Happy Thanksgiving; happy history

I wrote this piece a few months ago as my Chieftain newspaper column–but it is really a Thanksgiving item. So apologies if you saw it then, and Happy Thanksgiving–and Turkey and Corn and Squash–in any case!

Remember that third or fourth grade Thanksgiving pageant? The big feast with Indians providing most of the food? And maybe the scene before the feast or after, with Squanto teaching the Pilgrims how to plant; he squatted, surrounded by Pilgrims, and put a fish in a hole and planted corn and beans and squash.
I don’t remember learning how Squanto—more properly “Tisguantum”—was captured and taken to England, abducted and sent to Spain, made his way back to Newfoundland and then to his Patuxet tribal homeland, only to find his tribe had been decimated by European disease.
I don’t remember anyone asking or explaining how Squanto met the Puritains, and how the Indians got corn and squash and beans. Had we been encouraged to do so, we might have arrived at the work of Alvin Josephy and Alfred Crosby.
Crosby, who taught history at Washington State and then at the University of Texas, said that he got “tired of muttering on about Washington and Jefferson,” and when he really looked at American history, he “kept running into smallpox,” a disease that arrived with the Europeans and killed more indigenous Americans than did guns. Crosby then wondered what else had come with Columbus, and what from the “new world” had traveled back to Europe, Asia, and, eventually, Africa. Old to new: horses, cows, sheep, pigs, wheat, guns, smallpox, measles, flu, earthworms. New to old: tobacco, corn, chocolate, rubber, manioc, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers. And, although slavery and gold were around in both hemispheres, the trade in them increased rapidly in Columbus’s wake. It was all part of what Crosby called the “Columbian Exchange,” and it changed the world. He wrote the book in 1972, and now you can take college classes in it!
If our onetime neighbor and my mentor, Alvin Josephy, were still around, I would ask him about Crosby, and try to bring the two of them together—maybe have an event at the new Josephy Center! Alvin left a couple of thousand books and history journals for us to build a “Library of Western History and Culture” in Wallowa County. What I didn’t understand eight and ten years ago was that he also left a way of looking at history. The Europeans who touched the Americas with Columbus in 1492 brought diseases, animals, and technology—most importantly, guns. But Josephy said that the most destructive thing that they brought was a way of looking at the world, a way that put European religious and cultural values at the top of a historical pyramid—and “heathens” and their values in the newly “discovered” lands of the Americas as primitive, discovered so that they could be destroyed or transformed to make way for advancing Anglo-American civilization.
In fact, as Josephy demonstrated in the award winning Indian Heritage of America (in 1968, a few years ahead of Crosby’s Columbian Exchange), the Americas were every bit as rich and complex with civilizations as was the old world. The Mayas and Mississippians had had cities larger than anything in Europe in their time. Peoples and languages had moved, filled and transformed two continents long before Columbus “discovered” them. Corn and beans had been tamed, refined, and moved from Central America to the harsher climates of the northeast Atlantic coast. Extensive trade networks had moved obsidian, abalone shells, and gold as well as agricultural products across the continent and its hundreds of tribes and civilizations.
It wasn’t all pretty. Some hunter gatherers were always on the edge. Some complex civilizations had religions and class structures that embraced slavery—and even human sacrifice. But the Americas were not Sioux Indians riding horses across the plains—the stereotype that most of us grew up with and that is still promoted around the world. The Sioux didn’t start on the plains, and got their horses from Europeans!
If you think about corn and beans traveling the world, about the trade routes that shuffled tobacco and potatoes, gold and slaves, from continent to continent in the decades after Columbus, and if you think about Maya, Inca, Roman, and Greek ruins, and if you think about current efforts to restore salmon and figure out ways for different languages and religions to live side by side, the history to dwell on and learn from is a much bigger thing than what I learned in a class required of all college freshman in 1960: “Western Civilization.” Even the word, “western,” which referred to Greeks, Romans, maybe some Huns and Mongols, Germans, Scots, Irish, and other fair “Europeans,” but omitted Mayans and Incans, Aztecs and Mississippians and other peoples of the “western” hemisphere, seems now ironic at best.

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The Nez Perce and the Columbian Exchange

In preparation for my Portland presentation on the Nez Perce in the Wallowa Country tomorrow night, and thinking about this ecosystems/ Pacific NW tribes class I am teaching in La Grande, I got to wondering about which elements of Alfred Crosby’s Columbian Exchange had the greatest impact on the Nez Perce.

The first one that comes to mind is the horse, because the Nez Perce became noted for their horse breeding and horsemanship. But they probably didn’t get the horse until the early 1700s, over 200 years after Columbus and his crew landed with them in the Caribbean. Late in the history of a people that had been here forever.
It was diseases, and specifically smallpox, that got Crosby to thinking about what all had crossed the ocean and united the two worlds so long divided. And the impact of diseases that the Europeans had developed some immunities to over centuries on indigenous Americans was in all ways catastrophic. In 1491—or maybe his later book, 1493—Charles Mann explains their roles in assisting the conquistadors in overwhelming central and south American civilizations, and in presenting a ghost landscape for immigrant Puritans on the Northeast Atlantic coast. Abandoned Indian gardens and food caches were more important in staving off Puritan starvation than were the pluck, courage, and Christian faith usually credited.
The impacts of diseases on the Nez Perce and other Plateau tribes were again decades—maybe centuries—removed. But diseases did creep in from the Pacific Coast to decimate Willamette Valley Indians in the late 1700s, well before the white men who carried them traveled that far inland. And we know that Indian trade routes took tribal people and commodities from the Pacific Coast to the Rockies—and probably beyond. And we know that the fur trade sent diseases off ahead of it as it moved across the North Country. Allen Pinkham, a Nez Perce elder and co-author of Lewis and Clark among the Nez Perce, thinks that there were about 5,000 Nez Perce in the country at the time of Lewis and Clark—but imagines a pre-Euro-disease population of some 20,000. That would jibe with Crosby and Mann’s thoughts on the impacts of diseases.
Treaties and broken treaties led to war, and Bobbie Conner, director at Tamastlikst, reminded several of us talking about the Stevens treaties one day at the Josephy Center that one must start any discussion of Indian treaties with the “Doctrine of Discovery.” It started with the pope and the Spanish and the Portuguese, but the English picked up on it, and by the time the Oregon Territory came into that crazy “joint occupancy” status, the notion that Indian lands were somehow both occupied but unoccupied (by “civilized” peoples) had taken hold. And Plateau lands were ripe for the plucking—the fight was on between the British (largely through Hudson’s Bay Company actions)  and the upstart United States about which civilized country could claim these Indian lands. Treaties were the tools.
But then I reread the Introduction to Alvin Josephy’s 1492, and he tells us that with all of the things the Europeans brought, all of their diseases, animals, steel and guns, religious righteousness and notions of private property, their Eurocentric view of the world, and the corresponding denigration of other world views, was the lethal blow. It allowed for the enslavement of Indians, the takeover of lands, the destruction of artifacts, and the erasure of languages and cultures that continued on for over 500 years! 
It echoed all the way to Alice Fletcher and Jane Gay “allotting” Nez Perce tribal lands in the 1880s. The solution to the Indian problem was to make them farmers, to assimilate them. Fletcher was kinder than most of her predecessors and contemporaries, thinking that the languages and cultures of Indians should be preserved in books and museums, but she was adamant in the belief that they must join the superior, Euro-American culture to survive.
“Kill the Indian to save the man”—or some version thereof—was long the standard on the “liberal” side of those dealing with Indians.

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Living inside “the warming”

In my last blog I wrote about an interview I came across with Alfred Crosby, historian and author of “The Columbian Exchange.” Crosby said that he had tired of teaching the standard American history of Washington and Jefferson, and, looking for deeper stories of early America, kept running into smallpox. Smallpox led him to an examination of the immense amount of biology that had been left out of the standard historical narrative.
“Why,” the interviewer asked, and Crosby opined that it was probably a matter of habit, that “history” had traditionally been a matter of wars and politics, presidents and kings—and sometimes queens—and the social and political machinations that transfer power from one group, one generation, to the next. Biology—and all that stuff about diseases, plants, animals, bugs and birds going from one half of the world to the other was/is dealt with in another building, another discipline.
Which ties back to our friend Alvin Josephy in a couple of ways. First, in his research on the Nez Perce, Alvin Josephy “ran into” the fur trade; in researching other Patriot Chiefs, he discovered a different American history than he had been taught; and in preparation for The Indian Heritage of America, he found that linguists had much to say about migration patterns and populations.
In my own catching up with Alvin’s ideas on American history and Euro-Indian relations, Europe’s “Little Ice Age” pops up like the fur trade and Crosby’s smallpox. Many of the indentured servants who came to Jamestown and the early colonies were running from (or being sent by worried parents away from ) European droughts and famines. The Norse presence in Greenland and Baffin Bay reversed with the Little Ice Age. The earliest European painters of American Indians seemed so impressed with the size and grandeur of the Indians that Rousseau’s noble savage seems a natural next step. Etc. etc.
So Al Josephy suggested I look up a book by a guy named Brian Fagan that his dad had do some work at American Heritage in the 70s, and that he took a class from at UC Santa Barbara about the same time. I checked it out, and it must have been Mysteries of the Past, a book Fagan co-authored for American Heritage in 1977, that Al was referring to. But I wanted The Little Ice Age, and, as I was in Portland last weekend, ran to Powell’s to find it. It wasn’t on the shelf, but a later Fagan title, The Great Warming, was, and so here I am, inside climate change, following the earth’s warming BEFORE the Little Ice Age.
Norse in Greenland
“Roughly,” between 800 and 1200 A.D., the earth warmed and we got the moldboard plow and agricultural and population expansion in Europe; the Norse sailed to Iceland and Greenland (and sent back huge quantities of walrus ivory); and there were killing droughts on the California coast and in Chaco Canyon. And much more! The striking thing about it all is that the people living “inside” the warming were adapting—and thriving and perishing—decade by decade and year by year. The name—The Medieval Warm Period—was coined less than a century ago.
Within the “warming,” there were wet and dry periods and places. There were enough California acorns stored for two or three years of drought, but a decade or more and oak trees died, and people died or moved inland. Elaborate Mayan reservoirs could handle a few years of drought, but with prolonged warming and drying they failed, and the population dispersed to smaller villages and farms as the great cities died. In Europe warm was accompanied by moisture—often but not always—and grain was grown at ever higher elevations and north latitudes. But not every year!!
 (As a side note, the explorations of ancient climate are incredible and incredibly complex: tree rings, ice cores, vineyard and church records, cemeteries, and on and on.)
The key elements, it seems to me, are how many local populations adapted—by relying on old kinship ties, by moving, by learning new tricks of agriculture and husbandry, and how wildly populations fluctuated during these turbulent times. And, finally, how living inside a long 400 year “trend” provided little opportunity for looking at the whole, and incredible, immediate, demands to find water, food, and shelter “now.”
Do tsunamis and hurricanes and eroding ocean beaches have us—or at least the people immediately involved—doing the same things?  And how difficult is it to be a prophet or forecaster from inside “the warming”?
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A meditation on historiography—Alfred Crosby and Alvin Josephy

Commenting on my last blog, in which I played that major Josephy song about Indians being omitted from the standard American historical narrative, retired history prof Steve Evans said that he would ask students what American history would look like without considering the progressive movement—or George Washington.
Fiction writer and social commentator John Rember (Cheerleaders from Gomorrah: Stories from the Lycra Archipeligo),wrote from his perch in Standley, Idaho that he is “realizing that true history may be an oxymoron, due to the distorting lenses through which we all view the past.”
I apologized for using the word “true,” excusing myself somewhat lamely with the fact that I used “truer” rather than the absolute. And brought out another old song—I don’t remember when or where I first heard it—about history telling us more about the time it is written in than it does the time it is written about.
On the other hand, our persistent attempts to explore the past and to chronicle events of the present for presentation in the future keep many working away at retrieving, chronicling, and explaining. As even casual readers of this blog must realize, my touchstones on this over the last couple of years have been Charles Mann and Alfred Crosby. Here, in an October 2011 interview in the Smithsonian Magazine, Crosby explains how he came on the idea of the “Columbian Exchange,” and how historians too are creatures of habit.
The interviewer asks “What made you want to write this book?” And Crosby replies:
I was a young American historian teaching undergraduates. I tell you, after about ten years of muttering about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, you really need some invigoration from other sources. Then, I fell upon it, starting with smallpox.
Smallpox was enormously important until quite modern times, until the middle of the 20th century at the latest. So I was chasing it down, and I found myself reading the original accounts of the European settlements in Mexico, Peru or Cuba in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. I kept coming across smallpox just blowing people away. So I thought there must be something else going on here, and there was—and I suppose still is.
History from an ecological perspective was a new idea, the interviewer  says, and asks why.
Sometimes the more obvious a thing is the more difficult it is to see it. I am 80 years old, and for the first 40 or 50 years of my life, the Columbian Exchange simply didn’t figure into history courses even at the finest universities. We were thinking politically and ideologically, but very rarely were historians thinking ecologically, biologically.
And how did Crosby go about his research?
It was really quite easy. You just have to be prepared somehow or other to notice the obvious. You don’t have to read the original accounts in Spanish or Portuguese. There are excellent English translations dating back for generations. Practically all of them will get into a page or two or ten about the decimation of American Indians, or a page about how important maize is when all European crops fail, and things like that. I really didn’t realize that I was starting a revolution in historiography when I got into this subject.
I( recall Alvin saying that writing a history of the Civil War in the American West was a matter of sifting and putting together the numerous well documented  accounts of what was happening across the West in the run-up to and during the War. A recent US Park Service bibliography of Civil War in the West material runs 24 pages, and lists Josephy’s 1991 book as the best and most complete general treatment of the subject. I’d wager few college Civil War classes use it.
And, although Crosby’s work and Charles Mann’s popularization of it in 1491 and 1493 have certainly opened eyes to a different way of looking at history and the Europeanization of the New World, Indians IN American history are still crawling up from Indian studies departments into the mainstream.
I like Steve Evans approach: Imagine American History without George Washington, or Cortez or Pizarro—and then imagine it without Tecumseh, the Inca emperors, the Iriquois Confederacy, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. It is a different history.