Historical Errors and Omissions

In the new Smithsonian Magazine: “South to the Promised Land,” the “other” Underground Railroad, the one that went overland and across the Rio Grande to Mexico.

Mexico won its independence in 1821. And, fatefully, soon opened its doors to Anglo-American settlers in the northern frontier state of Texas. Some mixed American families—Whites who had freed and sometimes married their slaves—came to the remote lands to ranch, and became stops on that railroad. But most of the new settlers brought slaves, which resulted in confrontations with the Mexican government. In 1824, Mexico banned the importation of slaves. Anglo settlers called for a revolution, and in 1836 won independence from Mexico and wrote slavery into its constitution. The Alamo wasn’t all about freedom, especially for slaves and former slaves.Read Rich’s Post →

Lewis and Clark, Pinkham and Evans, Josephy

Allen Pinkham and Steve Evans
On Wednesday night Allen Pinkham and Steve Evans gave the first of what we plan to be annual lectures in honor of Alvin Josephy. Their theme—following the title of their recently published book, Lewis and Clark Among the Nez Perce: Strangers in the Land of the Nimiipu—can be seen as a direct response to Alvin’s charge in a long ago NYT book review of Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage: “[we still await] an understanding treatment (perhaps by an Indian historian), not simply of what the explorers reported but of what was happening on the Indians’ side…”
In fact, Alvin’s last book, which he edited along with Marc Jaffe, was Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes, and Allen Pinkham began the evening by holding it up—he was one of its contributors—and explaining that Alvin had advised the ten Indian writers that he and Marc Jaffe were not going to edit them, that they wanted unfiltered tribal stories of Lewis and Clark.
In their new book, Pinkham and Steve Evans (who is not an Indian, but a respected historian and biographer of Lucullus McWhorter married into the Nez Perce tribe and culture) follow Indian Eyes, concentrating on Lewis and Clark and the Nez Perce. They explained how they had checked the journals and other primary sources against tribal stories—and sometimes common sense. Did Lewis and Clark—and York and some of the others—leave progeny among the tribes? Although Evans pointed out that “fraternization was not allowed” and Lewis and Clark “were officers after all,” tribal stories had it otherwise.
The common sense is that armies everywhere, from the dawn of time, have left children in their wake. The twist—which takes just a bit more common sense—is that the Indians saw sexual relations as alliance building. These new white folks and the one black man represented new powers in tribal lives, and like European kings and queens and security and upward mobility seeking peoples the world over, Indians saw opportunity in making mixed breed babies. “Romantic love” probably played a lesser role in most of the world in 1805 than it does among United States readers today—another thing to consider as we interpret the past.
Pinkham believes mixed breeds of the fur trade penetrated the West in the early 1700s, coincident with the arrival of the horse, and that diseases had reduced a population of as many as 20,000 Nez Perce to 5,000-7,000 when the Corps of Discovery arrived. Indian trade routes, so efficient in moving obsidian, foods, and weapons great distances, moved things faster with horses, and moved the good and the ill with equal facility.
But the method might be more important than any individual findings in Pinkham and Evans’ work. Begin with elders’ stories, test them against one another looking for consensus, then corroborate with written records left by Europeans, and in some cases Indians who took up writing or offered up interviews in earlier times. Present a different, fuller picture of the American historical narrative.
It reminds again of Alvin, who sensed the missing pieces in the standard written Nez Perce story when he came on it, then resolved to do the work himself when he found McWhorter’s work—Yellow Wolf and Here Me My Chiefs—and a few remaining veterans of the Nez Perce War.
Pinkham and Evans, who dedicated their book to Alvin, were the perfect choice to lead off a lecture series honoring Alvin Josephy.
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Through Indian Eyes

Years ago I asked Otis Halfmoon, an enrolled Nez Perce who was working as an interpreter for the Nez Perce National Historical Park, to come to Wallowa County and give a talk on the Nez Perce War. I don’t remember now why I asked him to address that particular topic, but I do remember his response.

It was in the upstairs room at the Community Church in Enterprise, and over 100 people, many of them old timers who had never shown up for a Fishtrap event in the past, climbed the stairs, harboring their own ideas, stories, and questions of the Nez Perce and sometimes of their own white settling ancestors.

Otis started it off by saying that he couldn’t tell the story of the Nez Perce War, that what he could tell was his own family’s stories of that chapter in tribal life. He began with the old woman, Watkuweis, who had been helped by whites while escaping slavery by another tribe. “Do them no harm,” she told the tribal council who had been considering how to handle Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery.

History would have played out differently had the old woman not appeared and the Nez Perce taken the whites’ guns and horses, or refused to guide them, let them perish in the mountains. And, according to Otis, his family members had often speculated on that—as I imagine have many Nez Perce and members of other tribes over the years.

In his early years as a historian of Indians, Alvin Josephy longed for Indians to join him in the work. He talked about Indians with a foot in each world, in the tribal world and in the world of the educated white, and thought that the important Indian stories, the ones misconstrued and forgotten by white historians, might get written down by them. As time went on he saw that individual Indians were reluctant to speak for Indians, and sometimes reluctant to speak on behalf of or “for” their own tribes.

The patient, always listening Alvin learned to deal with that. When Stephen Ambrose wrote his story of Lewis and Clark, Undaunted Courage, Alvin reviewed it for the New York Times. A fine accounting of things, he said, but again from the White point of view. Why didn’t someone ask the Indians what they thought of the Corps of Discovery.

Eventually, Alvin did. In his last book, one he had talked about and that had taken shape over decades (he first traveled Lewis and Clark’s route himself for Time Magazine in 1955), he found nine Indian elders and writers whose people had lived along the trail, and asked them to say what they had to say about Lewis and Clark.

I remember talking with one of the writers shortly after the publication of Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes. I intimated that I was a little disappointed in one of the chapters. “You don’t understand,” she said, her finger in my chest. “Alvin asked us to say what we wanted to say about Lewis and Clark, what each of us as individuals and members of our tribes had to say–history, family stories, the impacts on our tribes. He did not ask us to say what you white people wanted to hear.”

I thought about the 500 Nations of North America, and the 2000-2500 languages and cultures of the Americas at Columbus’s arrival that Alvin had noted in Indian Heritage of America in 1968. How Alvin chided Americans for thinking there was one Indian Language. How he spent his life giving voice to as many Indian stories–through Indian eyes–as he could find.