Fear–and Reconciliation

Old friend Jonathan Nicholas sent me word of an incredible event at his former place of work, The Oregonian. On Monday October 24, the newspaper published a long piece outlining its racist past. Its own investigative reporter, Rob Davis, combed the Oregonian’s files, read its editorials, and concluded that

“The now 161-year-old daily newspaper spent decades reinforcing the racial divide in a state founded as whites-only, fomenting the racism that people of color faced. It excused lynching. It promoted segregation. It opposed equal rights for women and people of color. It celebrated laws to exclude Asian immigrants. It described Native Americans as uncivilized, saying their extermination might be needed.

“The newspaper helped create the Oregon of today: A majority white state, with the West Coast’s smallest proportion of Black residents, anchored by Portland, America’s whitest big city.”

The Oregonian’s current editor, Therese Bottomly, who commissioned the year-long study of her paper’s past, contributed her own apology on behalf of The Oregonian.

“As editor of The Oregonian, the current leader of the newsroom, I unreservedly apologize to our readers and our community for the racism in this newspaper and the legacy it leaves.
For decades following its founding as a daily in 1861, The Oregonian promoted racist and xenophobic views. Editorials and news articles were decidedly on the wrong side of morality. The institution stirred hatred, prejudice and unwarranted fear.”

It was, Jonathan says, a long-time coming, and not the less difficult because of that. It also comes at a time that Ojibwe writer David Treuer is calling a Native “surge”—I understand him to mean a surge in the quantity and quality of Native voices; a surge in political representation; and a surge in government recognition of boarding school sins and current reservation problems—diabetes, poverty, unclean water, mining waste, missing and killed Native women.

Similarly, the elevation of women and people of color in TV and print newsrooms, the celebration of Black history and documentaries describing the Asian “Exclusion laws” of the past are part of a new face in America.

Yet—a long shadow of the kind of fear that The Oregonian preached is following these efforts at reconciliation and repentance. The fear that white Americans—especially white men—might soon be in some kind of numerical minority, a thing that some are calling a “replacement theory,” has many Americans trembling.

When we formed the Nez Perce Wallowa Homeland project years ago, there was great fear among some that a casino would follow, fear that Indians would come back to take the land from farmers and ranchers, fear of people who looked different—and actually had a claim to this place.

Over 30 years of good neighborliness has eased local fears. The town of Wallowa turns out to ready the arbor and welcome Native dancers and drummers each year. Nez Perce Fisheries gets public and private cooperation in efforts to bring back salmon runs. The new officials at the Wallowa Lake Dam are negotiating with Fisheries for Sockeye Salmon Return. Private landowners and The Nature Conservancy host Native root diggers. And Methodists and the Wallowa Lake Lodge have been applauded for easements and outright ownership of fish spawning habitat conveyed to the Nez Perce Tribe.

But fear—local fear alongside state and national fear—is, like a cancer, still with us. In remission, maybe, but with us nevertheless. Most recently, my friend, US Representative Pramila Jayapal of Seattle, has had harassment and threats in her city. And just recently, Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Nataki Garrett—the first woman of color to hold the position—had her life threatened.

It’s terrible to have to live with fears that drive people to do these things. Terrible that it took 161 years of the leadership and legacy of old white men before a woman editor at The Oregonian had the gumption and enough internal support to apologize for old wrongs.

And it is beautiful to be with walwa ma –Joseph—band Nez Perce, living in exile at Nespelem in Washington for a century and a half, seeing places in their old homeland for the first time, drumming and singing in a longhouse in Wallowa, just down the road from their Catholic and Protestant neighbors.

Let the apologies—and the singing—go on!

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Photo credit: Oregon Public Broadcasting


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