I have been fascinated by President Grant’s proposed “Reservation for the Roaming Nez Perce Indians of the Wallowa Valley” since I saw the map of it in Grace Bartlett’s Wallowa Country: 1867-1877 years ago. I thought that if those Nez Perce had just had the foresight to put up picket fences and stop “roaming,” they might not have lost the Wallowa. More recently, I have seriously wondered what went wrong with it.Read Rich’s Post →
Alvin Josephy said many times that the greatest injustice done to the Indian people in this country was not the takings of land, language, and culture, but a continuing failure to acknowledge that they existed—or at least that they ever existed as people in their own right. For the Euro-American, Indians were important for a moment—to teach them tools of survival, but then immediately became hurdles to their domination of the continent. Those other terrible thefts—of land, language, and culture—pale when compared to the taking of history. That taking means erasing the unique lives of individuals and tribes as agents, actors in their own stories, reducing them to asterisks in the Euro-American story of conquest.
If that. In the introduction to America in 1492, Alvin quotes from the 1987 edition of American History: A Survey, a popular text written by three prominent historians: “centuries in which human races were evolving, forming communities, and building the beginnings of national civilizations in Africa, Asia, and Europe—the continents we know as the Americas stood empty of humankind and its works… The story of this new world is a story of the creation of a civilization where none existed.”
But now, you say, we go to powwows and interpretive centers, read Indian writers, and include tribal representatives in discussions of the management of fish, fire, land and water. I’ll grant you that, but remind you that following the original extreme Euro-centrism of Spanish and English explorers and settlers, American government policies of allotment, boarding schools, missions, Termination, and Relocation did everything possible to erase Indians as distinct peoples with unique histories. It is only in recent years, as a result of enormous courage and fortitude, of holding majority America to historical treaties and agreements that assimilationists have worked so hard to remove, that those voices have survived.
Local historian David Weaver recently pointed out a very local example of making Indians invisible. I had just picked up a new book for the Library, Theodore T. Geer’s Fifty Years in Oregon. David suggested we turn to page 281 for the first photo known to have been taken in the Wallowas. It was, according to the author, in August of 1875, when he and a handful of friends left the Grand Ronde Valley for a two-week camping trip in the Wallowas. Thirteen of them, men and women, left from Cove on August 16 with six horses, camping gear and a skiff in the back of a wagon. On the second day they reached the confluence of the Wallowa and Minam rivers, where A.C. Smith had just completed a toll bridge. They camped that night on Bramlette property in lower valley, and the next day reached the shores of Wallowa Lake.
Geer gushes over the Lake and the surrounding territory—“The location is not surpassed for beauty anywhere in the United States”—and he or someone from his party takes that first photo. They launch the skiff, and row to the head of the Lake,
Geer then talks fish, and in his only nod to Indians, calls the Lake the “favorite fishing resort” of the Nez Perce Indians from time immemorial. He goes on: “it was to retain possession of it and the valley surrounding it that Chief Joseph made his stand against white settlers.” And that is the end of his remarks concerning Indians!
David reminded me that 1875 was a turbulent year in the Wallowas, and I reached back to Grace Bartlett’s month-by-month account in The Wallowa Country: 1867-77 to see what was happening in August, the month of Geer’s camping trip. One would think that Geer and his party might have encountered over 100 armed troops from Walla Walla that arrived about the same time they did, or that he would have seen 45 Indian lodges, or even Chief Joseph himself and about 75 tribal members who visited Captain Whipple and his troops. Or, more seriously, that the man who would become the 10th Governor of Oregon, and the first born in the state, serving from January 9, 1899 until January 14, 1903, would have something more to say about the Indians and their removal from his state.
Geer didn’t write the book, subtitled Experiences, Observations, and Commentaries Upon Men, Measures, and Customs in Pioneer Days and Later Times, until 1911, so maybe the Nez Perce and the soldiers that he must surely have seen—and the history of the state he later governed, had drifted away by 1911, when the summation of his trip to the Wallowas remained a glowing pastoral memory—and one without Indians:
“The following days were spent in the enjoyment of the unequaled facilities which the place afforded for a happy camp life—hunting, fishing, boat-riding, reading, story-telling, attempts at singing, cooking, and exploring the surrounding country.”
# # #
A few hundred Nez Perce Indians called this Valley home for thousands of years. They called themselves Nimipu (“the people”) and identified with this place, their families, their band and its headmen (Young Joseph, Old Joseph, Wal-lam-wat-kain, and on and on) more than any larger tribal group. European horses and diseases got here before Europeans did, and then the fur traders, who probably had seen a couple of Indians in buffalo country with dentalia they had traded for at Celilo through their nostrums, and put the Nez Perce name on them. This all before 1805 and Lewis and Clark. The fur men, migrants themselves, many from France and Scotland, trapped, traded, traveled and married with Indians. They had posts in Spokane and made it to the Pacific just five or six years after the Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. Historian Grace Bartlett says there were a couple of Frenchmen living in the Wallowa Valley with Indian wives when the first settlers came in—that was all the way up in 1871, when all manner of people were rattling around what some call Salmon Country—the lands from the British Columbian coast to the Northern California coast, and from salt water to the Rockies.
|Goff photo used by Bartlett|
Ann Hayes, the late Grace Bartlett’s daughter, came by with a folder full of photos and clippings from her mother’s papers (which are being cataloged by Shannon Maslach). We were looking for originals –or at least good prints—of photos used in Grace’s small booklet on the Wallowas. Ann wants to reprint, and we want to improve the quality of the photos.
|Fouch photo on Nerburn book|
I had seen one of the photos before, on the cover of the paperback edition of Kent Nerburn’s book, Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce. It’s a haunting photo, Joseph with sad but still strong eyes, fur wrapped around his braids, a shirt that is identified elsewhere as Crow—either a previous gift or one loaned to him for the photo, and hair brushed up in traditional Nez Perce style, showing white in the photo. Was it colored? Or is this a trick of the photo?
Mike Page and his wife have been coming from their Whidbey Island home to Tamkaliks, the annual powwow at the Nez Perce Homeland project in Wallowa, for the past three years. This year someone told Mike to look me up and ask about the Josephy Library. We spent a pleasant hour looking at books and journal articles, he told me about tracing back his Indian heritage, I made him copies of a couple of things, and we exchanged contact information and went our ways. I saw Mike and his wife across the grounds while serving at the Friendship Feast again on Sunday, and then we had a chance to talk on Monday night in La Grande at my Josephy and the Indians library talk.
Mike is 75. His grandfather didn’t talk about Indian things, though there was always family knowledge of a Walla Walla –Nez Perce woman and a mountain man named Joseph Gale. His father, in later years, reversed grandfather policy and urged Mike to look to the past—and for the past 20 years or so he has been doing just that. He even got involved with a big Indian fish-in in Idaho in the early 80s. This whole story—Indian fishing, the Walla Walla woman, Joseph Gale, the grandfather who wouldn’t talk and the father who felt safe enough to ask for more—reminded me that history is a complex network of people and events. And that most of us are not historians and poets, but curious people who want to know more about our own stories, about how we came to be in the times and places we find ourselves. We chase down pictures and genealogies, jot down family stories, find old movies and tape recordings and newspaper articles that have pieces that reach back to explain, but rarely do we put the material together into a book or movie or poem of our own.
And I know that he loved the small stories and books of local history as much as the big ones. That he found them and sometimes wove them into his published work. And what he didn’t use directly became part of the big iceberg below the surface that supported his vast understanding of the West.
Or maybe you are the quilter.
Last winter I sat in Doug Erickson’s lair at Lewis and Clark College in Portland talking library work. Doug is special collections librarian there, and his office is also the home of the William Stafford Collection. In a corner sits an odd Plexiglas contraption that looks like a space module from a Buck Rogers film. In fact it is some kind of medical unit Doug picked up on EBay and refitted as a small sound studio. He uses it for the Oregon Poetic Voices project, but also puts non-poets he wants to capture into the machine.
I thought a lot about that this winter. My reading of Josephy material over the last couple of years fits Erickson’s thesis well. Alvin was a meticulous researcher who wanted stories from the past that help show us truly how we got where we are and where we might be going. He loved amateur historians—the archivists who don’t know they are but keep diaries and notebooks. And he worked hard at advocacy, crafting arguments for current policy based on the sins, omissions, and good work of those in the past.
U Idaho Librarians Garth Reese and Devin Becker made an afternoon presentation in Wallowa, an evening presentation in Joseph, and met with a few of us to look at Grace Bartlett’s papers on Friday morning. The public presentations showed in outline form the hows and whys of organizing collections of personal, public, corporate, and business records so that they can be accessed and used by students and researchers. The session with four file drawers of historian Grace Bartlett papers was exciting. There’s a foot of folders on the Appaloosa horse controversy, letter exchanges with historians and Indian elders, and papers and pamphlets that Grace wrestled out of national archives—all with her own extensive notes.
And principal actors in the text are still, despite broken treaties, war, and attempts at assimilation, the Nez Perce. Almost miraculously, the Indians have been here all along, leaving with the Nez Perce War but not leaving, coming back to fish and gather, to work white farmers’ fields, to build the walls around the Joseph Cemetery at Wallowa Lake, to celebrate at Chief Joseph days and dance at Tamkaliks, and to shepherd the salmon and steelhead home.
# # #
Grace Bartlett left Reed College in 1932 to marry a Wallowa Country rancher. She worked on the ranch, raised children, and apprenticed with Harley Horner, the unofficial county historian at the time. With Horner and on her own, she wrote for the Oregon Historical Quarterly, the Wallowa County Chieftain, the Walla Walla Union Bulletin, and once, on the sockeye salmon, for Sunset Magazine.
When Alvin’s big Nez Perce book came out, Grace quibbled with his descriptions of early people and events in the Wallowas. Alvin told her to “write it,” and she did. In the wonderful and, I am beginning to believe, unique, The Wallowa Country 1867-1877, published in 1976, 11 years after The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest, Grace detailed the 10-year transition of the Wallowa Country from Indian to white occupation.
We learn about the early “open” winter (much like this one) when the whites first brought stock into the valley. They didn’t feed all fall and early winter and the news went to Union County newspapers and then to the Oregonian and the rest of the West that the Wallowas was a “Stockman’s paradise.” It was the first of many misunderstandings.
The settlers soon did learn from the Indians to move cattle to lower canyon ground in winter months. The Indians were not in the upper valleys in winter months—or even spring months. They generally arrived in August and hunted, fished, and gathered foods through the fall. There were meeting places—the forks of the rivers above present day Wallowa, where Old Joseph was originally buried; Indian Town on Chesnimnus Creek, and Wallowa Lake for the sockeye salmon harvest. They kept their own herds of horses and cows in the canyons, and moved there themselves after their summer-fall upper valley sojourns.
In general, Indians and settlers got along with each other. There were a few “Indian haters” among the settlers, and, according to Grace, they were known by their neighbors and not much appreciated. There was also a rabble rousing newspaper in Union County. But most of the settlers—even as war loomed with a conflict over horses and a white man killing an Indian, with subsequent “councils” of Indians and whites, movements of soldiers from Walla Walla, and meetings of Indians, generals, and Indian agents in Lapwai—were busy planting and harvesting crops, dealing with their livestock, arranging schooling for children, and going to the Walla Walla Valley to work for cash during the earlier harvest time there.
There were attempts to reconcile the treaty of 1855, which left the Wallowa Country to the Indians, and which the Joseph or Wallowa band Nez Perce had signed, with the 1863 treaty, which took away the Wallowas, and which they and several other bands had not signed. These attempts involved Washington D.C. and the Indian agency in Lapwai.
Without going into details, a division of the valley was envisioned, but Lapwai Indian agent Montieth, Washington authorities and the settlers could not seem to pull it off, because they could not get the “roaming Nez Perce,” as they called them, to agree to settle down. In other words, if Joseph and his people had just agreed to “become white” in their culture and
agriculture, they might not have been expelled from the Wallowa Country.
Alvin said many times that from the beginning of the European adventure in the Americas, we killed Indians with war and disease, but, more importantly, we overwhelmed them with Euro-centered culture. Often, it was the best intentioned who tried to assimilate them, and kill what he called “Indianness.”
Grace Bartlett’s book, written with Alvin’s strong encouragement, gives a blow by blow account of the way that played out in the Wallowa Country.