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
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 The Article
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 The Article
Moving to Wallowa County fifty years ago, meeting and getting to know Alvin Josephy, and then the Indian people who lived here once and still call this place home have all been great gifts to me. In times of uncertainty and even darkness in the past few years, the face and words of a Nez Perce elder have come to take my thoughts and mind to older things, better things. Read The Article
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 The Article
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 The Article
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 The Article
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 The Article
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 Read The Article
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 Read The Article
“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 Read The Article
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 Read The Article
“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 Read The Article
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 Read The Article
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 Read The Article
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 Read The Article
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 Read The Article
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 The Article
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 The Article
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 Read The Article