Indians and Indians

This blog post is dedicated to my new friends from India: Ritesh and Yojana Jindel; Biswajit and Anjali Pati; Raj Dubey, Siddharth Varvandkar; Anjana Miatra; and Sidhu Kuljit. They are from Rourkela in Odisha State and Raipur, the capital city in Chhattisgarh State in central India. They were here briefly this week on a Rotary Friendship Exchange with clubs in Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. Four men, four women, ages from forties to seventies, from states and cities populated by millions in a country with 1.4 billion people, almost one-fifth of the world’s population!

We—Ralph Swinehart, Ted Hays, and I—picked them up from the Pendleton Rotary Club Monday afternoon, and with brief stops in La Grande and at Terminal Gravity in Enterprise, met with the Wallowa County Rotary Club and guests at “The Place” in Joseph. Craig Pesti-Strobel, incoming Rotary President, had prepared a mostly vegetarian dinner that delighted. Our guests introduced themselves, their home cities, and their Rotary work. Both cities, Raipur, 14th century-old, and Rourkela, a planned city developed in the 1950s, are about steel and industry. Climate is summer hot with monsoons, and winters moderate.

Their Rotary projects are humbling. One club has raised almost a million dollars in equipment for a pediatric cardio hospital that is non-profit and free to all child patients and their families. Another club—with 14 men and 47 women members!—works with a juvenile jail, an orphanage, and in educating poor, often “tribal” people. (That female dominated club was proud to tell us that they played in Rotary cricket tournaments—coed!)

Yes—India still has tribal people that still speak languages and practice customs of their own, small groups hidden from the many crowded urban centers and extensive agricultural lands. We were told that many of the tribal people have converted to Christianity (my hunch, that missionaries didn’t make much headway with Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, got a nod from a couple of the Indians).

We didn’t talk much religion or politics, but a couple of the Rotarians—although themselves Hindu—were distressed at the current state of religious divisiveness in their country, after, one said, “a hundred years of learning to get along.” Although their home populations are predominantly Hindu, their Rotary clubs welcome all religions—at least one of our guests described a Sikh wedding in her family.

We had much to learn, but what could we show our guests? Because of their work in health care, we started off with a fine tour of our Assisted Living facility, Winding Waters Clinic and our hospital. They were impressed with all that is going on in our very rural area. CEO Dan Grigg arranged another mostly vegetarian meal at the hospital cafeteria, and we had a robust discussion of health care in the two countries.

And then we went on the north highway to the Joseph Overlook and, with help from retired Forest Service archeologist Bruce Womack, talked about geology, geography, and the Nez Perce. Bruce was able to compare the Columbia River Basalt Group—lava flows that covered 87,000 square miles of what is now Eastern Washington and Oregon over sixteen million years ago, with the Dekan Traps, lava flows in west-central India that covered over 200,000 square miles over 60 million years ago!

Many things in India are larger and older than we reckon things in North America, although we are beginning to listen more to Native story and pushing settlement and civilizations back thousands of years at a stroke. We have gone from “humans” in the Americas 12,000—14,000 years ago, coming across the Bering Land Bridge from Asia, to increasing evidence of earlier human habitation. There is a site on the Salmon River, in Nez Perce country, that dates to 16,500 years, and older evidence in the Southwest. And the specialists now think that humans might have migrated by water rather than land—the archeologist who worked the Coopers Ferry site on the Salmon River said the Columbia River was the “first good left turn.”

From the Joseph overlook we came back into Joseph, and spent some time at the Josephy Center talking about the Nez Perce story. The Joseph post office opened in 1879, just two years after the walwa ma—or Joseph—band was forced to leave. The town was incorporated in 1897, only ten years after removal. The India Indians asked immediately how we could name a town after the leader of a people we had forcibly removed!

And—we had to explain, we also have a Chief Joseph Days Rodeo.  And we had to tell them that the Old Joseph Gravesite, which we visited on the way to dinner at the head of Wallowa Lake, received the bones of the chief in 1926, after his original burial place near the town of Wallowa was robbed and his skull taken and shown in a Baker City dentistry.

So much to explain: “phrenology”—the mapping of human skulls, and its sister pseudoscience of eugenics; Indians as landholders and white settlement that wanted land and needed knowledge of land and waters; the European diseases that pummeled Indian tribes and decimated populations across North, Central, and South America; the “noble savage” Indian of Jacque Rousseau and continuing curiosity by some for the innocence and “naturalness” of American Indians; Indians attracting tourists; Boarding schools and broken treaties; and today’s Indian casinos winning cash from elderly white “settlers” (and Indian visitors; some Indian Rotarians contributed at the Wildhorse Casino).

It was a three-day whirlwind, and now I am curious to visit India’s Indians, to see their health care system and steel plants, their rice fields and ancient temples. And maybe to meet some people still called “tribal” in that ancient land.

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Photo by WC Rotary president Jeff Fields at Rotary Peace Pole at Wallowa Lake Lodge

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