Salmon and Beaver; Politics and Biology

President-elect Trump’s promise to promote coal mining and open more public lands for development of natural gas and oil is not new politics. And the Indian-centered and inspired movement to stop the Dakota Access pipeline is not the first fight by Native Americans against the Euro-American drive to exploit natural resources.

I thought about this as Nez Perce Fisheries workers joined my class (AG 301- ECOSYSTEM SCIENCE OF PACIFIC NW INDIANS) in La Grande last week to talk about salmon and treaties. They explained that the beaver and salmon had developed an intricate symbiotic relationship that had been totally interrupted by the extermination of the beaver almost 200 years ago.

They knew the biology; I could fill them in on the history.

The biology: a series of beaver dams forms perfect habitat for salmon, providing pools for growth and rest, avenues for running up river, and spurts of fast water from the dams’ depths to flush smolts downriver.  Beaver dams also create the hydrology and habitat for flora and fauna on rivers’ extended banks.

The history: One of the peculiar junctures in American history occurred when two countries “jointly occupied” the region the US called the “Oregon Country” and Great Britain’s surrogate, the Hudson’s Bay Company, called the “Columbia District.” The region stretched from the Mexican border (now the California border) far into present-day Canada, and from the Pacific to the Continental Divide. The joint occupation, set originally in 1818 to last ten years, held until an 1846 resolution.

The Americans, hungering for a Northwest Passage and the resources of the region, had sent Lewis and Clark on a reconnaissance exploration in 1804, and in 1811 John Jacob Astor, in consultation with his friend, Thomas Jefferson, had set out to secure a port—Astoria—and establish a foothold for a new state or friendly new country on the Pacific Coast to take advantage of the beaver and otter trade from North America to the rest of the World.

The jockeying for the region went on for some time before Joint Occupancy, with the British Crown’s Hudson’s Bay, the Canadian North West Company, Astor’s American Fur Company, and “free” trappers and traders working the territory, shipping beaver pelts back over the Rockies or around the Horn and eventually on to Europe and Asia. Then there was a war—the War of 1812; The North West Company bought Astor out in 1813. In 1818 the two countries agreed that they would “jointly occupy” the territory. In 1821 Hudson’s Bay absorbed North West, and became the British presence in the region.

The region was, of course, already occupied by Indians of numerous tribes. And the European presence was miniscule—Russian, English, and Spanish ships along the coast, fur trappers and traders inland. But the resources in the territory were tremendous—beaver and otter were the prime targets, but settlement and further exploitation were alive in some eyes. They would come to dominate activities in the Oregon Country until a final resolution was reached in 1846.

The British thought Americans should be held at the Columbia; the Americans lobbied for a boundary further north (Polk’s “54 40’ or fight” election campaign). Hudson’s Bay moved settlers from Red River in Canada to the region and built a fort at Vancouver; the British sent David Douglas to scout the territory and put their stamp on it; American frontiersmen trapped and traded and, eventually guided the missionaries to the Oregon Country.

The real mover and shaker over the middle years of Joint Occupancy was Sir George Simpson, Governor-in-Chief of the Hudson’s Bay Company. From 1820-1860 Simpson was in practice, if not in law, the British viceroy for the most of Canada. The Columbia District was under the direct leadership of John McLoughlin at Fort Vancouver, but Simpson was the law. And his law said:

Strong trapping expeditions should be sent south of the Columbia. These may be called the “Snake River Expeditions.” While we have access we should reap all the advantage we can for ourselves, and leave it in as bad a state as possible for our successors.

Simpson chose Peter Skene Ogden to lead the operation. In less than six years, operating with military precision, Ogden and his men trapped the region bare, from the Upper Columbia and Snake Rivers to California and Nevada. The “scorched earth” policy was ruthless. Mountain men were drowned, murdered, starved, and exhausted. Most of Simpson’s own men died along with the beaver.

The beaver were gone, but the dams carried on for some time, and then, in 1866, the canneries took over. By 1886, 39 canneries took over 43 million pounds out of the Columbia with their very efficient fish wheels. Those wheels stayed in the Big River until the 1930s!

One wonders whether beaver trapping and fish wheels—politics and economics—might have bled the region of salmon if a big dam had never been built.

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Indians—and many Mexicans—were here first

Only Louisiana Purchase & Alaska were larger additions

Earlier this week, a Library visitor talked about her “roots”: specifically about a grandmother who was Apache and Mexican. At this point her proud, and very non-Indian or Mexican looking husband chimed in: “Mexican from when Colorado was part of Mexico.”

I grew up, at least partially, in Southern California, close to the San Luis Rey Mission and the Pala Indian Reservation. In 2010, at my fiftieth high school, I learned that some of the Mexicans I went to school with were Indians, or of mixed Indian and Mexican ancestry. I learned too that at least one blonde, crew-cut haired white guy was an Indian too. When I said that I was surprised to learn that he was Indian, he said that he’d been told by family not to talk about it at the time, but that he had years of photos, regalia and artifacts, and the next time I was in California he’d show it all to me.

If you were Indian growing up in Southern California in the 1940s and 50s, it was easier to be Mexican—if you were dark skinned, or Anglo, if you could “pass” as white. My Monday visitor nodded her head as I told my story, although she did say that her grandmother quietly taught things about herbs and customs. She also said that the Mexican side of the family was firm about their pre-U.S. roots in what we now know as the American Southwest.

That’s a fascinating story. Her corner of Colorado was part of a large chunk of the United States ceded by Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. The machinations that went into this huge land takeover—present-day U.S. states of California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, about half of New Mexico, about a quarter of Colorado, and a small section of Wyoming—were complex, because the Republic of Texas and the US accession of Texas was also part of the mix.

Notice where Mexico is in 1846
US wanted border at 54-40
Britain wanted border at Columbia

So the Southwest joined the Northwestern US as areas where our government engaged with another government—Great Britain and the “joint occupancy” of the Oregon Country in the NW; the US and Mexico in the Southwest—in determining the future of land primarily and for millennia actually occupied by indigenous tribal people, Indians. And the two are tied together. President Polk, despite objections of more expansionist fellow Democrats, concluded the NW question with the 1846 Oregon
Treaty (at the 49th parallel, and not at “54 40 or fight”) as we were going to war with Mexico. The huge land accessions of Hidalgo—third largest in our history—came at war’s conclusion in 1848.

The Northwest is less complicated in one way; Indians were far and away the major occupants of the disputed lands in 1818, when Great Britain and the US agreed to joint occupancy (for 10 years, which became almost 30) and, in a sense threw the matter of ultimate jurisdiction into a race for white settlement.

The Indians were of course the earlier inhabitants of the Southwest as well, but Europeans, primarily of Spanish descent, were well into their takeover of the region in the 1840s. Mexicans—Mestizo descendants of Europeans and Indians—were the major occupants of the territory at cession in 1840. There were still Indian tribal people of course, and Indian raids on border settlements were part of the treaty talks—again another story!

I could find no firm population numbers, but did learn that the populations of California and Texas were small while New Mexico was a robust 40,000 in the 1820s. And I saw one estimate of 80,000 for the newly acquired territory in 1848, and a claim that 90 percent of them had chosen to stay in the new United States rather than relocate to what was left of Mexico. Throw in additional lands in New Mexico and Arizona gained peaceably through the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, and there must have been close to 100,000 Mexicans in the newly configured US on the eve of our Civil War.

Fast forward to now, and to intermarriages with Bracero workers who were recruited to the US during WW II, and others who came through various legal immigrant worker programs, and there are many Mexicans—millions certainly—who were “here” before most of the rest of us. (Most African-Americans too can claim older US roots, but that is a different story.)

Which makes ironic most nativist rants about sealing borders. This might be the bigger story: moving borders, as described in accompanying maps, did as much to determine the current makeup of the United States as has the long history of immigration legislation, legislation that has alternately encouraged and discouraged immigrants by country of origin, color and race with the economic needs and the political sentiments of the day.

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The Doctrine of Discovery and the Malheur Refuge

I’ve been wondering where to start in understanding the Bundys and the militia takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge—and I keep getting pushed back in time and place. My journey started with the obvious—the Paiutes, but it didn’t take me long to get to the Pope!

Let me explain: A couple of years ago, a group of us at the Josephy Center spent a few weeks examining the Nez Perce and early white settler history in the Wallowas. 
On the day we were talking about the treaties of 1855 and 1863 (the Paiute and US Indian treaties being my initial starting point in my Malheur quest) that led up to the 1877 Nez Perce War, Bobbie Conner, the director of the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute on the nearby Umatilla Reservation, showed up at the Josephy Center. We asked her to join us, and she jumped in immediately with the Doctrine of Discovery: “You can’t understand Indian treaties without understanding the Doctrine of Discovery.”
So we went on to discuss that doctrine, and how it played out in transfer from the Pope to protestant Englishmen and the ideas of Manifest Destiny, western expansion, Indian treaty-making, and the ultimate displacement of American Indians across the continents.
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York has an early version of the document—pictured here—and this is what they say about it:
The Papal Bull “Inter Caetera,” issued by Pope Alexander VI on May 4, 1493… stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered,” claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers and declared that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” This “Doctrine of Discovery” became the basis of all European claims in the Americas as well as the foundation for the United States’ western expansion. In the US Supreme Court in the 1823 case Johnson v. McIntosh, Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in the unanimous decision held “that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.” In essence, American Indians had only a right of occupancy, which could be abolished.
So the indigenous people who had lived in the Americas for millennia had occupied it, but had no ownership of it. Ownership was reserved for good Christian nations, and, presumably, for their mercantile companies—Hudson’s Bay; Dutch East and West India companies, etc. Modern versions of these 17th century giants might be the Army Corps of Engineers and Exxon Mobil. Or beleaguered western ranchers who maybe trace holdings to the Homestead Act of 1862?
“Occupancy” was another road I tried in my understanding of the Malheur situation. That immediately gets one to “joint occupancy,” which is what we—the Oregon Territory, including the Malheur—lived under from the 1818 treaty that finally resolved territorial questions of the War of 1812, until 1846, when a new treaty setting the boundary line at the 48th parallel forestalled another conflict between Great Britain and the United States.
To summarize: the search for “original” owners of the land that is now the Malheur Wildlife Refuge—who the current hostile occupiers say they are looking for—took me first to the Paiutes. But that didn’t work, because they only lived there, occupied it and did not own it. Which took me to the United States and Great Britain, which, at least initially, only jointly occupied the land but did not own it (along with the Paiutes, who also jointly occupied in fact if not in law). 
Actual ownership of the Malheur country begins with the United States and the 1846 treaty, which rests on the 1823 Supreme Court Case, which in turn rests on a 1493 Papal Bull. The land in dispute was not included in the Northern Paiute Reservation, although the Indians are allowed by treaty to have access—occupy—for hunting, fishing, and gathering. It was never, in my brief exploration, homesteaded, so no private rancher has ownership rights based on that.
Which means that the land is “owned” by the US Government by treaty and law going back to the Pope. Which sets up some kind of religious battle between Catholicism and a long-dead Pope and the God who told the Bundys that they should undertake their mission.
If this is all bewildering, Alvin Josephy, who always seems to have something to say about current events involving tribes, says in several places that one of the initial mis-understandings between Europeans and indigenous Americans was the concept of private land ownership. He thought, correctly it seems, that that misunderstanding still prevails.

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