How much was a beaver pelt worth?

We know now that the fur trade in North America began in the 1500s with English, and French and Spanish Basque, fishermen off the Atlantic coast. When the fish weren’t enough—or when economies suggested—the fishermen went ashore and took and traded for beaver pelts and other animal hides, and Indian slaves. (That’s how Squanto got to Europe, learned English, and returned to become a translator for the New England colonists.)

Fashion took a turn in Europe in the middle of the 16th century, and felted beaver hats became the rage. European and Russian beaver had been or were soon trapped out, and North America offered unlimited quantities—or so the fishermen and traders thought. And for almost 200 years, until the 1820-40s, when cheaper silk hats began another fashion trend, French, British, Spanish, and American traders, trappers, and business tycoons made every effort to take all of the estimated 40-60 million beaver of North America. The silk hat saved the beaver Read The Article

The words were always there

Every day of reading and rethinking our country’s history brings new ideas; some days, epiphanies. Today’s epiphany is about words—who has them, keeps them, and pays attention to them. What they might mean for tomorrow.

Claudio Saunt’s Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory, sparks today’s thoughts. The message of the book is in the title. For approximately ten years, from 1830-1840, the Indian Removal Act legislated and then aimed to carry out the removal of all—supposedly about 80,000—American Indians remaining east of the Mississippi River to the West, to some vague but increasingly real place called Indian Territory. The Act destroyed the lives of scores of tribes and thousands of Indians, while it enriched others. Read The Article

An elder passes

In my understanding of how things work in Indian country, names of elders who have recently passed are often not said aloud for some time–or only carefully. But I think in this case it is important to use a name, because Mary Schlick was known to many in Northwest Indian country for decades, but she has been largely silent for some time, and  her recent death, at 94, at the end of a long and important life, should be noted. Her name will bring a smile to many Indian face, and to soyapu faces as well. Read The Article

The “Roaming Nez Perce” on a level playing field

Our national founding documents talk about all men being created “equal,” and many see the history of the country as a gradual expansion of “all men” to include black men—14th Amendment, 1868; women—19th Amendment, 1920; and, in 1924, when they were finally given citizenship in the country that had swallowed up their native lands, Indians. Read The Article

Rez Ball

There was a time in America—a century ago—when Indian athletes were courted and celebrated. The most well-known of those early twentieth century athletes was, of course, Jim Thorpe, the Carlisle football and track star who won Olympic medals, played professional football and baseball—and eventually had to give the medals back because he had done what many other “amateurs” had done, taken small amounts of pay for semi-pro baseball. But he was then, and is still among some, thought to be the greatest American athlete ever. Read The Article

Bury my heart…

In the fall of 1971, just months into my life in the Wallowas, my mind muddled with the Peace Corps and Washington D.C. lives I’d only recently left, I got a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in the mail from Barb, my old Peace Corps partner. Her note said she was working in a bookstore in Sun Valley, and thought the book was “great but terribly maddening.” Read The Article

Reading History

I’ve been on a history reading jag the last few months. It started with a comment I heard from Alvin Josephy many times—that the “standard” histories of America leave Indians out when they don’t lie about them.

My first book was These Truths:  A History of the United States, by Harvard historian and regular and prolific New Yorker writer Jill Lepore; I looked for Indians. Although she has apparently written a book about the Pequot—which I have not read—in her new “History of the United States,” Indians get little mention. She is on a mission to tell us how we got—or are still getting—from the words in the founding documents about “all men created equal,” to the place where non-property-owning whites, former slaves and their descendants, and women are all included under the equality umbrella. Note the presumptuous title of her book—A History of… implies The New History of…. Read The Article

Of Lands and People

This photo from the air was taken by Leon Werdinger and used in Wallowa Land Trust’s campaign to save the Wallowa Lake East Moraine. Photos of Wallowa Lake are ubiquitous; photographers from around the world vie to get some special vision of it to take home to Los Angeles—or London or Berlin.

This one, in which you can clearly see the East, West, and terminal moraines, traveled far enough and well enough to help raise the money to buy most of the East Moraine and forestall further development Some grazing is allowed, and hiking; the deer—and someday, maybe, once again, the antelope—will play. Read The Article

Covid-19 and American Indians

Since the beginning of this pandemic, I have been struck by the outsized impact of Covid-19 on American Indians, and by the lack of serious discussion of their apparent special vulnerability to the disease. The stories we read and hear are about bad water and poor living conditions among the Navajo and the Ojibwe—and in Black and Latino zip codes. I understand—and want nothing more than to make sure that everyone in America has clean and lead-free water and access to good health care. And I believe, with my liberal cohort, that it is government’s duty to ensure clean water and good health care. We cannot, in today’s world, be our own water testers and doctors. Read The Article

Oregon and slavery—and Indians

Greg Nokes ends his 2013 book, Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory, with a quote from Alvin Josephy’s essay, “The Forked Tongue in U.S. History Books.” Alvin wrote it in the early 1970s, coming out of a conference at Stanford University examining California textbooks:

“The writing of history, done by the white intruders, conquerors and dispossessors, has been self-serving from the start—meeting the needs, generation after generation, of the people who were pouring in from Europe, first erecting colonies and then building a new nation. Little attempt was made to understand—and much less explain—the different and unfamiliar Indian cultures against which the newcomers rubbed. Because they were different, they were deemed inferior and dangerous.” Read The Article

“Caste” omits Indians

I’m half-way through Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, and while the writing is superb, and the argument that Caste is a more accurate description and useful tool than Race is in assessing American history, I am once again disappointed in a major historical text that does not directly address Indians in America. Read The Article