Riding a wave

I’m privileged, I tell visitors to the Josephy Center, to be at this place in this time, riding a wave of good feelings and sympathies for Native Americans. We see the Yuroks buying and rehabbing land in Northern California, managing for wild flora and fauna and education, reintroducing giant condors, contracting to revegetate the lands left in the wake of dam removal on the Klamath River. I listen to Nez Perce Tribal leaders negotiate with US officials over dam removal on the Snake River. We read books of indigenous history and culture by Indian professors at Yale and Harvard—places and subject matter deemed important in those illustrious history departments only recently. We watch Lilly Gladstone, the Blackfoot-Nez Perce actress, playing a starring role in a historical drama about the insane and greedy plots and the killings of Osage women to steal their oil inheritances in “Killers of the Flower Moon.” We marvel at Deb Haaland, the first Native cabinet secretary in history, as she seeds the Department of the Interior with Native talent—and, importantly, brings the disgraceful practices of the Indian Boarding Schools to national attention.

How can these things have escaped us for so many years, decades? And how did I get here? How am I able to talk with Nez Perce friends about what this Wallowa place must have looked like before they were torn from it 147 years ago? How did I end up atop the books and the research that Alvin Josephy produced in a long career of scholarship and advocacy for American Indians, beginning in the 1950s, when I was a young student wrestling with grades, sports, and a mysterious social world?

I know now that although American Indians were not part of my known world, they were next door neighbors in Minnesota and California as I grew up. Like most Americans of the time, Indians were long ago in history books, or were a game you played as children.

I tell people that when I came to the Wallowas in 1971, I did not know the Nez Perce from the Navajo. Chief Joseph was on the masthead of the newspaper, his image on the advertisements for the Chief Joseph Days Rodeo, a town—Joseph—named for him, and a Chief Joseph in a graveyard at the foot of Wallowa Lake. I had to learn that there were two Chief Josephs, that it was the father’s grave at the Lake; Young Joseph was buried in Colville, Washington. Why? And why am I sorting this out?

I came here with a one-year contract with the Extensions Service; my job was to increase employment. One year stretched to five, and then—I could have moved to Ontario or Hood River with Extension—we decided to open a bookstore in Enterprise. I was still not much attuned to Native matters—and in 1976 the country as a whole was not sympathetic to Natives in the wake of Black and Brown power movements, the Indian occupation of Alcatraz, and the confrontation between AIM—the American Indian Movement—and the FBI in South Dakota.

And then Alvin Josephy entered my life. The bookstore was always an early stop when the Josephys came to the County, and I gradually learned his career with Indians as he helped to shape mine. In those Bookloft conversations, I learned about Alvin’s meeting the Nez Perce, his books, and his work on what would become the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. He was my mentor, and we became friends.

My first meeting with Nez Perce Indians was in the basement of the Enterprise Library. Alvin was there too, and I watched and listened to him as he and they talked about expanding the Nez Perce National Historical Park into Oregon. It did!

In 1988, Alvin helped launch Fishtrap. We brought writers from across the West, but always tried to have an Indian presence, even workshops on Nez Perce language and culture. Fishtrap, which holds its 37th annual Summer Gathering this week, still brings diverse and Native voices.

And then Terry Crenshaw, Taz Conner, and what would become the Nez Perce Wallowa Homeland—now 320 acres with dance arbor and The tensions and mistrusts of the 1970s were dissolving, and Wallowa County was beginning to welcome the original inhabitants home!

Now I live with Alvin’s books in the Josephy Library. And I tell and retell the story of Alvin, the WW II combat correspondent and then Time Magazine editor, being told by publisher Henry Luce in a brief telegram to “Forget Utah, Do Idaho.” Luce’s plane had been put down in an emergency in Idaho, and he had been treated well. The boss sent Josephy to Idaho, where he met the Nez Perce—and the rest of the story plays out again and again in my mind and work.

Sometimes life seems complicated, and sometimes it seems like luck of the draw. The reasons that brought me to Wallowa County all those years ago are too long and complicated to go into here. But the meeting with Alvin and the Indians, Fishtrap and Indians, the Homeland Project and Indians, and my perch in a library filled with books and papers about the West and the Indians—especially the Nez Perce Indians—was the luck of a good draw.

I tell folks I feel like a surfer riding a good wave in a stormy sea in a troubled world.

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Photo if Alvin Josephy and his friend, Allen Pinkham Sr.

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