Turning the page is a common metaphor for beginning a new year—often implying that we are leaving what was unpleasant in the last year behind. There was plenty of unpleasant in 2020, but some good things happened too, sometimes in spite of or even as a result of the Pandemic.
For me it was a revival of serious reading.
About the time of the pandemic’s onset, I changed my reading habits. Nighttime reading had ended up too often with the book on my sleeping chest. So, instead of opening my computer and reading headlines first thing each early morning, I began reading for an hour, and then looking at headlines; most days that leaves a half hour or more to write before the world wakes up around me.
The change had to do with three things happening in the land and my own world in that long ago spring of 2020: the Pandemic; Black Lives Matter; and my search for Indians in the American historical narrative. All the books mentioned below relate to these three things. This account is not chronological, nor is it complete, but it is still a diary of books and reasons that I’ve enjoyed or found important—and a testament to this new reading habit.
This morning I read 30 pages of Strongmen: Mussolini to Present, by Ruth Ben-Ghiat, then spent a half hour reading about the Georgia elections, the Wisconsin pharmacist who destroyed Covid vaccines because he believed some conspiracy theory about DNA mutation, and Trump’s desperate efforts to stay in power. Now I get to write. Strongmen, by the way, catalogs monstrous racial, sexist, violent, sophisticated and crude assaults on human lives and peaceful societies. Its author is quoted today by conservative columnist George Will on the harsh anti-democratic voices among current US Senators.
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When Covid-19 entered the evening news broadcasts, I looked to history, and found that one of my history heroes, Alfred Crosby, the man who gave us the concept of “Columbian Exchange,” had written a book on Americas Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918. He’s a hero because he highlighted the impacts of disease, migrations, trade, food, and other environmental factors on the course of history; Crosby showed us that history is not just naming wars, kings, queens, presidents, and generals. His Pandemic book wondered why the 1918 Flu had been lost in the historical narrative, overwhelmed by America’s entry into WW I, and the armistice that ended it. The book first appeared in 1976! , and then was republished with the AIDS epidemic, and is finding new life now. I followed that with Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World. Both accounts make it clear that flu, and disease in general, have been primary and often overlooked factors in history.
We now know well—thanks to Crosby and to Charles Mann, who popularized and extended Crosby’s research in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, that infectious diseases decimated the indigenous populations of the Americas and effectively “softened” the country for the Europeans who introduced them and then overran the land.
Alvin Josephy and my work at the Josephy Library and with the Wallowa Nez Perce Homeland have me reading and thinking constantly about American Indians. Crosby and Mann are “new historians” who see what happened in the Americas with clear eyes and minds open to information from biologists, botanists, anthropologists, and linguists, and see Indians as active participants in the American historical drama.
I had heard Josephy complain continually that Indians were omitted from the standard versions of American history—when they weren’t lied about. And I had been disappointed years ago when I read popular historian David McCullough’s prize winning biography of John Adams. This chronicle of the nation’s beginnings omitted Indians completely! As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. had years earlier failed to mention the Cherokee Removal and Trail of Tears in his award winning Age of Jackson.
Maybe the new historians had nudged the traditionalists? So I tackled These Truths, the highly praised “new” American history by Jill Lepore, with that in mind. The book, by a Harvard historian and regular New Yorkerwriter, is well written and encyclopedic, but it sets out from the beginning to tell American history as the journey that begins with a Declaration of Independence that declares “all men equal,” and then spends 250 years exploring and expanding “all men” to include Blacks and women. Indians get short shrift.
I tried David McCullough again. His The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, like Lepore’s treatise, is concerned with abolition and expansion of Constitutional rights, and adds the American Ideal of public education to the mix. The displacement of Indians in the Northwest Territory, and the confrontations and alliances among French, English, Americans and Indians as the territory becomes American states, are not part of his “heroic” story.
I now see McCullough and Lepore as being engaged in telling a story of “American Progress,” and the American heroes who are responsible for it; people and events that get in the way of that message are left out or breezed quickly past. Stories of expansion at the hands of Indians and others in democracy’s path are cast as obstacles or aberrations in the paths to “equality,” education, and suffrage. They might have added and more deeply considered American imperialism and its paths to the Pacific—and Alaska, Canada, the Philippines, etc.
For stories of how the historically mistreated and omitted Indians have survived through all of this, I read Indian writers, and often fiction by Indian writers. Louise Erdrich, an Ojibwa writer from North Dakota, is one of our best writers, Indian or non-Indian, and her Night Watchman tells mid-twentieth century American Indian history through the eyes of a character modeled on Louise’s grandfather. It vividly addresses the Eisenhower administration’s last-ditch effort at “assimilation” with Termination and Relocation programs. There are stories too of boarding school assimilation techniques, of Indian-white relations in the Dakotas over time, and of hunger, grinding poverty, racism and sexism in the world of Midwestern nice.
A friend gave me a copy of Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse. Wagamese was a well-known Canadian Ojibwa writer who wrote across the border from Erdrich. He’s passed now, with over 15 books and recognition as a leading Canadian writer. But that curious border that divided Indian tribes also keeps most Canadian writers distant from us. What I learned from Indian Horse is that Canadians were no less brutal than we were in the efforts to assimilate tribal people, that boarding schools on both sides of the border were awful places, and that sport—in this case hockey—can be liberating for skilled athletes from the wrong tribe, color, or country. Nevertheless, skill is no guarantee against racist thuggery, and drink is no solution.
I have two more books by Wagamese on my table, and I’m waiting for the next book from a tribal writer and friend closer to home. I met Beth Piatote at Fishtrap over 20 years ago. We liked her and invited her to live and work here for nine weeks as a writer in residence. She is Nez Perce on her mother’s side from the Joseph Band, although she grew up in Southern Idaho. After her residency here, Beth went back to school, got her PhD, and now teaches at UC Berkeley. She’s learned the Nez Perce language and written many academic papers, but she’s also written a fine small book of poetry, story, and drama. The book is Beadworkers, and the drama casts the Nez Perce War in the language and character of Greek Tragedy. Beth will be back at Fishtrap this summer.
There are other Indian books: Osage writer John Joseph Mathews published Sundown in 1934. He tells the story of the Osage being pushed from place to place by the government, subjected to the forces of assimilation, getting drunk and wealthy on oil money, and being torn away from culture and sanity in a world of hucksters and murderers. The attractions of the white world get their place, and the sorting within the people of full and mixed bloods, traditionalists and moderns. It’s a hard story that has been repeated individually and tribally for hundreds of years.
Sundown’s1930s popularity, years of lying unnoticed, and being republished in our day reminds me that Philip Deloria’s Indians in Unexpected Places finds Indians in movies, sports, industry, and classical music in a strange 1900-1930 interlude, a time when Indians could and did literally live with a foot in both worlds with relatively equal degrees of acceptance and respect. Read the book to find out how Hollywood got away from real Indians to cardboard caricatures.
I go on! Hadn’t meant it to be this many books and this many words. But I have to deal with Black Lives Matter—and race and racism. Sometime during the winter-spring of 2020 Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility showed up in inclusivity discussions here at the Josephy Center. Our Josephy book group read it; I digested the sermon on White Privilege and moved quickly on to reread my 1965 copy of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Baldwin said everything that DiAngelo said and more about white supremacy, the white power structure, and ongoing conscious and unconscious racism in America—in 1963! Baldwin is also a beautiful writer; it was upsetting to know that I had read this in 1965, and remembered so little (my name and date scribbled in the front of the book with some underlines on its pages). Maybe 1965 was too soon…
Two additional books on race and racism leapt into my early morning reading program: Ibram Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning, and Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I wish I had had Coates’s message to his son—and Baldwin’s to his nephew—at hand when raising a brown son and brown grandchildren!
Kendi’s history of racism in Stamped is brilliant and encyclopedic. For me, the discovery that the “idea” of white supremacy had to be developed and firmly in place for chattel slavery to take hold and develop in America was mind-altering. But it fits with what I am learning and relearning about the Eugenics movement, Manifest Destiny, and the dominance of Anglo-Americans in our history.
The Josephy Book Group sandwiched Pearl Alice Marsh’s But Not Jim Crow: Family Memories of African American Loggers of Maxville, Oregon among the books on racism and white fragility. It’s a local story. Pearl’s father, Amos Marsh Sr., was one of the black loggers who worked the woods around Maxville. Pearl’s family did not live in the logging town with its segregated school, but in Wallowa, where she attended the first six grades, and where her brother, Amos Jr., became a star athlete and the only NFL player I know who graduated from a local school. Pearl went on to a PhD at Berkeley and a distinguished career in public service.
History becomes more meaningful when we can tie it to people and places we know. The Nez Perce and the Wallowa Country are bound to produce new writing in 2021—the Nez Perce story having become an American Odyssey, Chief Joseph an American Odysseus. Historian Kent Nerburn, a white Minnesotan who taught and lived among Indians there, wrote Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce over a decade ago. I recommend it because he includes the post-War journey more fully than most Nez Perce histories. Maybe it’s because the continuing journey has been lost in the drama of the war, as the Pandemic of 1918 got lost in WW I. The story of the War, I’ve recently learned, was still taught at the Air Force Academy in a course on “asymmetrical warfare” in the 1980s.
Nez Perce elder Albert Andrews Redstar faults historians and the Nez Perce National Park for concentrating on the War, forgetting that the journey continues, and that the Nez Perce are still here. The most important thing I learned from all this early morning reading in 2020 is that Indians—and Blacks, Latinos, and people of all colors—are still here, and that a world governed by and for privileged white men is slipping away.
Happy reading in 2021!