When I am talking with non-Native audiences, and even when talking with Tribal friends, I sometimes say that I feel like I am body-surfing on a wave of pro-Indian sentiment in the country. I say that a big part of this is based on recognition of non-Native—read mostly white male—failures in dealing with the natural world. We haven’t been so smart about fire, fish, and water, and grope now, trying to play catch up with preemptive burns and reintroduction of beaver and bison.Read Rich’s Post →
The Josephy Library has been gifted an amazing set of books, Edward S. Curtiss’ THE NORTH AMERICAN INDIAN: THE COMPLETE REFERENCE EDITION.
This is a reprint of the original work done over 30 years at the beginning of the 20th century by the famous photographer. The publisher, CHRISTOPHER CARDOZO FINE ART, says it is “An affordable re-creation of Edward Curtis’ original masterpiece, the Complete Reference Edition is finished with a hardcover and printed on archival, acid-free Finch Opaque paper.”Read Rich’s Post →
“Rumble” is a 2017 Canadian documentary film that I’d missed until it hit public television. I watched it twice, taking notes the second time, wanting to get in my mind the names of Rock n’ Roll, jazz, and blues musicians I’d listened to—and many I had not heard or heard of before.
I’d have to slow it down and stop action to get all the names and dates, but I know enough now to know that once again the roles of American Indians in the American story have been hidden or muted, and that there is again the story of resilience. Joy Harjo, our current national poet laureate and a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation, says, as the credits roll, that “We’re still here; we’re still alive; we’re still singing.Read Rich’s Post →
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.
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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It’s hard to know where to start. Should I tell you about kids and grandkids, triumphs and setbacks over the past year? Or muse about the state of the country and the world, the places I visited or lived in years ago—and are still close to my heart—that are now in turmoil or in ruins? Or should I tell you about the peace and hope that I find in my work with American Indians, how my old mentor Alvin Josephy, gone now for a dozen years, gets smarter every day as I learn from Tribal people? And learn not just about the past, but get glimpses of hope for tomorrow.
Yesterday there were visitors at the Library. Two families from McMinnville, Oregon and their two YES exchange students, one from Pakistan and the other from the West Bank in Palestine. YES, or “Youth Exchange and Study Programs,” brings students from predominantly Muslim countries to the US, and sends American students to those countries. YES involves full scholarships, is administered by the State Department, and was instigated by Senators Kennedy and Lugar, a Democrat and a Republican. It is difficult to imagine how the program survives.
But it does, and my 16 year-old Palestinian visitor—his English was flawless, and he had a good basic understanding of American history and official Indian policy—asked fine questions about the Nez Perce story and Josephy’s understanding of Indians in new world history. We talked about languages—about the 2500 distinct languages in the pre-Columbian Americas and the dialects of Arabic across the world. He was hungry to know what we can learn from the flow and development of languages—I told him how Josephy had gone to linguists to explore the early movements of peoples across the Americas, and to make estimates of their numbers. He promised to look for Charles Mann’s 1491 for a better grasp of the pre-Columbian Americas, the impacts of diseases and the interchanges between the new worlds and the old.
Not fifteen minutes into the conversation, my new friend remarked on the similarities between the plight of American Indians and that of Palestinians—peoples visited and lands settled by foreign colonists.
At this point one can become pessimistic. A YES exchange student from Palestine who lived in Wallowa County a couple of years ago had serious trouble getting back to his family home. Will these bright young people who spend a year exploring America and ideas of peace and friendship get lost in a decades-long fight for home and culture on their return? Or will they be part of new flowerings of peace-making in their home countries, and in the “work” they have done in their brief stays in ours?
We’ve just celebrated my favorite day of the year, the winter solstice, the day that brings more light. It’s also a reminder that our linear understanding of history is always punctuated by the cyclical—or rather that the cyclical is fundamental, and the events and actions done in the present punctuate the rhythms of light and darkness, days and years. Summers and winters come and go; listening to the people who know that the land needs fire, salmon need free-flowing water, that the earth we live on persists through plagues and tyrants, we might begin to live saner lives. As Alvin Josephy said so many times, we have much to learn from American Indians.
And whatever the reasons for the perennial mid-winter calls for peace—shalom—that emerge in many languages and religions, and always in perilous times, let’s listen to them too. Let’s listen to and hope with YES and the students who are bridging the divides in their worlds and ours.
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A few years ago my sister had a DNA profile done. To her surprise, the family stories, passed down from Minnesota Germans and Norwegians, that said our mother’s people were pure Scandinavian and dad’s side was all German, turned out to be more complicated.
Our maternal grandfather came to Minnesota from Hadland, Norway, in the early 1900s, when he was in his teens. He married another Norwegian, whose family had arrived in Minnesota in the 1880s, and they made a family. They spoke Norwegian at home—until mom, their first child, went to school and was made fun of by other kids. Although grandpa spoke with a severe accent, the slap at his daughter rankled him, and he had enough English to declare himself American and English as the language spoken in the house from that day forward.
Dad’s side is a little murkier, but Wandschneiders and Steindorfs came to the States in the great migration out of Germany in the late 1800s. Grandmother was a Steindorf born and raised in Minnesota; our grandfather was not yet two on his arrival. Dad said that his grandparents did not speak English, but we never knew them, and I never heard his parents—our own grandparents—speak German. Maybe they too had decided “to be American.”
Here is the DNA breakdown that my sister got back from the testers:
West & Central Europe—17%
And then traces from Africa and South America!
Two thoughts came immediately to my mind: the marauding Vikings and the shifting borders in Central and Eastern Europe. Germans and Germanic people have slipped and slid across empires and countries from Central Asia to Western Europe for millennia. And the Norsemen made repeated raids in the British Isles, and certainly brought women home with them. Their travels also included the Mediterranean, where they would have run into slavers that might account for African traces. Viking travels and world-wide slavery can probably also account for South American traces.
Borders have always shifted and people have always traveled–even before there were nations. The first thing to remember is that nation-states are a relatively recent historical category, that more than likely most of the world for most of history identified by local tribe—and language—rather than as members of a German, Norwegian, or Ghanaian nation.
Which ties into my interest in the twin evolutions of Manifest Destiny and the American concept of whiteness. In a review of a new book, Making the White Man’s West: Whiteness and the Creation of the American West, by Jason Pierce, in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, Jennifer Kerns explains how Anglo-Americans fueled the westward movement and the taking of Indian lands as “lesser” groups of whites—Irish, Slavs, Eastern Europeans—filled eastern cities and industrial jobs: “Boosters of the West… intellectually imagined the West as a restorative place for Anglo pioneers whose inherent character was at risk of decline when located in the urban East among ‘motley’ immigrants.” I’ve said it before: In its time Manifest Destiny was not about the white—or even European—westward expansion. It was about the Anglo notion of empire and superiority being passed from British Anglos to Anglo-Americans.
Jason Pierce also explains how the railroads, operating with the largesse of the federal government in allotting them Western lands, went to Europe and recruited Germans and Scandinavians they thought hardier and more industrious than other whites. So these Scandinavian and German men (because our history is almost always about men) eventually joined the lead—Anglo-American—jockeys riding Manifest Destiny to the Pacific Ocean.
Only later, in my mind after and in part as a consequence of World War II, did those “lesser” groups of whites become the right kind of white.
The Indians were more complicated. Apparently some early Puritans thought them one of Israel’s lost tribes, and the Mormons found a special place for them in their theology. Some Europeans even mimicked or joined tribal peoples, but for the most part, from Plymouth forward, the Indians were only an obstacle for Anglo-Americans on their march to the Western Sea. Indians–who had grown across two continents and evolved 2500 languages and tribal cultures–died of diseases the immigrants brought from another world, fought when they could, continued to move and mix genes with other tribes and eventually with some Euro-Americans, and miraculously held onto some older languages and markers of identity.
The new DNA analysis business shows us a world as complicated as the 2500 indigenous American languages added to those of other continents. And “the right kind of white,” like my sister’s DNA, is obviously more complicated than many of its defenders would like to know. What modern DNA analyses tell us is that ultimately, as far as the human race is concerned, we’re all related.
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In this time of Sturm und Drang over immigration:
First, there were brown people in North America before any white people of European stock arrived. They spoke hundreds of languages before Dutch, French, Spanish, German, and English arrived. They hunted, fished, foraged, and GREW hundreds of different foods and herbs—many of which were taken up by the Europeans and sent off to the rest of the world. America’s tomatoes would become Italy’s food; her tobacco would fuel economies in Europe and Asia and bring on its diseases; her cotton would clothe the world and her corn would feed it. Most importantly, for the future of North America and the United States, pieces of the wisdom of the Iroquois would find their way into our original written documents and the form of the government itself.
Secondly, we should remember that before California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico were part of these United States, Mexicans, Mestizos of mixed European and American Indian blood—brown people, had lived in and developed economies, cities, and societies in those places. (And yes, that too was a displacement of indigenous brown people—but also a mixing.)
The mythology of a white, Eurocentric culture as foundational, and of brown culture as arriving later and being of immigrant origin is exactly that, mythology. Yes, there was forced immigration of black people from Africa—and their contributions to American culture are substantial and generally acknowledged. And there have been huge migrations of people of all colors from Europe and Asia—often, as with Irish brought as slaves, British Islanders and Europeans brought as indentured servants, and the Chinese brought to work on the railroads, their in-migrations were not quite voluntary. Even the “voluntary” immigrants, those fleeing hunger in Ireland, forced military service in Germany, the family land holdings and divisions in my grandfather’s Norway, and wars and oppression of one kind and another across the world, have not always made their migrations by choice.
So this mass of immigrants has helped create a nation, but the nation was not created in a vacuum, or by divine providence, or without damage to many. And it has been built and continues its growth on the substantial lands and cultures husbanded and developed over millennia by others. And those black and brown people—the ones here first and the later imports—have played and continue to play roles in the ongoing historical drama of the United States.
It is convenient to cherry pick history for an argument; it is more difficult—and truer to the nation we set out to be—to acknowledge all of that history.
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Well, it’s kind of my horn, but mostly my friend and mentor, Alvin’s horn. And mutual friend and co-editor Marc Jaffe’s horn. And editor (Alvin’s own long-time editor) Ann Close’s horn. She steered us through the project, and then passed it on to Keith Goldsmith at Viking Penguin. So a chorus of horns—maybe a band!
The book is The Longest Trail: Writings on American Indian History, Culture, and Politics, by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., edited by Jaffe and Wandschneider. It’s in three sections, based on three concepts that Alvin drummed into us over years: First, that the standard narrative of American history has omitted Indians—they have either been sideshows or impediments to the march of Euro-American civilization, not treated as actors in the American drama, the actions, decisions, and accidents that have all gone to make us the nation we are.
Second, Indians have something to teach us still about living with the rest of creation. There were democrats and autocrats, farmers, warriors, slavers and medicine people among them, but the indigenous people of the Americas saw themselves as pieces of the universe, not its commanders.
Finally, Alvin believed that Indian survival is a kind of miracle, and that it owes to resilience and a relationship to land that, until quite recently, Euro-Americans did not even try to understand—our notion being that land is a kind of commodity, like labor and capital, that can be bought and sold quite independently of the people long rooted to it.
So we scoured Alvin’s books (many of them still in print after decades!) and we looked at pieces he had written for large publications and small, the New York Times and Idaho Yesterdays, and we nudged as many of them into the whole as we could make room for. And we got Bobbie Conner to write a foreword, and Cliff Trafzer, Jaime Pinkham, and Mark Trahant to write intros to sections—and as of today it is out in the world!
Library Journal liked it, and a bunch of “vine” readers at Amazon—whoever they are—gave it five stars, and Viking put it in their teachers’ catalog and is sending copies to Indian Studies departments as we identify them. (“Books are now available at the Josephy Center or your local bookstore.”)
I tell people that I thought Alvin was leaving me a few books to deal with, and I am indeed learning to be a librarian. But I didn’t realize at first that he left a mission too, an admonition to continue to learn and tell the Indian story. As Marc Jaffe says, after six or seven decades in the publishing business, “putting Indians into American history” is a pretty good project, one he’s delighted to pick up on in the name of our old friend and his fellow Marine, Alvin M. Josephy Jr.