Nature and Nurture

On Monday night, on NPR’s coronavirus question and answer show, a listener asked whether there might be something in African Americans’ unique vulnerability to sickle cell anemia that related to their high rates of infection—and death—with COVID-19. The medical person answering questions thought it an interesting observation that deserved study—she knew of none. The host then turned the conversation immediately to related environmental issues: jobs, neighborhoods, stress, diabetes, etc. Read The Article

Genetics & COVID-19: An Update

In my last post I told a story about Native Alaskan firefighters, who had come south to fight fires, getting sick on MRIs (“meals ready to eat”) and being fed suet to right their stomachs. A long-time Alaska firefighter tells me that this is mostly “urban legend,” that she has seen Native crews in Alaska consume MRIs “with gusto.”

Nevertheless, I think most of us Euro-Americans would not do well on a diet of seal and fish. Human digestive systems have adapted to different physical worlds in amazing ways. Yet that means that putting any of us into alien worlds—or bringing alien diets and physical circumstances to us—can cause distress. I don’t know why many South Asians are lactose intolerant, but they are. And many Indians do fine with a lifetime of vegetarian diets, but we are warned to make sure that we have the right mixes of fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts to make our Euro-American bodies work vegetarian. Read The Article

Genetics and COVID-19

Years ago, when I was the Director of an organization called Fishtrap, we had a conference at Wallowa Lake on “Fire.” Stephen J. Pyne, the McArthur Fellow who wrote the books on fire in America, was the featured speaker. Forest Service and BLM firefighters from across the Northwest come to hear Pyne and talk with each other. But one strong memory of that conference had nothing to do with fire directly; it had to do with ethnicity and digestion. Read The Article

Immunity–and American Indians

Measles, smallpox, influenza—what a tragic and painful experience the first European contacts must have been for the first Americans!  We now know that huge numbers, unfathomable numbers, of American Indians were killed by European diseases.

Imagine Tisquantum (Squanto) coming back to his homeland after years in Europe as a slave, making his way to England and then coming home, where he finds his village deserted, his tribe gone to disease. Read The Article

The milpa: more to learn from Indians

The article in the New York Times last week about Oglala Lakota chef Sean Sherman was so good, so inspiring, that I just have to pass it on: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/17/dining/new-native-american-cuisine.html?emc=edit_th_20160817&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=66175474

I was born and lived my first ten years in Minnesota, so the talk of walleye, deer, and game birds, chokecherries and wild rice is all familiar. Not so the other wild greens and spices that Sherman has traced back to tribal usage and brings now to sophisticated tables.

What I know about American Indian cuisine is small—because the subject is so big. But the article reminded me that the role of Indian agriculture and the adoption of Indian foods worldwide are constantly overlooked. I know I have said this in other posts, but it is always worth repeating: over half of today’s world food crops started in the Americas! Where would Russia, Norway, and Ireland be without potatoes, Italy without tomatoes, Africa without cassava (manioc)? The Americas are huge, and Read The Article

Life on Joseph Creek

Joseph Canyon USFS photo

Alvin Josephy talked about Indians’ relationship to land, and how, from the get-go, Europeans did not understand it. Europeans saw land as an economic resource, not just a “home” place to live on and live with.  In fact, the Book of Genesis in pocket and mind, Christian Europeans thought themselves lords and masters of the land, with Biblically ordained dominion over it and all of its non-human inhabitants.

After a long slog through feudalism, during which most Europeans worked the land to the benefit of a ruling class, Euro-Americans saw opportunities to be their own lords and masters. A few years of indentured servitude and then Indian lands theirs for the taking. Thomas Jefferson legitimized it, promoting the idea of a nation of self-sustaining small landholders, free men who would forward humanity’s march towards democracy.

No one paid much attention to Indians’ relationships to land—except to take it. Well, Europeans did pick up the many crops Read The Article

A Babel of languages

I’ve always thought that Alvin’s Indian Heritage of America, published in 1968, was extraordinary in its examination of the Americas before contact. He started with languages. Ironically, it was often missionaries, intent on Christianizing and changing people, who learned indigenous languages, intent from that day through today’s Moody Bible Translators on giving them back scripture.

But some missionaries were captivated by language itself, as were some army officers, adventurers, and a few academics who described themselves as “ethnologists.” In 1891, Major John Wesley Powell—of Colorado River fame but then Director of Ethnology at the Smithsonian—submitted the seventh annual report to the Secretary of the Smithsonian, in which he described attempts at learning the proper names of North American Indian tribes and the classification of their languages. The volume published the field work of 1885-86, including the first classification of North American Indian languages. (see https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a5/Langs_N.Amer.png for a current language map)

Alvin picked up their work, and began Indian Heritage Read The Article

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
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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
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Beaver hats

Sometimes you read something or hear something or something happens that changes how you look at the world. For me, reading Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, and thinking about world history in terms of the “Columbian Exchange” did that. For the first time, I connected the fact that potatoes originated in the Andes—that I had picked up somewhere along the line, with the potato famine in Ireland and the potato lefse that my grandmother made every holiday. That the Americas were vibrant places full of humanity and human influenced landscapes before the Pilgrims settled Plymouth suddenly became obvious—how did the corn, beans, and pumpkins get to the far north anyway?
How I wish I could have talked with Alvin about Charles Mann. Better yet, how good it would have been to put them together. That is kind of what we did in our class this Wednesday
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Nation of immigrants?

“Nation of immigrants”–the phrase and its variations get tossed about by both political parties (the recent Republican convention was filled with it) by historians, and everyday people trying to explain who we Americans are.
Some large number of us who live in the United States today are indeed immigrants, and most of the rest of us can trace ancestry to points in Asia, Europe, Africa, and, increasingly, Central and South America. On the East Coast, it is a badge of honor to trace European ancestry to the Mayflower, and I imagine the Daughters of the American Revolution, who require an ancestor involved in the War of Independence for membership, still exist (though I doubt they have the clout they had when they refused their Washington D.C. hall to the great African-American singer, Marian Anderson).

But as our friend Alvin Josephy reminded often, Europeans were met by real people living here. Columbus met, enslaved, and in some cases destroyed indigenous peoples Read The Article

Learning–and teaching–Indian history

“The realization has finally begun to dawn that American society as a whole has suffered from ‘forked tongue’ history books… Year after year, the distortions, misrepresentations, and failure to tell the whole historical story foster erroneous and stereotyped thinking about Indians, and lead to still further misrepresentations, prejudice and contempt.”
Alvin Josephy, Learning Magazine, 1973

“…for the most part these revelations—the great antiquity, size, and sophistication of Indian societies—are new to the public… Why don’t intelligent non-specialists, the sort of people who know a bit about stem cells and read contemporary literature, already know something about how researchers think of the Americas before Columbus?… Why isn’t this material already in high school textbooks?”
Charles Mann, Afterword to 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, 2006

In Charles Mann’s brilliant 2005 book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, he scans the results of hundreds of recent ethnographic, linguistic, archeological, anthropological, and biological studies. He calls and visits noted Read The Article