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
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
“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
And immigration too. If we think about it, we, as individuals, families, communities, and a nation are conflicted about both race and immigration, and always have been. This came to mind this week with news that White House advisor Stephen Miller was exposed as having advocated blatantly white nationalist literature. This is the same Miller who designed many of the president’s border and overall immigration policies: the anti-Muslim travel bans, border policies on separating children and families, etc.
I say we are conflicted about immigration and race because most of us in this country trace ourselves—proudly—to immigrant forbearers. My family arrived from Germany and Norway in the late 1800s and early 1900s. When I lived in California, many of my Mexican classmates and neighbors lived in ancestral places and houses, when they were part of Mexico! Anyone who can trace ancestry to African-American slaves has, along with the Mexican-Americans sited above—and many more in Arizona and New Mexico—been “American” in Read The Article
Hang around and keep listening and you keep learning.
For a long time it has struck me that North America and the United States, from the beginning of colonization, have been dominated by Anglo culture. I have said before that Slavs and Greeks, Italians and the Irish, were not really white until World War II, when the residents of little Italys and Irish neighborhoods joined Greek and German Americans in an army that segregated only blacks.
Germans, the largest contingent of immigrants from the Civil War until 1900, had busied themselves with making bread, beer, and sausage, building middle-American cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis. But Anglo-Americans dominated our politics and our literature, and were, I guess, the mavens of most of our news media. And the doctors of the policy of “assimilation” of American Indians.
Today I learned, in the New York Times, from Brent Staples, author of “How Italians Became White,” that “President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed it [Columbus Read The Article
|Joseph’s Last Visit, 1900. Photo by Frank Reavis|
There were 50 photos in the recent Josephy Center exhibit of pre-WW II images from the Wallowa Country. Seven of the images feature Indians, and, it occurs to me, capture a great deal of white misunderstandings of and ambivalence toward Indians over the last 500 years. The photos all date from about 1895-1930, less than one generation in that long history that unravels with amazing consistency over more than a dozen.
The most salient feature of our photos is that they were all taken after 1877, after the Wallowa Band Nez Perce were removed from this land, chased across Idaho, Yellowstone, and into Montana; lied to about return; sent to Leavenworth and the “hot country”; and returned to the Northwest—but not to the Wallowa—in 1885. Many descendants of the band remain in exile on the Colville Reservation in north central Washington to this day.
So what do the photos tell us?
First, Read The Article
Two weeks ago, friend Anne Richardson arranged a discussion of Daniel Sharfstein’s book on Chief Joseph and General Howard, Thunder in the Mountains, at Portland’s Black Hat Books. And this week, on Thursday, 14 of us from Wallowa County spent the day with Director Bobbie Conner and her staff at the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute on the Umatilla Reservation. The story of the gathering of tribal history of the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla—indeed of all the related Plateau tribes—and the skill and pride with which it is displayed and used to teach new generations of Indians, is inspiring.
In the end, the two experiences help me understand what my mentor Alvin Josephy called the miracle of Indian survival, and something of the big and small differences between Euro-American treatment of African slaves and indigenous Americans.
Sharfstein teaches history and law at Vanderbilt University, and is steeped in the Civil War and Reconstruction. The short version of his book is Read The Article
I’m again reading a book I read years ago—and again finding new meaning. Caroline Wasson Thomason was born in 1887 somewhere else, but grew up “Between the Sheeps” in Wallowa County. She married a teacher and lived for years in New York, where she wrote children’s plays and stories. And she wrote a couple of novels, one that dealt with American blacks and civil rights, and one historical novel: In the Wallowas.
My recollection was of a syrupy story involving settlers and their teenage children, but with accurate accounts of Chief Joseph’s last visit to the Wallowas and a famous runaway horse incident. I also vaguely remembered a love story that crossed racial lines, and the purple prose. I was right on that: “’My princess! My beautiful flower!’ Imna knelt beside the bed and took her in his arms. A spasm of pain flushed her lovely face, and he held her more closely.”