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. Read Rich’s Post →
Deb Haaland, President-elect Biden’s nominee for Secretary of the Department of the Interior, is a 35th generation New Mexican who is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna. She will be the first enrolled member of an American Indian Nation to serve as a Cabinet secretary, and the fact that it is Interior—the federal agency designated to deal with Indian reservations and tribal issues—is, frankly, mind-blowing. In her first remarks, Haaland reminded people that one of her predecessors at Interior had called for the complete assimilation or extermination of all Indians. Read Rich’s Post →
Several people forwarded me a link to “Salmon People: A tribe’s decades-long fight to take down the Lower Snake River dams and restore a way of life,” a fine article on the lower Snake River dams by Linda Mapes, published in the Seattle Times on Sunday, November 29. Nez Perce Tribal Chair Shannon Wheeler and Cultural Resources head Nakia Williamson are quoted extensively, and good photos, maps, and accounts of historic uses of fish and lamprey, treaties, and the devastation of fish runs by the dams on the main stem and tributaries of the Columbia River background a rich story of current tribal efforts to reinvigorate fish runs and remove dams. Read Rich’s Post →
I have been fascinated by President Grant’s proposed “Reservation for the Roaming Nez Perce Indians of the Wallowa Valley” since I saw the map of it in Grace Bartlett’s Wallowa Country: 1867-1877 years ago. I thought that if those Nez Perce had just had the foresight to put up picket fences and stop “roaming,” they might not have lost the Wallowa. More recently, I have seriously wondered what went wrong with it.Read Rich’s Post →
I’ve just finished reading Philip Deloria’s Indians in Unexpected Places, an encyclopedic look at Indians and sports, technology, music, and the movies in the early years of the twentieth century. It was a time, Deloria says, of “paradox and opportunity,” when Indians were at a low point in numbers and economics, due to long history and the late nineteenth century cascade of legislation aimed at Assimilation. Read Rich’s Post →
One of the first axioms of White-Indian relations I remember hearing from Alvin Josephy was that from the moment Europeans hit the North American shore, indigenous peoples had three choices: they could move away; they could become white; or they could die. Assimilation—becoming white—has been the alternative favored most often by governments and by popular opinion. Read Rich’s Post →
In today’s Washington Post, long-time columnist Michael Gerson, a former George W. Bush speechwriter and consultant, labels President Trump a racist, and says that’s all you have to remember in the voting booth. He’s another of the staunch Republicans who is switching sides in this election, claiming older Republican and American values. But like so many principled Republicans and Democrats, he forgets and omits the long struggle of Native Americans with the waves of European immigrants in the first centuries of colonialism and nationhood. And like many of his journalism cohorts and academic mentors, he labels slavery our “original sin.”
“The struggle for racial equality is the defining American struggle. Much of our history has been spent dealing with the moral contradiction of America’s founding — how a bold experiment in liberty could also be a prison for millions of enslaved people. That hypocrisy and its ramifications have been our scandal. Our burden. Our sin.” Michael Gerson, Washington Post, October 30, 2020.
I’ve been at this serious examination of Indian history and culture for a little over a decade, spurred by the work of my mentor, Alvin Josephy, and the Indian people I have read, met, and tried to listen to. I remember Alvin harping on the invisibility of Indians, the conscious and unconscious lies and omissions of the misnamed Indians in the history of our country. He spent a working life—over 40 years—addressing the issue.
This is of course not to excuse the institution of slavery and the importation of Africans to do the work of building a Euro-American economy and country. American Indians, after all, were the first slaves—sent by Columbus back to Spain, and worked to death in the Caribbean.
I cannot imagine the lump in the throat, the pain in the gut, that passages like this, and the continuing distortions and omissions by journalists, pundits, and historians, give to newspaper and textbook reading Indians every day of their reading lives.
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I’ve heard about the Black loggers at Maxville for the 50 years I’ve lived in the Wallowas, and about Amos Marsh, the only pro football player ever to come out of Wallowa County, for as long. In recent years, I’ve watched my grandson and teammates in football and basketball games and track meets with Jim, “The Cove Rocket” Puckett. Jim has stories. He and Amos must have been the two fastest sprinters in Oregon high schools in 1956 and 57. Jim beat him in the 100 and 220 in high school, but Amos turned the cards when he was at Oregon State and Jim was at the U of O.
Pearl Alice Marsh was Amos’s little sister. She went to Wallowa schools grades 1-6 while Amos and Frank—one year younger than Amos and also an outstanding athlete—were turning Wallowa Hi into a sports powerhouse. The family moved to California after Frank graduated, and Pearl Alice graduated high school there, and went on to get a Phd in Political Science at UC Berkeley and have a distinguished career in public service. I met her a few years ago as she was making annual returns to the Wallowas—spurred in part by the return of Nez Perce for Tamkaliks, a powwow in Wallowa. Now retired, Pearl had begun assembling the stories of the descendants of the Black logging families of Wallowa County. Her book is called But Not Jim Crow: Family Memories of African American Loggers in Maxville, Oregon.
Pearl’s father, Amos Marsh Sr., was born in Louisiana, moved to Arizona where he worked in the sawmill and met and married Mary Patterson. Mary was the daughter of Pa Pat and Ma Pat Patterson; Amos and Mary followed the Pattersons to Maxville, Oregon in 1938. Eventually, the Pattersons settled at Water Canyon, along the Wallowa River, a few miles into the canyon between Wallowa and Elgin. The Marshes moved into the town of Wallowa. Most Black logging families eventually moved to La Grande; the men continued to work at Maxville, commuting and living in bachelor quarters during the workweek.
That’s the basic framework. Pearl’s book gives voice to the Black lives of Eastern Oregon, not only the stories of hard work and academic and athletic success, but of cross cut saws, logging accidents, dressing pigs and deer, good cooks, and a beautiful woman who weathered a series of abusive husbands. They’re the stories of the ordinary lives and troubles of work and children in Maxville, Wallowa, and La Grande, Oregon.
An early lesson in the book is that Black people were working in great numbers in the timber industry in the South in the late 19th and early 20th century. In 1910, as much as 25 percent of employment in the timber industry was black. As farms mechanized and “free” Blacks looked to sustain themselves, they moved to timber, and as logging declined in the South, the Southern companies moved west.
A lesson of the book title is that Pearl’s caste of characters was all part of the Great Migration that took millions of Black families north and west from 1916-1970 in their escape from the Jim Crow South. The “But” in that title tells another lesson: there was prejudice in Oregon too. But it was not the brutal prejudice of the American South in the 20s-60s. White men and Black worked together, played pool and cards together at Haney’s pool hall in Wallowa; women visited back and forth and kids went to school together, although there were always lines hard to cross. Some of the most touching stories in Pearl’s books are of the good things that happened between Blacks and Whites. A rich batch of photos and interviews with a few White friends and classmates speak to that. “It wasn’t Selma, but we made our stand,” said one of Amos’s White classmates.
From the recollections of descendants of the original Maxville loggers and their families—all of the actual loggers, sawmill workers, and wives are long gone—we get a picture of a small but vibrant Black community in Eastern Oregon from the 1920s well into the 1960s. Maxville recruits were often family members or close friends from the South, and the marriages and interrelationships continued. There was some moving back and forth from Oregon to Arizona and to the South.
From the 1930s forward, Maxville families gradually drifted to La Grande, which already had a few Black railroad families. One Black wife took one look at Maxville and found a house in La Grande; her husband could commute and stay in the bachelor barracks at Maxville during the week. La Grande was a bigger place too. There were at least three Black churches, and there was a college and a movie theater. Black boys from Pendleton would come to check on the Black girls in La Grande. With WW II some of the families went to Portland for war factory jobs.
When a white logger from Wallowa went to work in Northern California, Amos Marsh followed him. Amos Jr. was at Oregon State and Frank at Linfield, both on track scholarships. Pearl and her sister went to California schools and did well. There are still descendants in Eastern Oregon. Gwen Trice’s Maxville Heritage program speaks to that. But Eastern Oregon’s Blacks have also traced lines across the country—and indeed, as exemplified by Joseph Hilliard Jr. in Pearl’s book, from La Grande and Eastern Oregon College to directing Peace Corps programs in Africa and serving in the State Department across the world.
It’s a rich heritage. Thank you Pearl.
“Columbus Day” was first celebrated by Italian-Americans in San Francisco in 1869, and worked its way into a national holiday in 1937. Those of us who went to school in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and probably through the 1990s and are not of Italian heritage, remember a school holiday and sympathetic portrayals of the Italian explorer in our textbooks.
We were not told of Columbus’s introduction of slavery—the Indian slaves he sent back to Europe or the “Indios” he enslaved in the mining of gold and introduction of European agriculture in the Caribbean. We did learn that Columbus thought he had arrived in Asia and his subsequent “misnaming” of Indians—a tradition that continued! He named the Indians he first met “Caribs,” a word derived from one meaning human flesh-eaters, cannibals. Columbus thought he had met the ferocious man-eating savages described by Marco Polo. They skipped that in our textbooks and didn’t tell us that he and his cohorts were responsible for the extermination of some entire tribes of indigenous people on those Caribbean islands.
We did not learn about the papal “Doctrine of Discovery” that gave Columbus’s Spanish royalty and other Christian European powers the “right” to claim lands occupied by “heathens” as their own. We did not learn about the learned discussions in Europe over the Indians in the New World: If the gospel had indeed been proclaimed across the world, some reasoned, how could these new human-like creatures be humans, have “souls”? In 1537, Pope Paul III issued an encyclical proclaiming that Indians did have souls, and that they could not be enslaved—but they could be converted.
Almost a century later, a century in which Indians continued to be sent from the North American mainland to those islands as slaves, the importation of African slaves to the islands and then throughout the Americas commenced. There are no papal encyclicals regarding the enslavement of Africans, who, beginning in 1619, were bought and sold openly in American cities, whose children and grandchildren were bought and sold until the Civil War. And whose great and great-great grandchildren ran from Jim Crow in the South and spread throughout the country—where to this day they make less money and die sooner than their White American neighbors.
When people today say that we should go back to celebrating American history and traditional values, they mean to omit these crucial moments in our history. But times have changed since we went to school. The Civil Rights Movement, Voting Rights Act, Indian uprisings at Alcatraz and Wounded Knee, and the Indian Freedom of Religion Act of 1978 have wrestled up forgotten history and made it impossible to see an unblemished past.
A parade of new histories is moving the big ship of American Education, ever so slowly, to consider old events in new lights, and to see stories long suppressed in the broader and more accurate narrative of our national past.
Alvin Josephy wrote Indian Heritage of America in 1968, Vine Deloria Jr. published Custer Died for Your Sins in 1969, and Dee Brown Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in 1971. Indian poets and novelists, from Scott Momaday and Leslie Silko to Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie, write from Indian country today but are celebrated as American authors.
African-Americans too have seen an almost century-long welling up of authors, storytellers, and artists showing the real story of slavery, Jim Crow, and continuing persecution and discrimination to this day. Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, Aretha Franklin, and a host of hip hop artists I can’t name bring the rich cultures of African-America to all of America.
Recently, in the shadow of the deaths of George Floyd, Brionna Taylor and many others, new non-fiction books accurately depicting the history and practice of segregation and racism in America are on best-seller lists. In the last few months, I’ve reread Baldwin, read Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, and Jill Lapore’s These Truths: A History of the United States, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.
Pile these books and ideas on top of the new environmental histories—Alfred Crosby’s Columbian Exchange; Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel; Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created—and you get a much broader picture of Columbus’s “discovery” of the new world.
These chapters of American history, and others—American expansion into Mexican lands; Asian exclusion acts; Japanese Internment camps; Jewish, Hungarian, Vietnamese, Hmong, Syrian and Iraqi refugees, etc.—do not diminish the impact that Columbus had on our world and the bigger world. As students of what is now called the “Columbian Exchange” point out, his journey unleashed an improbable amount of changes to the entire globe—animals, plants, diseases, and people quickly ricocheted off four continents so that Italians could have tomatoes and Irish potatoes; smallpox could visit the Americas and tobacco and sugar become European luxuries; and America could begin its dance with slavery.
But Columbus himself was a small man in retrospect, made small by the ignorance, meanness, and greed of his times.
# # #
The name—its explanation comes on the first pages of the book—pulls you into the story. The writing is measured and strong and beautiful—
“The Old Ones say that our long straight hair comes from the waving grasses that thatch the edges of bays. Our feet and hands are broad and flat and strong, like the paws of a bear… Our talk rolls and tumbles like the rivers that served as our roads.” It keeps you going.
But it’s a rough road. Richard Wagamese, a Canadian Ojibwa writer well known in his own country but not much here, tells a brutal story of old wisdom, a vicious boarding school, the grace and beauty in sport, and the depth of irrational racial hatred.
I’ve said before that slavery is not the original sin; the racism that produced and supported slavery is the country’s original sin. And here I include our neighbors to the north, who were part of, and are today, like us, a product of the invasion of White Europeans, who stole, plundered, and installed a system that we are now learning to see as “systemic racism.”
Ideas precede actions, as Ibram X. Kendi says: “race craft” had to be developed before Black Africans could be routinely put in chains. Race craft meant a color hierarchy, with white Europeans at the top; the Brown peoples of the New World were displaced as Black Africans were imported to build an economy on their lands.
The digression on race is because one cannot read Indian Horse without wondering at the viciousness, cruelty, and disdain of Whites towards Indians. And there is no room here to allow our northern friends a pass on racism. Their guilt is as deep as our own.
What Euro-Canada did give to Indians was hockey (as we have given them basketball). What will engage sports enthusiasts in the book are descriptions of the thrill of sport, and not the jaw-dropping crushes routine in hockey or football, or even the pure athleticism of any sport’s best. It is the intuitive knowledge of sport, and the grace with which the best go about it.
Saul Indian Horse sees “the rink”—from the shabbiest coldest outdoor rinks in backwoods Canadian Indian hockey to the indoor, Zamboni-groomed rinks of the pros—and the puck and all the skaters as they are and as they might or could be in the next micro-seconds. Saul scores, but more profoundly, he passes and makes other players and his teams better. Teammates learn to skate where he will find them, and defenses are befuddled by the eyes in the back of his head. He sees the hockey rink as his grandmother saw the lakes and rivers—and a hard route in freezing cold that saved Saul’s own life.
Hockey is Saul Indian Horse’s ticket out of the boarding school—and into other worlds of discrimination and cruelty. I was in tears at book’s end.
And Richard Wagamese, the writer? He’s a Canadian Ojibwa, so there are two counts against him in the American (read US) book world. I think most of his books are only available from Canadian publishers. Milkweed from Minneapolis brought this book out in a beautiful edition.
The man’s story. The scenes in Indian Horse must be close to those Wagamese lived—parents and their generation were forced into boarding schools; he himself was removed from them and placed in foster care. He ran away from abuse and intolerance at 16, lived on the streets and in prisons until finding his story-telling voice.
I sometimes feel doubly and triply robbed: robbed of the stories that were all around me when I was young—the Minnesota Ojibwa were my neighbors; robbed of any true accounting of the racism that has permeated White America from its onset in 1492; and robbed of the work of fine artists because of political, ethnic, and cultural boundaries observed by the American literary establishment and publishing industry.
Oh—one more: I should have known and invited this man to Fishtrap when I was in charge and he was still alive.
# # #
“No adverse impact visited on the 1492 voyage of “discovery” was more profound in its consequences in every nook and cranny of the Americas than Columbus’s introduction of Western European ethnocentricity to the Indians’ worlds. Asserting the superiority of the white aggrandizers’’ religious, political, and social universe over each of the many indigenous peoples from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, this ethnocentricity was an arrogant vice, backed by superior firepower and boundless gall, that never faltered or weakened. It continues unabashedly on both continents today, and its impact has been felt long after the conquest of the continents was complete.”
Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus, page 4.
There’s the sin, the hubris, the tragic flaw in our origins.
It is popular—almost automatic in some circles—to say that slavery is America’s Original Sin. It is also true that slavery existed in many parts of the world prior to the 1619 importation of African slaves to North America, prior to Columbus’s century earlier enslavement of “Indians” of the Caribbean (and exportation of some to Europe).
Ibram X. Kendi’s brilliant Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racism in America, recounts the Western Europeans’ importation of Slavic slaves, the development of African slavery and the European—and eventually American—traffic in African slaves, and the development of color conscious superiority thinking in Europe. Kendi would, I think, agree wholeheartedly with Josephy’s comment, made on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World.
There is no argument that slavery—the “legal” or culturally acknowledged ownership of one human by another—is evil. But Josephy’s point, echoed by Kendi and by Louis Farrakhan in a speech at the Black “Million Man March” on the Capitol Mall in 1995 (quoted by Kendi), is that “The real evil in America is not white flesh or black flesh. The real evil in America is the idea that undergirds the setup of the Western world, and that idea is called white supremacy.”
I love the word “undergirded” here. And if we think in terms of undergirded and white supremacy as visited on the indigenous peoples of America from Columbus forward, we have only to add Josephy’s “Western European Ethnocentricity” and the gradual expansion of what “white” means to get to where we are today.
Because White, for the first 400+ years of our United States history, did not mean Irish or Greek, Syrian, Eastern European, or Russian Jew. With the massive mobilization and movement of troops across the country in WW II, “White” began to include non-Anglo and non-Western European Americans. It became more fully realized, as Kendi points out, with the GI Bill and suburbanization after the War. Blacks, who were segregated through WW II, were largely excluded by the GI Bill (as were American Indians), and White emphatically did not mean Chinese American and Japanese American and Filipino-American as we enacted internment camps (there were of course no German-American internment camps during WW II), and embraced anti-Asian and miscegenation laws well into the 1950s.
White was broadening. Levittown was open to Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans as well as Anglo-Americans, and although there were still quotas in colleges and universities on the number of Jews admitted, Jewish-Americans were leaving their “ghettos” with humor—all the major comics in the age of TV variety shows and LP records I grew up with were Jewish: Shelly Berman, Mort Sahl, Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce. American Jews too were making marks in book, film, and song: Philip Roth, Barbra Streisand, Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler…
On TV, Irish American Carrol O’Conner, as Archie Bunker, a lovable bigot with son-in-law “meathead” as his next generation liberal foil, replaced “Leave it to Beaver” as the standard American family. And an Irish-American was elected president!
African-Americans, Indians, and Asian-Americans were certainly not secure in the post-war world that created the “largest middle class” the country had ever known. They were only creeping in at the edges with policies and practices Kendi, Josephy, and the leaders and immediate followers of the Eisenhower administration called “assimilation.” Trying to become culturally—and sometimes, with hair, skin, and eye treatments, physically—White.
Kendi argues–I think convincingly–that assimilation is not the answer to white superiority. “Inroads,” yes; success for some Blacks and Indians and “other” Americans on white terms, yes; but until we root out the Original Sin of Western European White Supremacy, all Americans, including White Americans (quoting James Baldwin), will not be free and equal human beings.
# # #
Ibram X. Kendi’s book, Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, is an exhaustive catalog of religious, social, and economic attitudes and policies that began with the importation of African slaves and continue to this day. The number of actors and authors he sites in telling the story of racists, assimilationists, and antiracists and their multi-layered beliefs is mind-boggling. The way he weaves the three belief poles through US history—and especially the difficult journey of Black people themselves, but also the journeys of White abolitionists, politicians, and scholars—is a vivid and important telling.
Kendi’s treatment of Indians is sketchy at best. Weaving American Indians into the narrative of racism would have doubled the page count, and maybe he has done his job and it is up to others to tell the stories of European, mostly Anglo, settlers’ assumption of racial superiority over the misnamed Indian inhabitants, imported African slaves, and later immigrants from Ireland, Eastern Europe, and Asia.
Kendi’s anti-Black racism story parallels the story of Indians and White racism in many ways, complicated by one huge and overwhelming factor: land. Indians had it and Whites wanted—needed—it in advancing a potpourri of their own visions of developing a new country. From plantation to Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, settlement of invited immigrants to establishment of Land Grant universities, White America has needed Indian lands. And took them—by war, honest and (mostly) dishonest treaty, and just plain squatting on them. People squatted, but so did the government itself, rural Indian lands being the right and easy places for bombing ranges and nuclear bomb-building.
Racism and assimilation were part of the Indian picture even before 1619 and the importation of African Americans. Columbus’s original killing and enslavement of Indians are now well documented and admitted. Wars against and treaties with Indians always assumed White superiority. And “separate but equal occurred” on reservations as it did in Southern schools; send them back to Africa or move them to Indian Territory. Assimilate them—make them white with religion and boarding schools, or with Black colleges and Euro-White curriculum. Kendi calls assimilation “uplift suasion,“ and notes that Blacks who achieved—and still achieve—some success were and are evaluated on how White-like that success is.
There’s much more to be said about the parallels of assimilation and racism with Indians and Blacks over centuries—it’s worth a book. But for one minute let’s look at the post WW 2 period, 1945 into the 50s. Indians and Blacks both served in WW II; Blacks were segregated and Indians gained some notoriety as Code-Talkers. Blacks and Indians served honorably and received the praise of their services—until they got home.
We know that Black veterans were disregarded, threatened, and occasionally lynched when they tried to parlay their patriotic service into voting or education or housing. Blacks moved North and West, voting with their feet, only to find that the promise of the G.I. Bill’s housing provision could not be exercised in neighborhoods deemed “unsafe” for lenders. Cities were “redlined” and Blacks shuttled to poorer neighborhoods which became poorer without means of getting mortgages.
Similarly, The G.I. Bill’s housing provisions could not be applied on reservations, because banks would not loan money for houses to Indians on reservations. Indian reservations were lands held in trust by the federal government, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs would not sign a waiver granting title to the veterans. Without this waiver, there was no way to secure a loan, even under the GI Bill.
Black veterans wanted to eat in restaurants and travel freely after the War; Indians wanted to have a drink—as they had been able to do while in the service. It wasn’t until 1951, that the Oregon State Legislature removed the ban on the sale of alcohol to Indians and the prohibition of intermarriage with Indians.
And if voting for Black veterans in the South was still subject to the rules of Jim Crow—literacy tests, poll taxes, etc., Indian veterans—in fact no Indians—could vote in Arizona and New Mexico until 1948, and until 1957 in Utah.
Kendi talks about Blacks pursuit of Whiteness with hair products, marrying lighter, and college and professions in the White world. Successful Blacks and social and government programs pushed along in this uplift suasion. For Indians, do-gooders had long held that the only way to “save the man” was to “kill the Indian” in him. Nineteenth century land allotment programs, boarding schools, and the outright banning of languages and ceremony had not been totally successful in stamping out Indian culture, and Indians still clung to some tribal lands. So in the post-war years the Eisenhower administration mounted two drastic assimilation programs to finally solve the nation’s “Indian Problem.” The “Termination” program would buy out reservations and make the lands available to Whites and white-run companies. The “Relocation” program would give young reservation Indians a bus ticket to the city—with the possibility of training or work at the other end. It would certainly get more Indians off their land and striving white in the urban world.
The huge “stimulus package” to integrate American veterans back into society, was, as one author called it, “the most massive piece of affirmative legislation in U.S. history.” Some say the GI Bill created the middle class in America. Kendi shows, and Black Americans and Indians know, that it created the White Middle Class in America. It did finally make the Irish, Poles, Greeks, and Jews of European stock White—but that is another story.
# # #
Reparations—government payments or amends of some kind to the descendants of Black American slaves—are not a new idea, but the current Covid-19-BLM crisis has brought them back into conversation. I’ve been skeptical, wondering where Indians and Latinx would fit into it. But being open minded…
Reading Coates and trying to make sense of the Reparation argument.
Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a powerful argument in his oft-cited “Case for Reparations” in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic. Although White indentured servants were the earliest low-wage, no-wage North American laborers, they were still “legal subjects of the English crown,” and thus had certain protections. As the European slave trade, which had relied on eastern Europeans but increasingly, in the 16th century, became dependent on Africans, the Americas joined in. As Coates says, “they became early America’s indispensable working class—fit for maximum exploitation, capable of only minimal resistance.”
Although we—mainstream, mostly white, America—see the South and its tobacco, sugar, and cotton plantations as the scenes of slavery and its reason for being, Ibram X. Kendi points out in Stamped From the Beginning that the growing manufacturing engine of the North relied on king cotton and the South, meaning slavery, for its success. And in fact, as international slave trade was banned and “breeding” and sale of domestic slaves replaced it, slavery also became very profitable. Slavers borrowed to buy, bought insurance policies on, and paid sales taxes on slaves. On the eve of the Civil War, the slaves in our country had more total dollar value than that of all manufacturing and the railroads combined.
If the Civil War “freed” slaves, the failure of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow continued their oppression. No need here to recount the lynchings of Blacks, including war veterans returning from WW I and WW II. But Coates reminds us also that FDR’s New Deal largely skipped Blacks—domestic and agricultural workers, 65% of the Black labor force, were exempted from Social Security. Employers didn’t have to pay the tax; workers did not get Social Security on retirement.
And the post WW II G.I. housing loans were effectively denied Black veterans by official red-lining: mortgages did not go to unsafe neighborhoods, and, by definition, Black neighborhoods were unsafe—so no mortgages.
Coates argues articulately that wealth is a cumulative exercise, and that for most middle-class Americans the largest lifetime investment has been housing. Denied housing as a way of growing wealth, and facing ongoing discrimination in education and job promotion (athletics and entertainment are exceptions that deserve their own discussion), the wealth gap between Whites and Blacks has remained static from 1970 to present.
But reparations for descendants of those who were wronged? The catalog of White transgressions against Blacks is long and, some will argue, continues to grow. From a justice point of view, it’s hard to argue. From a precedent point of view as well. Germany paid reparations to Israel after WW II. Way before that, Quaker abolitionists gave land to freed slaves.
In 1988, President Reagan apologized to the Japanese-Americans who had been interned during WW II and gave the ones still alive each $20,000. John Tateishi, who was incarcerated at the Manzanar Internment camp ages 3-6, and became a leader in the movement for reparations, says it was not about the money, but the idea that the internees had been patriots, not criminals. “We were determined to pass [the Civil Liberties Act] as a way of having Americans recognize the injustice of what happened to us—not for our sake, but in order to make sure this never happened again.”
If some kind of reparations are due African-Americans, what is due the descendants of the first peoples, the misnamed Indians who greeted the white newcomers—and initially gave them the knowledge and help that would allow them to thrive—and then had their lands stolen. The stealing which started with squatting on lands communally “owned” by Tribes, continued with forced treaties, broken treaties, warfare, through the allotment and termination programs well into the twentieth century. High Country News is now documenting the stealing of Indian lands to house or to endow the land grant universities (Oregon State, Washington State, Rutgers, etc.). Some still live on stolen land; some still live on the endowment.
Language, culture, and religion were stripped away from the Indians too—stolen, through government programs. Gradually, over the last fifty years, there has been some turning back, some acknowledgment of past sins, with the Indian Freedom of Religion Act and the Boldt Decision on Northwest Salmon. Treaties have consequences, Boldt said, and the government must help restore salmon. The Sioux continue to refuse compensation for the Black Hills taken away from them in the nineteenth century, although the courts have determined that the Black Hills rightfully still belong to them, and set aside government money to compensate them. Though many live in poverty, the proud Sioux continue to refuse.
The Mexicans of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and California have claims too. The ones “trapped” on this side when the border was moved, with Texas Annexation in 1845 and the Mexican American War in 1848, were immediately discriminated against in voting, land ownership, and leadership. The Texas Rangers ruthlessly suppressed Mexicans, Indians, and Blacks.
Measuring human losses—especially losses from the past, inherited losses, losses of opportunity—and assigning dollar values to them is an impossible task. But Coates has something larger in mind:
Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely… Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.
If we see Reparations as a reckoning with past actions, a coming to terms, if we have the stomach for addressing past moral mistakes made by “fallible humans” who were mostly White Euro-Americans, then I say we should try.
Maybe some treaty rights would be restored, new educational programs initiated; maybe there would be actual cash payments and transfer of lands to tribes and to the descendants of slaves. But most importantly, there would be acknowledgement of histories, languages, and cultures that have been demeaned and buried for centuries. Quoting Coates again: “Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”
The “how” of it is not clear, but Coates suggests that “H.R. 40, also known as the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act,” an act asking for study with no commitment to cash reparations, introduced regularly by Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan beginning in 1989, would be a good place to start.
I’d add Indians and Latinx…
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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.”
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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.
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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.Read Rich’s Post →
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.Read Rich’s Post →
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.
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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.
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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.Read Rich’s Post →
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.Read Rich’s Post →