Invisible women

Alvin Josephy cried loud and often about the omission of Indians from textbook histories, and often thanked the amateur historians—the “history buffs”—for keeping Western history alive when serious historians busied themselves with government reports and people and events considered major and somehow central to the American story.
Alvin’s Civil War in the American West pulled together material from across the region and integrated it with goings on in Washington and the Eastern War. That is the war that still plays on the main stage in American popular history and American film, but Gordon Chappell has pulled together a 24 page bibliography of books and pamphlets on the subject—he omits journal and magazine articles in the interest of brevity—that includes material “since Josephy.” Interesting that it appears as a National Park Service document:  So the history buffs keep plowing the turf in the shadow of “Lincoln” and Daniel Day Lewis.
Although he did not write specifically of women in history, I know that Alvin encouraged others who did. He introduced me to Patty Limerick, who now directs the Center for the American West at the University of Colorado, and to Sue Armitage, who broke ground with The Women’s West in 1987. Diaries, photos, paintings of women—Indian women and white women—are prominent in the books and papers we are sorting at the Josephy Library.
Alvin would have loved the current exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society, “Tough by Nature.” Accomplished portrait artist Lynda Lanker, now of Eugene, spent 19 years traveling the West with notebook, sketchbook, and camera, and produced a wonderful series of paintings, drawings, and prints of 49 women working the West. There is a young Indian barrel racer and a grizzled cowgirl who rode broncs almost 100 years ago, mothers with daughters, and sometimes wives with husbands. But one knows from these images and the brief quotes that accompany them that these women were and are “actors in their own lives, not passive participants in their husbands’ ventures.” That line is from an early review of Sue Armitage’s book. I can’t put an image on this page, but you can get a bunch of them here:  Unfortunately, the exhibit closes this week, so if you are in the Portland area, get on down there; if not, you can catch it next in Texas, or in a book called Tough by Nature with a foreword by Larry McMurtry.
In over 40 years discovering my own West from my perch in the Wallowas, I have met rodeo queens, women ranchers and potato farmers, women who drive trucks and tractors, rope and brand—and cook and dance. But even here stereotypes persist. I remember a play written by an Eastern Oregon woman about growing up with the ranch and the Pendleton roundup—sorry I can’t come up with name or title—performed by Whitman College players. When they kicked women out of the bucking events in the rodeo in the nineteen teens, the heroine explains, it was supposedly in the interest of safety. Why then did they turn them to trick riding, where injury and death were even greater possibilities? The daughter in the play can’t have the ranch—there are no sons—until she finds a suitable man to marry. Etc. etc. etc.
There are some things that we need to be constantly reminded of: Indians are part of our history and part of our present; the West and all that happened and happens here was and continues to be as important in the American story as are Eastern and Midwestern events and stories; and women were here all the time, and are still here, ”actors in their own lives,” and actors too in the ongoing American story. 

Lynda Lanker’s 49 women should give courage to women still fighting stereotypes and pause to men who further them.

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Class discussion: Charlemagne Napoleon, protein and white bread

I’m stretching my Josephy Library legs, offering a class—“Introduction to Indian Studies and the Nez Perce Story”—at the new Josephy Center. It’s based on Alvin materials—chapters from books, speeches, and journal articles he wrote over 50 years—and has become a lively weekly conversation for the dozen of us who gather in the Library on Wednesday mornings. Our text this week was the first chapter of 500 Nations, and the discussion revolved around similarities and differences of the North American tribes, and, inevitably, the rise and fall of cultures.  Culture led to economy, and economy led to—diet.
Barrie Qualle grew up in Saskatchewan ranching country, with Cree, Assiniboine, and Gros Ventre Indians all around, and remembered how tall and stout they were. “Six two and six four not unusual,” he said. Barrie thought that their diet must have been heavy in protein and that they lived in a place and at a time when meat and fish were abundant. In lean years, he surmised, their bodies grew even more efficient at converting the foods they had.
We talked about hunter gatherers of the Plains and the agricultural Indians of Mississippian and Mesoamerican cultures, and how food abundance had created wealth and economic specialization—but left those cultures more susceptible to drought and torrent. And historians have indeed laid the failures of the Mississippian Mound and Mayan cultures to dry spell and drought.
 Which all reminded me of a long ago doctor’s office visit where I picked up a medical magazine and read about a study of the height of soldiers in Charlemagne’s and Napoleon’s armies.  The author was trying to establish the impacts of diet and climate on human health, and finding old records of soldiers’ heights gave him something to compare. It was a stark comparison. Charlemagne’s army, in the late 700s, was made up of six footers; Napoleon and his troops, a thousand years later, were five footers. 
At least two hundred of those thousand intervening years are known as “Europe’s Little Ice Age,” a time when cold and starvation, though not in every year or every decade, were substantial and frequent. The period coincides almost exactly with the rise of European colonialism and the white settlement of America. 

So the scrawny white guys, armed with guns and diseases and a sense that they were God’s chosen, came to the New World and pushed south from the Caribbean and West from the Atlantic Coast. And as they pushed and “removed” indigenous people with their guns and diseases and notions of cultural and religious superiority, they took Indians from their food and food from Indians—in North America, slaughtered the buffalo and pinched tribes onto smaller and smaller reservations—and then wrote return payment with commodities into their treaties. In other words, they took away the protein and gave them sugar, flour, and salt (skimming as they went, so the Indians were robbed of protein and then even of the white commodities).
That is the pattern that Alvin describes in Civil War in the American West—whites protected trails, settled land, fought or wrote treaties, promised cash and food, reneged and/or skimmed, fought and wrote more treaties, pinched more land…
It occurs to me that there is a direct line from those actions and treaties to the commodity foods of today, and that good and bad, fat and thin, protein and white flour, good nutrition and the lack of it, running from starvation and causing it, are all part of the big historical landscape and North America today.  
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