There’s a new history book that is rattling across the best seller lists. It’s a collection of essays called Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies about Our Past. There are 20 chapters on everything from “American Exceptionalism” to the “New Deal” and the “Southern Strategy.” The third chapter is “Vanishing Indians.”Read Rich’s Post →
Category: Edward Sheriff Curtis
Custer and other lies
June marked the 145th anniversary of Custer’s debacle at the Little Big Horn. Custer’s death as a hero fighting for white dominance of the Plains against savage and hostile Indians contributed to the increased military pressure that ultimately did clear the West for white expansion. The true history of that day and Custer, shrouded in the hero mythology promulgated by, among others, his widow, Libby, has been debated and recreated in more books and movies than almost any event in American history.
We now know that Custer was a blunderer and a boaster, a man who had promulgated atrocities against Indians and led his troops into certain death; in less than an hour, the Sioux and Cheyenne had won the Battle of the Little Bighorn, killing Custer and every one of his men. The country was shocked—and ready to believe a story of heroism against the savages.Read Rich’s Post →
Indian photos in the exhibit
|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, that Indians continued to come into the Wallowa after the War and removal of the Wallowa Band. Who were they? It’s complicated, as our Euro-American history books, when they tell Indian stories at all, speak in terms of leaders and whole tribes, rather than the complex networks of families, bands, and relationships across geography and time. When they touch on Indians at all, they do so by “chiefs”—Pontiac, Tecumseh, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Joseph. How many of us can attach tribes, bands, and geography to them?
The relationships between and among Plateau Indian tribes and bands were always fluid. The Nez Perce, and their Walla Walla, Umatilla, and Cayuse cousins traveled from Celilo in the west to the buffalo country in the east, north and south from the Spokan to the Paiute. Sometimes they stayed for months—or maybe years. Sometimes they settled elsewhere; they intermarried. I’m told that some Nez Perce had fishing places on the Willamette River through such marriages.
Other bands of Nez Perce visited the Wallowa country before the War, and traveled from Lapwai and surrounding areas into the Wallowa to hunt, fish, and gather, and eventually to work for wages in the harvests after 1877. And the “usual and accustomed places” (off-reservation lands still available to the tribes) for those activities outlined in the 1855 treaties were still valid in the 1863 “liars’ treaty.” Although it is unlikely that these Indians could read the treaties, many family groups would have kept to seasonal travels as they had done for generations, sometimes dealing with white settlers along the way.
Although the core of Wallowa Band—those who had followed Ollokot and Joseph and other chiefs through the war, were living on the Colville Reservation from 1885 forward, descendants—some who did not go to war; others who had made it to Canada or had just wandered on return from the hot country, settled, and married elsewhere—would have been scattered on the reservations of the inland Northwest, a scattering that continues to this day.
A photo in the exhibit called “Last Camp of the Nez Perce” at Wallowa Lake shows a dozen tipis with fence and buildings in the background. Another shows a batch of tipis at the Enterprise fairgrounds, with a few white people in nice clothes visiting an Indian camp where some of the men wore traditional “stovepipe” headdresses, and yet another of an Indian family, circa 1895, was taken in a studio, maybe in La Grande, by G. W. Mackey. He put his name and “Traveling Artist” on this beautiful family photo. Indians—Nez Perce and their cousins—used some white technology to celebrate themselves. And yet they traveled and lived in traditional ways as much as possible here, as they must have across the entire country. How else do we account for the fact of their survival as Indians?
There’s a photo of Indian women combing children’s hair, taken about 1907. Frank Reavis, a photographer who had married A.C. Smith, the old mountain man’s daughter, noticed the humanity and normalcy of an Indian family. And a photo of the 1931 graduating class at Flora has one of the five students wearing gloves obviously Indian-made. It reminds me of many stories of white settlers saving hides for Indians, who would trace their hands and feet and make custom gloves and moccasins. Sally Goebel brought in a well-worn pair of beaded gloves her grandmother’s size that would have been from this era.
In the years between the 1885 return from the Hot Country to Nespelem and 1900, the Dawes Allotment Act had taken more Indian lands across the country, and Joseph had refused the offer of an allotment in Lapwai. Laws allowing Indian agents to restrict drumming and dancing and even the wearing of regalia had blossomed. As had the boarding school movement, possibly the harshest of the assimilationists’ weapons, with its kidnapping of young students, hair cutting and outlawing of Indian languages.
The historical record matches our photos. The War is in 1877. The return to the Northwest, but not to the Wallowa, is in 1885, when fear of a pan-Indian uprising was rife with some. In 1887 Wallowa County broke away from Union County. And, ironically, that year the name “Joseph” was legally adopted for a town that had been variously called Lakeside, and Lake City. That they would choose that name just ten years after the eviction of the man and his band is numbing. But it was not unusual. As Indians were being displaced, Indian names were being adopted across the land, and romantic notions of Indians were making there way into popular culture, from “Indian” motorcycles to “Pontiac” cars.
Yet the turn of the twentieth century was a low point for actual American Indians. The assimilationists seemed to have carried the day. To be generous to them, to Colonel Pratt of Carlisle, Alice Fletcher and the Allotment Act, and Edward Sheriff Curtis, the photographer, the assimilationists had a real fear that Indians would literally be killed if they did not assimilate. So Fletcher would document Plains Indian culture, and Curtiss would take photos in sacred places and traditional dress of hundreds of Indians across the continent—“Vanishing Indians,” they called them, glad they had museum-saved the peoples.
The most poignant photo in our exhibit is one of Chief Joseph—Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt—on his last visit to the Wallowa, in 1900. He came with Indian agent James McLoughlin, with a translator named Edward Ruibin and with the intention of buying back a small piece of the Homeland. He was of course rebuffed. The expression on his face as he looks into the camera and the white world, seems to say all of it—weariness, rejection, and yet a remaining dignity, the inner knowledge that he had given everything he had and acted honorably in the worst of circumstances.
Today, Indians are re-learning languages and remembering food and culture across the country, and the Nez Perce and their Plateau cousins, from reservations and cities across the region, come to dance and sing in the arbor and pray in the new longhouse at the homeland grounds near the town of Wallowa. The photos in our exhibit, and especially the one of Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, are not of vanishing Indians, but of a people and culture still with us, and still watching us.
See most of the show and the photos mentioned here:
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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.”
The “morg” at the Wallowa County Chieftain had the 1899 papers, which meshed with the novel’s account. Joseph came with a promise of Washington D.C. money in hand to purchase property, but the proposition was not treated seriously. The newspapers treated it with disdain and even some contempt—the Asotin paper wanted to extend the ban to keep Indians from coming back to hunt and gather.
The other important thing that I noticed this time around was the publication date, 1954. This is the Eisenhower administration and “termination” time. Termination, by whatever name it has been called over the years—e.g. The Dawes Act—has always had curious mixed sponsorship: those who hated Indians, wanted their land, or just scoffed at their old superstitions and thought they should join the majority culture (Alvin said that Henry Luce at Time Magazine thought them “phonies” and just wanted them to get on with it), and those who sympathized with Indians but thought that the only way they could survive was to join the dominant culture. Alvin called this the “vanishing Indian” view of Edward Sheriff Curtis and others. The old Indians and their ways were to be put in museums and admired for their grandeur and maybe a little for previous contributions—maize and potatoes? –but they had to become assimilated, become white.
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Another Indian statue
We have a new statue of Chief Young Joseph, or Young Chief Joseph as he is now mostly called, on Main Street in our town of Joseph—the town is named after him of course. It’s all irony, as he was of course hounded out of here in the War of 1877, and not allowed to return when he and his band came back from Indian Territory in 1895. He and most of them ended up in Nespelem, Washington, among Indians of other languages and cultures. He is said to have died there of a “broken heart” in 1904.
On the plus side, Nez Perce Tribal Fisheries out of Idaho is now active here in restoring salmon and steelhead runs. For several years the annual Chief Joseph Days rodeo has hosted an encampment with Nez Perce and related Plateau tribes from Lapwai in Idaho, Colville in Washington, and the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon. And the Nez Perce Homeland Project near the town of Wallowa welcomes Nez Perce and other Indians home for the annual Tamkaliks celebration and is building a longhouse on the 360 acre grounds. The site is envisioned as a living interpretive center, a place for powwows, namings, celebrations of foods and cultures, and even burials.
I don’t know the artist—or Christy Walton, for that matter. I don’t know whether the artist found the funder or the funder found the artist. I don’t know who “found” the Nez Perce story and Chief Joseph. I don’t know whether any Native artists were considered or whether Indians were consulted. But the statue now joins dozens of images of Joseph in paintings, photos, and statues here in Wallowa County, in other Oregon places, and on public display throughout the country. Try googling “Chief Joseph Statues” for a quick look at the range of images and places. (Here is the connection for a look at the new statue here: http://wallowa.com/free/bronze-of-chief-joseph-dedicated-in-joseph/article_52c7f4a8-d841-11e1-9e7f-001a4bcf887a.html)
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A reflection on Winona LaDuke’s visit to Fishtrap
Small world—and invisible Indians
Winona LaDuke was at Winter Fishtrap this weekend. She is an enrolled member of the Mississippi Band of Anishinaabeg on the White Earth Reservation in Northern Minnesota and a global activist on behalf of Indian rights and sustainable natural resource use.
Winona is not bitter or self-pitying, but straight forward, proud, realistic, rational, and spiritual all-together. Seven of the eight million dollars spent on food on her reservation go immediately off-reservation, she said. Some huge percentage of electrical energy is spent in the mining and transportation of fuels and the transmission across far distances. On her reservation they will grow and produce more of their own food; they will build wind turbines and develop wind energy.
People hovered after her talk. I approached slowly and introduced myself as having been born and partially raised in Fosston, Minnesota, at the edge of the White Earth Reservation. “My father was born in Fosston, in 1929,” she said. (He later went to California where he was an Indian in the movies—“an extra $25 if you fell off your horse”—and where Winona was born.). I said that an uncle had a small fishing resort called the “Hideout” on Island Lake right after the War. “That would have been off county road #4,” she said.
There were no Indian kids in school—my guess was that they went to small country schools on the reservation. “Probably until eighth grade,” she thought, as that was as far as her father had gone. Only now I think that some of the Indian kids must have been hustled off to boarding schools in other places. I didn’t think to ask her about boarding schools.
Indians were invisible to us. We didn’t know any Indians. On county road #4 we saw a few shacks and big cars. We thought that when Indians got money they bought Cadillacs and got drunk. We didn’t know about the kids, though our parents pitied them.
Then I remembered trips to Itasca State Park, the headwaters of the Mississippi River—“that’s on the Reservation,” Winona chimed—and that for a quarter I had my picture taken sitting on an Indian chief’s lap (why do I remember the quarter?). I don’t know what happened to the picture, but I remember that the Indian had a large feathered headdress and wore buckskin. “That was probably my grandfather,” said Winona.
This is all sixty years ago, and it pains me to write it. I’ve gone to good schools and traveled far, lived for 40 years in Nez Perce country in Oregon—land the Indians were driven from with broken treaties and threats of war. I spend some of my time now going through the books and articles written by the late Alvin Josephy, my mentor still.
Americans have always tried to do away with Indians, Alvin said. We killed them first with diseases, wars, and broken treaties. And for the last hundred years have worked hard at killing “Indianness,” the Indian in them. This has been called assimilation, integration, termination.
Oh, we love them too—love what they were or we imagined them to have been. Alvin called these ideas “Nobel Savage” and “Vanishing Indian.” Indians were idealized by Rousseau and other European intellectuals, and captured in ethnographic studies of language and culture as the same languages, dances, and songs were outlawed on the reservations. They were photographed, most famously by Edward Sheriff Curtis, in regalia they no longer wore. He would pay them a few dollars for changing from regular clothes—often rags—into regalia.
Most importantly, Alvin said, they have often been “omitted” from history. The many languages—over 2000 mutually unintelligible at time of European contact, diverse cultures, arts and artifacts that display skills in engineering, math, and trade, Indian contributions to world agriculture from potato to tomato, and the very way they strove—and strive still—for harmony within the natural world have for the most part been absent from histories and textbooks.
Maybe the books are better now, but I wonder how far we have really come from the days of Winona’s father and grandfather and me in northern Minnesota, when Indians were Tonto on the radio, a photo chief at a state park, and invisible where they lived….