|Joseph Canyon USFS photo
Alvin Josephy talked about Indians’ relationship to land, and how, from the get-go, Europeans did not understand it. Europeans saw land as an economic resource, not just a “home” place to live on and live with. In fact, the Book of Genesis in pocket and mind, Christian Europeans thought themselves lords and masters of the land, with Biblically ordained dominion over it and all of its non-human inhabitants.
After a long slog through feudalism, during which most Europeans worked the land to the benefit of a ruling class, Euro-Americans saw opportunities to be their own lords and masters. A few years of indentured servitude and then Indian lands theirs for the taking. Thomas Jefferson legitimized it, promoting the idea of a nation of self-sustaining small landholders, free men who would forward humanity’s march towards democracy.
No one paid much attention to Indians’ relationships to land—except to take it. Well, Europeans did pick up the many crops Indians had developed over millennia in the “new” world, and shipped potatoes, corn, chocolate, tomatoes, manioc and dozens more around the globe. They also shipped gold—enough of it to change world economies, and tobacco, enough to start a new European rage. And they enslaved Indians and brought in African slaves to dig the gold and farm the tobacco. Etc.
The world changed, continents “exchanged,” as Charles Mann recounts so well in his two books on the subject, 1491 and 1493.
But not all of America changed immediately, and the Indians in many parts of the country, after suffering diseases and wars, losing buffalo and land, being chased or “removed” from one place to another, held onto little pieces of earth, where many of them still live. These “reservations” (lands “reserved” from much larger areas of life and influence) are cruel reminders of how much land was taken from Indians, but their existence has also been a bulwark against total assimilation. That is what Alvin said—reservations, however small and humble, have allowed some Indians to maintain tradition and culture that is intrinsically tied to land.
The “better” lands—most not reserved for Indians—were generally lands most suitable to agricultural production. And, although it is another strand in this long story of land and lost lands, the notion that “ownership” of land should somehow be tied to its “improvement” is a recurrent theme in the homesteading tradition and the takeover of Indian lands. God, said settling pioneers and their preachers, had ordained men to make the best use of the land; God, retorted Plateau tribesmen, did not want mother earth scarred with a plow.
* * *
The land on Joseph Creek in the Wallowa Country was homesteaded late in the 19th century. The Tippetts arrived there in 1916 or 17. Thirty years ago Biden Tippett, who grew up there and went to country school there, took Alvin Josephy and a tape recorder on a tour of the area. Biden told me about this “lost” tape a year or more ago, and a month ago Ann Hayes brought in a box of cassette tapes, one marked “Alvin Josephy—Biden Tippett 1986.” We had it digitized, and I listened my way to Portland with it on Saturday.
There is nothing earth-shattering, nothing that is going to change the reading of local history, but it is another chunk in my own understanding of the difference between improving land and living with land, owning land and being part of it, European and Northwest Plateau Tribal notions of relationship to land.
The Tippetts of course are of European stock, but something drove them from the Midwest to Heppner, Oregon, and then to the Chesnimnus Country in Wallowa County, and then took one of them, Jidge Tippett, to Joseph Creek, deep in the canyons of Snake River Country.
His son, Biden, born in 1926, said there were three or four other families on Joseph Creek at the time, enough to make the school and to help each other through calving, haying, and hard times.
What comes out of the interview is how self-sufficient the canyon dwellers were. They were good neighbors, and they all grew a little food, had their beef and wild berries, and traded for most everything else. Cows for a pig, and, Biden remembers, hides—wild and domestic—that the kids collected and traded to the Indians for gloves and moccasins.
Trading was one of the things that American Indians excelled at, and one of the most underreported in standard histories. The Nez Perce dried salmon and traded it in buffalo country. The Tippetts traded for gloves and bacon, and, like the Indians, ate the salmon and steelhead, game and berries. Like the Indians, they gaffed steelhead at the “narrows” on the Grand Ronde River.
Like the Indians, they traveled with seasons, wintering along Joseph Creek, summering in the high country, and moving cattle through the breaks in spring and fall. At one point on the tape, Alvin says “you lived like Indians.” And Biden pretty much agrees, though he says that ranchers today (meaning 1986) make use of some modern conveniences. But he describes the way he sees wild animals—as “part of the habitat,” the way he travels horseback on narrow trails, the way he visualizes a day’s work and travel, reads sign, and lives with and loves the land, as the probable ways of its the old inhabitants.
Alvin asked him if he’d ever been lost in the canyons. “No,” Biden says, but he did get lost one time in Spokane.
# # #