suet to right their stomachs. A long-time Alaska firefighter tells me that this is mostly “urban legend,” that she has seen Native crews in Alaska consume MRIs “with gusto.”

Nevertheless, I think most of us Euro-Americans would not do well on a diet of seal and fish. Human digestive systems have adapted to different physical worlds in amazing ways. Yet that means that putting any of us into alien worlds—or bringing alien diets and physical circumstances to us—can cause distress. I don’t know why many South Asians are lactose intolerant, but they are. And many Indians do fine with a lifetime of vegetarian diets, but we are warned to make sure that we have the right mixes of fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts to make our Euro-American bodies work vegetarian.

And it is not just foods and diet. I don’t know why sickle cell is more prevalent in Africans and African descendants in other places than it is in other populations. But it is. I don’t know how long it took and don’t understand the long process that bleached human skin as we moved north. I know it has something to do with capturing the sun’s vitamins.  And I know that too much sun can be toxic to my northern European inherited skin tone.

In other words, we all carry a big bucket of inherited advantages and proclivities as we move about in the world. And I believe that these buckets that we humans bring to particular physical and mental stresses is a mixture of nature and nurture—and the interrelationships of both. Scientists can make rats suffer from post-traumatic stress generationally! We now think that the same is true of humans.

* * *
I am horrified by the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black and latinx populations in America, and agree with most of the media that lays much of the blame on the high percentage of jobs in the vulnerable service industries, and the overall incidence of poverty that affects them more severely than it does the Euro-American population. I also believe that racism—often but not always unconscious—leads to stress and stress-related diseases, and often to unequal medical treatment, from the ambulance to the surgery room. Black people, the studies show, are assumed to have more tolerance for pain!

I am also pissed that the leadership and the national media pay little attention to the equally hard times that American Indian populations are experiencing with COVID-19. As of April 14, the Indian Health Service had tested a paltry 13,385 people, with 1212 testing positive. More than half of the positives were on the Navajo Nation (a local Arizona paper reports over 1000 Navajo cases and 41 deaths as of 4/16). A recent HuffPost article on the Navajo Nation reports “more confirmed cases of COVID-19 per capita than almost every U.S. state, behind only New York and New Jersey.” It goes on to say that “Experts have warned that Native populations are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 given their high rates of diabetes, heart disease and other underlying conditions.” In other words, American Indians, like blacks and latinx, suffer more because of environmental conditions.

But if the virologists that Charles Mann quotes in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus are correct, Native American populations were—and might still be—genetically more susceptible to infectious diseases than are other populations.

I understand that we are all humans together, and that the differences in skin color, eye shape and body shape are “superficial” in any grand mapping of genes.  And that the genetic differences across a given population might range as widely as they do across the entire human population.

But those lumps of accumulated genetic material—shaped at least in part by millennia of environmental factors—that make Africans disproportionately more susceptible to sickle cell anemia, and me more susceptible to sunburn than are they, and that once made the indigenous people of the Americas extremely susceptible to European born infectious diseases, might just be part of the COVID-19 equation today.

And somewhere in the current frenzy of scientific research, closely examining all environmental factors as they go,  I would think that researchers might look for genetic clues to acceptance and resistance to this—and other related—infectious diseases.

# # #

Monday, April 13, 2020

Genetics and COVID-19

Years ago, when I was the Director of an organization called Fishtrap, we had a conference at Wallowa Lake on “Fire.” Stephen J. Pyne, the McArthur Fellow who wrote the books on fire in America, was the featured speaker. Forest Service and BLM firefighters from across the Northwest come to hear Pyne and talk with each other. But one strong memory of that conference had nothing to do with fire directly; it had to do with ethnicity and digestion.

Seasoned firefighters told stories of Native Alaskan crews coming south to fight fires. The Alaskans couldn’t stomach the military ready to eat—“MRI”—meals that were served on fires. The solution was to buy suet from the local markets and readjust their diets.

I think about this, about recent news reports of the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 in communities of color and Indian reservations, and about fifty pages (pp. 69-124) in Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus.  In those pages Mann tells the story of the diseases that came with the Europeans and killed as many as 90 percent of the indigenous Americans.

He decides against the “low counters”—the academics who argue that smallpox, measles, diptheria, and other contagious diseases could not have wiped out 90 percent of indigenous Americans. The differences between low and high counters were—and are—stark: 8 million people in the new world and fewer than a million in North America vs. 90—112 million overall, with as many as 25 million on the central Mexican plateau alone.

Mann’s analysis involved contemporary accounts of Cortez in Mexico, Pizarro in Peru, and 1700s Russian fur traders’ stories of a smallpox epidemic in Siberia. He interviewed historians, anthropologists, and virologists to understanding how infectious diseases could have killed that many people:

First, the new world was “virgin soil.” The Americans, who did not have domesticated cows or camels, had zero immunity to smallpox, a disease that came from one of those animal versions and had long been roaming across Europe and establishing some kind of herd immunity to its worst ravages in Europeans.

Virologists site another vulnerability in the new world. The small number of human migrants to the Americas meant a more limited gene variability. It meant that indigenous Americans had a narrower range of response to infectious diseases than did Africans and Europeans. An example of this wider range of genetic variability is blood types: Europeans are split roughly half and half between A and O blood types; American Indians in the United States today are 90 percent type O. Among indigenous people in South America it is almost completely type O.

In an analysis that Yale virologist Francis Black provided Mann, Europeans’ broader range of antigens, called HLAs—Europeans have 35 main types; American Indians 17—meant that a larger percentage of Europeans survived infectious disease outbreaks.        

A third factor in indigenous Americans’ inability to fight off infectious diseases was something called helper T-cells. Apparently we all have them, and there are two main types: one type helps fight off microorganisms and infectious diseases; the other helps fight parasites. The original Americans were heavily loaded to fight the parasites they’d lived with for thousands of years.

The impacts of COVID-19 on the African-American and Latinx communities appear to be outrageously disproportionate. We hear less of impact in Indian Country, although there have been recent accounts of high numbers among the Navajo and Hopi.

All stories highlight existing pre-conditions—diabetes, heart disease, stress, poor diet and bad water that are part of living in poverty. Studies of racism in medical treatment demonstrate another strong factor in the skewed statistics of who gets COVID-19 and who dies from it.

When this thing plays out—and it will, as all other pandemics have—it will be a different world. (European-born diseases’ impacts on the Americas are the strongest evidence of that.) With the lessons of this one, and strong new leadership, we can do something about discrimination and its impacts on housing, health care, and poverty.

It is common to talk about the high rates of sickle cell anemia in African-Americans and lactose intolerance among some Asian peoples. We know that lighter skin allowed humans to capture more from the sun as populations moved north. Somehow, Native Alaskans are able to get what they need from blubber without fresh greens.

Some of my liberal friends might chide me for slighting environmental factors in the incidence of diseases—I’m not. But I also believe that we can learn from how this virus attacks different groups of humans, and the kinds of defenses different racial groups exhibit. It is only by doing so that we are able to ascertain the true numbers of indigenous Americans who were here before Columbus.

# # #

Friday, April 3, 2020

Indians and Pandemics

Chuck Sams is the incident commander for coronavirus response on the Umatilla Reservation. He recently told Oregon Public Radio’s “Think Out Loud” that

“The tribes [Umatilla, Cayuse, Walla Walla] have faced pandemic before; our last one ended in around 1860, but that cost us nearly 90% of our tribal membership — lost to the measles between 1780 and 1860. That memory still lives on in many of us.”

Sams had done research at Tamástslikt, the cultural institute on the reservation, and found that people survived the last big measles epidemic about 1860 with isolation. Those who were fishing at Willamette Falls (and yes, inland tribes had fishing places on the Willamette through marriages) and those who were away in buffalo country survived.

Measles, smallpox, and other infectious diseases wreaked havoc on northwest tribes over the time period Sams describes. They came tribe to tribe from the coast, brought by English and Russian ships plying the fur trade. Inland tribes had not met the white traders in the 1780s, when disease might have reduced Willamette valley populations by 50 or 75 %.  And of course people from east of the Cascades would have been exposed as disease traveled up the Columbia.

Smallpox followed the fur trade across Canada and the Great Plains in the 1730s, spiking about 1780, before the fur trade was crossing the continental divide. But tribe-to-tribe contagion would have brought it over the divide before the traders.

Smallpox also traveled north from Mexico:

“In 1781, a band of Blackfeet attacked a Shoshone camp at dawn. When they slashed through the Shoshone tents, the Blackfeet war cries stopped… ‘Our eyes were appalled with terror; there was no one to fight with but the dead and the dying, each a mass of corruption,’" a Blackfeet warrior named  Saukamappee told a Canadian fur trapper.

It’s interesting that in this time of a global pandemic, the examples and experiences of American Indians, who arguably suffered the greatest historical losses ever to pandemics, are rarely even mentioned. Charles Mann, in his 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, provides a detailed examination of pandemics on a “virgin” population. Mann looked at historical records, but also talked with epidemiologists and virologists today.

Sams’ remarks are the only tribal comments I have heard in the time we have been dealing with our pandemic. I’ve read about impacts on black communities and discrimination in testing availability to African-Americans. I’ve read about impacts based on socio-economic status. I wonder if anyone is paying attention to American Indians at this time, if scholars are evaluating the impacts on tribal peoples—and looking to see how they are responding, based on tribal histories of the killers that some think were, in the end, the primary reason that Europeans came to dominate the Americas?

We are still not interested in listening to Indians.

# # #

Monday, March 30, 2020

Heroes and Hope

I’ve seen and heard the word “hero” more in the last week than I have in the last year. Newscasters use it regularly to describe doctors, nurses, hospital workers, police and fire workers—and grocery clerks. Hero signs show up across from hospitals, and people in cities across the country hang out windows and front doors at 7 each night to bang pots and pans in praise of these workers.

That’s as refreshing as the “play dates” with parents driving and kids hanging out windows and singing and chanting at friends from a distance. Or the retired clown in Portland who set up in a cul-de-sac as kids from several houses stood in their front yards and cheered him on; or the Italian opera singer singing from his balcony.

The financial analysts still make their ways on the news programs, but they get little more time than the weathermen, even as the stock market gyrates crazily and they grope for this day’s answers to explain yesterday. (I’ve always thought their talk largely hooey; they can always explain yesterday’s dips and climbs—after the fact.)

But now: tired doctors and nurses take the mikes—one New York ER doc said she was at the end of five 13-hour days, and hadn’t really slept since it all started; another high-fived his young child through a glass because he is spending his days with the afflicted; and yet another said that she could not wait to get back to work when she was at home, that the meaning of the work and the camaraderie of coworkers are exhilarating. When asked whether anyone had come off a ventilator successfully, she cracked a huge smile and described a 21 year-old patient, “one of our successes.”

Even Dr. Fauci gets more applause than the President, and Dr. Birx is listened to more closely in the press conferences Trump seems to see as campaign rallies. Fauci and Birx struggle and try to use them honestly.

This pandemic reminds us that we are all human together. It strikes rich and poor, black and white, Christian and Hindu, the famous and the humble. Tom Hanks caught it; John Prine is seriously ill; Congressmen and Senators and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson are in quarantine.

It appears to have no preference for one kind of government over another—it might have originated in Communist China, but it is expanding rapidly in our democracy and killing mightily in European Union countries Spain and Italy. And while a country’s wealth and power are tools in the fight, their interdependencies ease the virus’s path.

Our parents and grandparents looked back on the Great Depression as a time of want—but also as a time of camaraderie, sharing, and cooperation. The Depression too hit the wealthy and the poor, and reached every corner of the country and the world. Photographer Dorothea Lange and writer John Steinbeck made heroes of everyday people who coped with it with courage and dignity. And President Franklin Roosevelt is remembered for courageous actions and coming into everyone’s radio living room regularly with words of encouragement.

This is our time, our Depression, our Spanish Flu. The pandemic has now touched most continents and countries. It has leveled the rich and famous and elevated the humble. And although some will always duck hard times with their wealth—the New Yorkers who fled to the Hamptons on first onset; and others who will try to profit—the entrepreneur selling $30,000 “drop in the ground” iron bunkers, we’ll not remember them with praise. Our hope and our future is in the quiet heroes.

I see Lange-like photos of them every day, and I wait for this Pandemic’s Steinbeck and its Grapes of Wrath.

# # #

Friday, March 27, 2020

“Modern America and the Indian"

The essay by Alvin Josephy appeared in a book, Indians in American History: an Introduction, edited by Frederick E. Hoxie, and published in 1988.  “Modern America and the Indian” is one in a fine collection of essays by scholars--many of them tribal members also--examining American history from the Indian’s side.

Josephy covers the period from the late 1920s until the Reagan Administration. There is a detailed examination of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and the biographical background on its author, John Collier. Alvin sees the period as a defining one in the long struggle of Indians to maintain culture and identity against the tremendous pressures of assimilation. Collier was their champion, with support from President Roosevelt, and tried to reverse the assimilation movements of the previous half century. The support was not as strong from Congress.

The IRA did finally put an end to the Allotment Act of 1887, which “had stripped Indians of some 90 million acres of their lands.” The New Deal and IRA gave Indians hope, but it also created divisions. In the next decades, WW II, PL 280, Termination and Relocation all tended to reverse Indian identity movements and advance assimilationist sentiments among white policy makers, the general population, and some Indians. The 60s, Vietnam, and Civil Rights activism then countered, as did the American Indian Movement and other expressions of “Red Power.”

The same period is addressed in more detail from an Indian point of view by David Treuer, an Ojibwe tribal member from Minnesota. Treuer is a novelist and a scholar, and in two books: The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee and Rez Life, argues that the popular view of Indians and Indian history still today stops in 1891 at Wounded Knee. He uses written history and personal experience to make his arguments. His work is to tell us what in fact happened in Indian Country 1891-present.

Josephy fought that battle from the white side in his career as writer and activist. In this essay, and throughout his career, Alvin Josephy saw the Indians as unique partners in a broader American and world-wide movement to recognize the dignity and worth of many cultures in a “pluralistic” America and world. Authoritarian nationalism and cultural homogenization have been and continue to be pitted against this pluralistic world view. The essay follows on the link below:

Modern America & the Indian.


Monday, March 23, 2020

Their Vietnam

I have four grandchildren between the ages of 18 and 23. I’ve told them that coronavirus is their Vietnam. It will be the event they will remember when they are my age, as I remember Vietnam for its horror and its impact on my life.

I was born in 1942, so skated by with easy education and Peace Corps draft deferments until 1968, when Vietnam really heated up and the country was running out of volunteers—American Indians volunteered at the highest rate of any American group for Vietnam, an important fact that deserves more attention—and the draft was becoming problematic. In 1969, with reduced volunteer numbers and the number of poor black and brown draftees available growing smaller, the Selective Service Administration was going to have to begin drafting large numbers of white Americans. They came up with the draft lottery.

Going to Vietnam became a condition of your birth date and numbered Ping-Pong balls bouncing in a container in front of a television audience. I was 26 by then—too old to be drafted by the protocols of the day, so I paid no attention to a draft number attached to my birth date, but I’ll guarantee you that any American male born between 1944 and 1951 and not in the service at the time can tell you precisely what his lottery number was. Low and you were on your way to Vietnam; high and you went back to work, school, partying, and feeling some guilt for your good fortune. In the middle—100-150 maybe; I don’t remember the details—and you stayed home to worry.

On the front lines of the COVID-19 war, young people are losing school terms and having to study online; being laid off from their jobs in restaurants, bars, ski areas, hotels, and factories; working scared in grocery stores and at Amazon; or saying to hell with it and partying. If they are working anywhere in the health field, 50 years from now they’ll remember the work they did that helped people survive, and the people who didn’t make it. Although this crisis has only been with us full scale for a month, my guess is that it is already indelible in their young lives.

Vietnam, and the severe negative reaction in the rest of the world to the American war effort there, ended my Peace Corps staff assignment in Turkey—and it ended my dream of being a diplomat. I came back to the US in 1970, and a year later found my way to a small, rural Oregon town to work and live close to the land. We were part of the 70s “back to the land” movement.  And unlike many who went back to the cities and suburbs, I stayed here.

It’s early now, but over the next months the grandkids and their cohort will be examining the world and their own options with different eyes. They’ll jump into health care or politics or biochemical research to find answers; return to familiar surroundings and hunker down; or they will become lost in the shuffle of political and medical opinions and directives, and stumble along in a life of missed opportunities and “might-have-beens.”

My parents and their generation had the Great Depression and World War II. Their parents had World War I and the Flu Epidemic of 1918, which hit 500 million people, about a quarter of the world’s population at the time. Over 50 million died. My generation had—and still has—Vietnam.

And American Indians had them all, as they simultaneously battled discrimination and assimilation.  The miracle of their survival continues to astound.

# # #

Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Earth is Tilting

Maybe it is. The lines on charts showing the new daily incidents of COVID-19 infection are still spiking up. Only China has leveled off, an interesting fact given the huge population, but how much to attribute to the authoritarian culture? There is too much randomness, too much chaos, too much short-term hedonism and self-interest, and too much honest open discussion of the problem in most of the world for the China model to hold strong promise.

I cannot stop thinking about the devastation by infectious diseases suffered by the indigenous peoples of the Americas beginning in 1492—and continuing for hundreds of years. The Indian population of what is now the contiguous United States, which might have been 10 million at first contact, plummeted to about 237,000 at the turn of the twentieth century. That would match the idea held by many demographers today that diseases wiped out about 90 percent of the population at contact. But Indians, a tribal friend reminds me, were still suffering from smallpox a generation or two ago. And, one can imagine, from polio and measles and all else.

That initial contact, like our COVID-19, was quiet, stealthy; the biggest death counts happened before the inhabitants had met the colonizer carriers. The viruses came ashore from Atlantic fishing boats and Pacific fur-trade boats; they marched ahead of the Hudson’s Bay trappers and came up the Mississippi with De Soto’s pigs. And tribal people had no notion of where or how they came down with the measles, smallpox, flu and other European maladies. Oftentimes the sweats and communal closeness that had served them well through injury did the opposite with these foreign diseases.

Indians must have been accustomed to death by scarcity and conflict. The fear of imminent death by disease seems to me qualitatively different from the fear of death in battle or in hunger. There is, in battle, the chance of winning, and the opportunity to go down in glory. There is the opportunity for elective self-sacrifice and honor in living and serving in a starving community. Individual actions must have seemed futile in the case of smallpox and measles.

If disease in our modern era gives us one thing the Indians did not have, it is the opportunity for individual sacrifice and even heroism in the face of disease. Medical personnel across the world are serving—and sometimes dying—as they work to confront coronavirus.

There are other, more global kinds of heroism. The crisis has political and social leaders in Israel and Palestine working together in common cause to halt the spread of the disease. Israelis are finding housing for Palestinian workers so that they do not have to cross the border daily. Negotiations to release Israeli-held Palestinian funds and aging prisoners are ongoing.

Can we hope for such cooperation to infect nations and divisions within nations as we all adapt to this new, tilting planet?

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Immunity--and American Indians

Measles, smallpox, influenza—what a tragic and painful experience the first European contacts must have been for the first Americans!  We now know that huge numbers, unfathomable numbers, of American Indians were killed by European diseases.

Imagine Tisquantum (Squanto) coming back to his homeland after years in Europe as a slave, making his way to England and then coming home, where he finds his village deserted, his tribe gone to disease.

Imagine the families of Willamette Valley Indians dying quickly in each other’s arms from an unknown malady that has crept ashore from British or Russian ships in the 1770s and 80s. Imagine Nez Perce and Umatilla families doing the same in the 1780s—long before Lewis and Clark, long before they saw a white man—dying by the thousands from smallpox or measles, apparently carried by the Shoshone from the Southwest north to the Blackfeet and then along the Columbia River. Author Charles Mann quotes a Blackfoot warrior of the time: “We had no idea that a Man could give [a disease] to another anymore than a wounded Man could give his wound to another.” (1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus) Europeans, who had wrestled with the Plague, had the notion of quarantine; the Indians did not.

I think about the anxiety and fears that many Americans feel now with the threat of a disease that has been identified, that leaders are attempting to quell with social distancing and quarantines, that researchers have isolated and now can and do rush to find treatments and vaccinations. There are still unknowns, enough to foster our fears. And there are family tragedies—parents dying alone and isolated from their children. And panics—real ones about how the rent will get paid and the children cared for, and crazy ones that empty stores of toilet paper.

But imagine confronting coronavirus now without rapid communication and the mounting efforts to stem its contagion. Imagine it traveling from Asia to Europe and the Americas without knowing the map.

In Mann’s book he recaps scholars’ arguments about how many people lived in the Americas before Columbus. He talks about “high counters,” who guessed 100 million or more, and “low counters” who thought that too high by factors of 10. The high counters argued that disease had taken as many as 95 percent of the people.

Mann meticulously follows the scientific research of the past 50 or 60 years, which has shown how Native American immunities—or lack of immunities—were due to their lack of contact with the domestic animal incubators of viral diseases. There had been no camels, cows, or chickens, and thus no camelpox, cowpox, or chickenpox. They were further disadvantaged by long isolation and a limited range of genetic defenses against all viral infections that Africans and Europeans enjoyed.

The cynic in me says that our current war footing as re COVID-19 is vigorous in part because the disease pays little attention to rich and poor, color or ethnicity. Old white men, who still control most of the purse strings in America, are at risk; two Congressmen have tested positive! Would the response have been this strong to a runaway version of sickle cell anemia that settled disproportionately on Africans and African-Americans? To some virulent plague that attacked dirty, crowded refugee camps and/or slums in the Middle East and South American barrios?

My better nature joins Nixyáawii Longhouse Leader Armand Minthorn in asking us all to be strong together. He says that “there is never a wrong time to pray… to do right… to sing.” You can watch and hear Armand here: https://www.facebook.com/Yellowhawk4U/videos/629559570954044/

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Braiding Sweetgrass #3 –The Religion of More

The book—and the evening discussion of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants on Monday night is lodged in my mind. And it bumps up against today’s headlines again and again.

“The air in China is cleaner than it’s been in years,” and when China slowed economic and industrial activity that polluted the air for Olympic games, babies were born heavier and healthier. The traffic is light in Seattle, and crowds in Italy, at the Coliseum and the Vatican are small enough so that the few who are there can enjoy. You can, one commentator announced, enjoy a nice restaurant meal in Milan.

In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Kemmerer gives story after story of American Indians taking what they need, leaving enough to serve others and to replenish the stock of sweetgrass, Black Ash, fish, game, and strawberries. And then giving thanks for the generosity you’ve enjoyed.

We’ve grown addicted to the gospel of more, to bigger and faster. What coronavirus—mother nature’s slap back, as one friend says—is showing us is that uncontrolled growth is not healthy, that linking and interconnecting, finding the cheapest labor here and cheapest materials there to build a car or computer for me somewhere else is creating fragile networks that can collapse with a bat’s version of the flu. The stock market doesn’t know whether to go up or down; we don’t know whether to travel or not, go to work or not, go to the show, or watch the game without a courtside audience on TV.

American Indians were caught unawares with white European diseases 500 years ago. And then there were wars, treaties, boarding schools, and termination policies. But Indians have survived—incredibly, miraculously—in part because there were always elders who remembered that the first salmon goes back, the huckleberry patch gets picked in a different place each year, and that land that has sustained us forever needs us but warns us: take care of water and the fish and the plants, and never take more than you need.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Braiding Sweetgrass #2

By my count, there were 14 of us at the Josephy Center talking about Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, writer Robin Kemmerer’s prayer that we look through scientific classification and dissection to indigenous knowledge of plants--and all of mother earth, For her, the earth--all of it--is gift, and we human beings are bound up in it in what can and should be reciprocal relations of gratitude and care. Sweetgrass grows lush when we harvest it.

People took away different lessons--"I’ll look at the world I tramp in with new eyes"; "we shouldn’t worship growth"; "how can I live more sustainably?"; "this book will get passed on--and we will send copies to friends and children.” And all of us got bound up in this discussion of the “Thanksgiving Address" of the Onondaga, which puts gratitude and sharing the gifts of earth at the center of our lives.

A question to blog readers: what books explore relationships of indigenous people to earth and each other in other parts of the world? In Australia. Asia, and the many regions of Africa?

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Sunday, March 8, 2020

Braiding Sweetgrass


Our Josephy Center book group is reading Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, by indigenous writer and professor of botany Robin Wall Kimmerer.  We’ll have a discussion of the book on Monday night, March 9, at 7:00 p.m., at the Josephy Center, but anyone is invited to listen in—and at least comment by email— https://josephy.org/book-group/.

I came to the book reluctantly. It’s about plants and ponds, and not, at first blush, about the human dramas that always grab my attention. Friends persuaded me and voted when given a chance that this would be our next book. I started slowly, and am still just past the half-way mark. And I love it!

If there’s a lesson in those pages that my human-focused mind can get around, it is that the indigenous way of looking at the earth and its living and un-living occupants—and even at the heavens that surround us—is to see it all as “gift.” This is radically opposed to the modern view of a world of commodities, where the pieces are all interrelated yes, but by rules of economics and physics. There might be awe in the stars, or in the neatly fitted chain of materials and processes that put a car or computer together in China so that I can drive it or Google it in Joseph, Oregon. But where are thankfulness and grace and reciprocity?

I don’t know where I go from here. I’ll finish the book, and listen to others tomorrow night. And to you blog readers and your thoughts on this gift of a book.

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Sunday, February 2, 2020

Resilience of Indians

A friend asked me recently how I remain cheerful. She’s older than my 77 years, and we were both visiting a yet older friend in the hospital. It took me fewer than 30 seconds to almost automatically reply “Indians.”

Indians have put up with every abuse, had their lands taken away from them and their languages, religions, and cultures stripped away. They have been demeaned in every way and described as a “vanishing race,” even by supposed friends.

And they have survived. Some historical periods were harsher than others—think the 1880s with the rise of boarding schools, the General Allotment Act, and the Courts of Indian Offences; think the 1950s and Eisenhower administration efforts to “terminate” all tribes and to “relocate” young Indians to cities for education and work.

Indians have survived with respect for and trust in elders, with ties to lands, diminished lands but tribal lands nonetheless, with adaptation and with humor. They have used traditional lands in traditional ways, and although their fishing and wild rice and root gatherings and buffalo hunting have been mocked and belittled in the past, they now get respect. Indian practices and philosophies are now lauded by white writers, even authorities: maybe fire is a natural part of the biological order; reciprocity demands that we take care of the fish and its habitat and not fish to the last fish. Indians now work to restore beaver, wolf, and lamprey, and many of us, including many non-Indians, do not know now the places they once filled in the natural order of things, but believe that they all have their places and that it is arrogant of humans to take something away without knowing the consequences.

And humor. I tell people who have never spent time with Indians to watch “Smoke Signals,” the bittersweet film written by Sherman Alexie. I don’t, by the way, know or understand what happened between Sherman and some young women writers. Because he is such an observant and fine writer, I wait for him to address it in his own words sometime soon. I also know that Indian men are not immune to practicing the bad behaviors of men everywhere. Nevertheless, the humor with which Sherman has addressed modern Indian living resonates, for me, with the humor I cackle with when I am around Indians. When I tried to explain to my Nez Perce friend Charlie some of the racial treatment that my half India-Indian grandson was getting at school, he said I didn’t have to explain it to him. “I’ve been brown for 80 years,” he explained.

So we find ourselves nationally in a bad situation, with a president who bullies his way around the capital and the world, driven, apparently, by his own narcissistic obsessions. Our corporate leaders build systems to track our private lives for profit and gain riches by helping us degrade each other with tweets and posts. Our government leaders pledge attention to a changing climate, but vote for and with fossil fuel and growth above all.

Indians have had plenty of experiences with bad presidents—start with Jackson?—and dishonest corporations. The railroad empires and their corporate customers that hunted to the last buffalo for hides and bones almost depleted that species forever, and the canneries that scooped fish out of the Columbia kept taking salmon until even the white fishermen made them stop using their giant fish wheels. And the tools and fools of growth and greed as ultimate values in private and public sectors have opposed Indian practices as archaic, unscientific, and uncivilized forever.

But Indians are still here. In these dark times, I suggest you read Indian writers, check out “Smoke Signals,” take in a powwow or a root feast, buy salmon from a tribal fisherman along the Columbia, go to church in a Longhouse.

And, together, thank the creator for getting you this far, and ask the creator to get us all home safely.

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Friday, January 17, 2020

Fire in Australia

In a dispatch from Cooinda, Australia, Robert Fuller writes in the New York Times today:

"Many forests were thinner than those that exist now and were more resistant to hot-burning fires. Early explorers described the landscape as a series of gardens, and they reported seeing near constant trails of smoke from small fires across the landscape.

"As Europeans took control of the country, they banned burning. Jeremy Russell-Smith, a bushfire expert at Charles Darwin University, said this quashing of traditional fire techniques happened not only in Australia, but also in North and South America, Asia and Africa.

“'The European mind-set was to be totally scared of fire,' Mr. Russell-Smith said."

In the end, the aboriginal ways send less carbon into the atmosphere, and allow animals and humans to live and thrive, as today’s conflagurations in Australia do not. The question there—and in California, Washington, and Oregon—is whether reviving ancient ways and wisdom can have a significant impact on hundreds of years of  the “European mind-set” on fire.

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Thursday, January 16, 2020

Climate change and migrations

With fires raging and people fleeing to the sea in Australia, and evacuations in the Philippines in the face of volcanoes, I think about all the instances of weather and climate that have changed the shape of world populations. The few that I know about are certainly samples of many.

I started thinking about this when I read that half of the European immigrants to North America from Plymouth to the formation of the U.S. were indentured servants. Europe was caught in the throes of the Little Ice Age. It was cold and crops failed or yielded little. Fathers would take their sons and daughters to the dock and turn them over to a ship’s captain. The captain would sail them to the “new” world and recover their passage with their sale to waiting farmers and settled and prosperous families.

In my research, I read Brian Fagan’s The Great Warming, a history of population ebbs and flows with planet warming circa 800-1400. The Vikings went across the seas, colonizing Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland. European populations swelled as farmers grew wheat in Norway and wine grapes in England. The moldboard plow was invented to turn up new ground with the exploding populations.

But in the Americas at that time, indigenous populations were decimated by heat and drought. Half the people of the California coast died as their acorn-based diet died. The Mayan cities, reliant on sophisticated irrigation systems, collapsed with drought and the people scattered and survivors scratched livings in small villages. And I think this was the time that the very sophisticated society at Chaco Canyon collapsed. People dispersed; we have no record of where they went, and how many died in getting there.

The mound cities, including Cahokia, near present day city of St. Louis, and circa 1100 c.e., larger and more sophisticated than London with 10,000-40,000 people, grew and collapsed during the Warming—overuse of resources? Floods? Climate? Not sure.

The planet cooled, populations in Europe shrunk rapidly with the plague, and the generations of survivors literally shrunk in size. Charlemagne, King of the Franks in the late 700s and early 800s—the very beginning of that Great Warming period, commanded an army of six-footers. Napoleon, who ruled, fought, and lost with an army of soldiers of five-footers, had his run towards the end of what is called the Little Ice Age, the period from roughly 1300-1850.

Which is of course a period that encompasses the colonization of the Americas by Europeans (and the demise of the Vikings settlements in Newfoundland and Greenland). North America apparently recovered with the cooling. Population, including that of the Mound cities and the Pacific coast, might have fallen rapidly, but corn and agriculture had moved from Central America north; agriculture, and very sophisticated hunting, fishing, and gathering, served populations well. As crops and agriculture moved, so did people. And until modern genetics, we best traced that with linguistics. John Wesley Powell commissioned a language study in the late 1800s at the Smithsonian, and came up with 45 or 48 language families in North America. Alvin Josephy started with languages in The Indian Heritage of America, published in 1968, long before modern genetics. The language maps show Athabaskan—or dene—languages in present day Canada, the North Pacific Coast, and in the Southwest, with Navajo and Apache among others. It would be interesting to correlate Athabaskan languages and peoples from north to the south, and the Algonquins from the Northeast to the Pacific coast with climate and weather events.

There were of course conflicts and wars too. But even wars can own to climate. There is now good evidence that the turmoil of the Arab Spring and upheavals and eventually war in Syria had to do with drought. Drought chased farming rural people into cities, where jobs and food were scarce for many and created a swelling population ready for any radical change that might mean bread.

Now the people of Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and Central America scurry north, to milder climates where agriculture and industry still thrive. We can blame mass migrations on corruption, mismanagement, overpopulation, and wars, but somewhere in the mix is drought and hunger.

With heat and drought come fire and sporadic flooding of vulnerable lands. With rising tides, more dramatic shifts of rains, snows, and temperatures; with winds, hurricanes, typhoons, fire and flood (add earthquakes and volcanoes), the populations of the world are probably in the beginning of rapid transformations. What parts of Australia will survive—and where will its populations go? How many islands in the Philippines will go under? How long can New Orleans stay above water? How much air conditioning can Phoenix afford? Where will Phoenix—and much of California—get its water as the Colorado gets overtaxed and evaporation sucks its waters? And where will all the people go?

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Friday, December 20, 2019

Year’s End

Hello Friends,

First off, thank you for reading my blog posts, coming to Brown Bag programs, stopping by to talk about books, Indians, treaties, wild foods, dams, fish, art, and the state of the world.

It’s been a fine year at the Josephy Center: wonderful exhibits featuring “Women on the Edge,“ “Art and Words of the Lostine,” “The Wallowas in Historical Photos,” and “Nez Perce Music.” The Josephy Center took on and managed the annual Wallowa Valley Arts Festival to great applause. The clay studio hums, and we teach special art classes for the Joseph school along with regular Friday student classes. For those of you in blog land, do visit the web site—josephy.org—and take in some of our shows and events when you come to town. Or click on https://josephy.org/video-audio/ to see or listen to some of the Brown Bag programs, exhibit openings, and goings on here at the Center.

My role at the Center is to run the Josephy Library and take the lead in Indian programming. It’s been a good year: a couple of small grants and two hard-working volunteers have caught us up with cataloging—check https://sagelib.org to see our holdings, and to begin making the non-book holdings accessible to the world. Our “Nez Perce Ephemera” and “Manuscript” holdings will soon be visible online.

She “Returned from a hard journey”-- 'etweyé·wise 
But the biggest triumph—and the most rewarding event I have been involved with for many years, was the installation of 'etweyé·wise, the story of Nez Perce return told in bronze and granite by Nez Perce artist Doug Hyde. At the installation of the first sculpture by a tribal artist on Joseph’s Main Street, we had drummers from Lapwai and Umatilla, singers and speakers from Nespelem. There were tears as Joseph Band descendants talked about this “homeland” and a long-ago Chief Joseph Rodeo queen unwrapped a mortar and pestle, found and held by her white family, and returned it to the Nez Perce. Then we—tribal people, local people, and curious visitors from everywhere—sat down and ate salmon together.

Things have changed in the Wallowa Country—on the installation of the sculpture, the Wallowa County Chieftain editorialized “Welcome Home.” There’s a Nez Perce art show coming in January (Opening January 5, 2:00—4:00 pm, with Kevin Peters, John Seven Wilson, Carla Timentwa and more) and another series of talks by elders in the spring. The Josephy Center is one of many organizational and individual partnerships expressing new relationships with descendants of the Nez Perce who long called this place home.

In this season of gift giving, when the family and good cause demands on you are many, think about a gift to the Josephy Center and its Library so that we can continue this good work.

(You can send a check to PO Box 949/ Joseph, Oregon 97846, or donate through the web site at https://josephy.org/donate/ )

I thank you for your support, and wish you all the best in the coming year.


Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Beadworkers

Here’s a holiday book recommendation—a gift to yourself and then to pass on to others: The Beadworkers, by Beth Piatote.

Cover art is beadwork
by artist Marcus Amerman
I got an early copy weeks ago, and sped through the poems and stories quickly, but for some reason stopped at the play that ends the collection. This morning I read it in a sitting, and wondered why I had left it so long.

neti’telwit / human beings” gathers the stories of Indian Wars, of legal and physical mistreatment of Indians, loss and recapture of language; competing notions of getting along in the American world and hanging onto traditions and meanings passed on by elders; the interrelationships of museum and tribal holdings, family and communal pasts. And it weaves and works the script—present and past, now and hereafter—with the loom built in Antigone, by the Greek tragedian Sophocles. It’s a tour de force that holds up the tragedies, disappointments, complexities and the hopes of Indian America, then turns them deftly for our consideration--and importantly allows us, the readers, no easy answers.

Beth Piatote came to Fishtrap almost 20 years ago. We honored Indians that year, calling it “Circling Back.” One of the guests was Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock journalist from Idaho with a long history of work for tribal and mainstream newspapers. He brought Beth along—my recollection is that their history went back to southern Idaho, where Beth grew up.

She was working on a multi-generational novel at the time, and teaching at the University of Oregon in journalism and, maybe, Indian studies. We loved her writing, and invited her to be a writer in residence at our local schools. She did, and we loved her more. But then she went back and went on with her life, almost out of our reach and thoughts.

Doug Hyde--'etweyé·wise
But she came back. Somehow a couple of years ago I found her teaching and writing at UC Berkeley. She was learning the Nez Perce language and making contact with Nez Perce elders at Nespelem, where she was enrolled, but had not grown up. A short time after that she told me how she had brought Nez Perce language elders from Nespelem, Lapwai, and Umatilla to Berkeley, where they met with Haruo Aoki, compiler of the acknowledged Nez Perce-English dictionary.

This summer, as we readied Nez Perce artist Doug Hyde’s sculpture for the Josephy Center courtyard, I reached out to Beth and those language elders. Beth brought Aoki himself into the conversation, and together they named the Doug Hyde sculpture. They named it 'etweyé·wise—“I return from a hard journey.”

Beth came back to Fishtrap this summer to read and teach, and struck a new cohort of Fishtrap faculty and attendees as she had struck us those years ago. (She’s already invited back for this summer.)

And then The Beadworkers came in the mail.

By the way, don’t skip the poems and stories on the way to  neti’telwit / human beings.