Invisible women

Alvin Josephy cried loud and often about the omission of Indians from textbook histories, and often thanked the amateur historians—the “history buffs”—for keeping Western history alive when serious historians busied themselves with government reports and people and events considered major and somehow central to the American story.
Alvin’s Civil War in the American West pulled together material from across the region and integrated it with goings on in Washington and the Eastern War. That is the war that still plays on the main stage in American popular history and American film, but Gordon Chappell has pulled together a 24 page bibliography of books and pamphlets on the subject—he omits journal and magazine articles in the interest of brevity—that includes material “since Josephy.” Interesting that it appears as a National Park Service document:  So the history buffs keep plowing the turf in the shadow of “Lincoln” and Daniel Day Lewis.
Although he did not write specifically of women in history, I know that Alvin encouraged others who did. He introduced me to Patty Limerick, who now directs the Center for the American West at the University of Colorado, and to Sue Armitage, who broke ground with The Women’s West in 1987. Diaries, photos, paintings of women—Indian women and white women—are prominent in the books and papers we are sorting at the Josephy Library.
Alvin would have loved the current exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society, “Tough by Nature.” Accomplished portrait artist Lynda Lanker, now of Eugene, spent 19 years traveling the West with notebook, sketchbook, and camera, and produced a wonderful series of paintings, drawings, and prints of 49 women working the West. There is a young Indian barrel racer and a grizzled cowgirl who rode broncs almost 100 years ago, mothers with daughters, and sometimes wives with husbands. But one knows from these images and the brief quotes that accompany them that these women were and are “actors in their own lives, not passive participants in their husbands’ ventures.” That line is from an early review of Sue Armitage’s book. I can’t put an image on this page, but you can get a bunch of them here:  Unfortunately, the exhibit closes this week, so if you are in the Portland area, get on down there; if not, you can catch it next in Texas, or in a book called Tough by Nature with a foreword by Larry McMurtry.
In over 40 years discovering my own West from my perch in the Wallowas, I have met rodeo queens, women ranchers and potato farmers, women who drive trucks and tractors, rope and brand—and cook and dance. But even here stereotypes persist. I remember a play written by an Eastern Oregon woman about growing up with the ranch and the Pendleton roundup—sorry I can’t come up with name or title—performed by Whitman College players. When they kicked women out of the bucking events in the rodeo in the nineteen teens, the heroine explains, it was supposedly in the interest of safety. Why then did they turn them to trick riding, where injury and death were even greater possibilities? The daughter in the play can’t have the ranch—there are no sons—until she finds a suitable man to marry. Etc. etc. etc.
There are some things that we need to be constantly reminded of: Indians are part of our history and part of our present; the West and all that happened and happens here was and continues to be as important in the American story as are Eastern and Midwestern events and stories; and women were here all the time, and are still here, ”actors in their own lives,” and actors too in the ongoing American story. 

Lynda Lanker’s 49 women should give courage to women still fighting stereotypes and pause to men who further them.

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Oregon is Indian Country

This is a regular “Main Street” newspaper column for the Wallowa County Chieftain, a column that I have been writing every other week for about 24 years. It will also appear on the Oregon Days of Culture web site ( As you will see in the column, dealing with political issues in Indian Country can be tricky–waters run deep. I hope I have done justice to all parties, but especially to the Nez Perce.

The “Oregon is Indian Country” exhibit currently showing at Stage One in Enterprise was put together by the Oregon Historical Society and the “nine federally recognized tribes of Oregon.” Fishtrap and its Josephy Library, the local hosts, have invited elementary student groups for special programs, and are bringing in speakers to address issues suggested by the exhibit.

Most of the young students have quickly identified the Indians who once lived here, in the Wallowas, as Nez Perce. Few could name other Oregon tribes—even our close neighbors on the Umatilla Reservation near Pendleton, the Umatilla, Cayuse, and Walla Walla. But even adults are surprised to learn that the Nez Perce are not a “federally recognized tribe OF Oregon.”

We’ve hung a good map of the Nez Perce War of 1877 on the wall at Stage One. The retreat starts in the Wallowa valley, crosses the Snake at Dug Bar, and becomes a fighting retreat as it meanders through parts of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. It stops at Bear Paw in Montana, just 40 miles short of the Canadian border and freedom. A few Nez Perce did, in fact, make it across the border, but most surrendered, and this is where Joseph made his famous speech, asking leave to look for his scattered, hungry old and young.

The map does not show what happened then to the Nez Perce: the trip to Leavenworth Prison and the years in Indian Territory—land the Nez Perce still call the “hot country”; the eventual return by train to the Northwest and the split at Wallula, where the old and Christian were allowed to join Nez Perce from other bands on the much reduced Nez Perce Reservation at Lapwai, and the young, and specifically the followers of Joseph, were sent to Nespelem in north central Washington to live among Indians of different cultures and languages. Oregon and Idaho were afraid of another uprising by Indians wronged by the broken treaty of 1855, which had left the Wallowa Country to the Nez Perce.

Joseph came back to the Wallowas in 1904, with money in his pocket, but newspapers railed against Indians and locals would not sell him land.

Alvin Josephy, the late dean of Western American and Indian history, and part-time Wallowa County resident for over forty years, explains the “conviction,” from colonial days, “among settler-invaders and their descendents that Indians in their native state and Whites could not live together in peace… If the Indian submitted, cut his hair, dressed like a White, lived like a White, became a Christian—in short, was assimilated and no longer an Indian—he might survive. Otherwise, he was to be pushed a safe distance away from White society [onto reservations], isolated and rendered harmless…, or he was to be annihilated.”

According to Josephy, “these three options ran thereafter like threads through the course of Indian-White relations…” The assimilationist urge reached its zenith when the Eisenhower Administration decided to solve the “Indian question” once and for all by “terminating” all tribes with cash buyouts of old treaties. Ironically, according to the “Oregon is Indian Country” exhibit that now celebrates our tribal neighbors, Oregon led the way nationally, with 62 of 109 terminations—all of the Western Oregon tribes—between 1954 and 1961. Fortunately, the policy was reversed, and Oregon tribes have been reinstated, though now “confederated” into one or another of the nine “recognized tribes.”

Our young students were surprised to learn that there were thousands of Indian tribes and bands living in the Americas when Columbus landed—Josephy says that there were probably more than 2500 mutually unintelligible languages spoken, as many as 90 million people, and cities larger than any European cities of the time. Oregon alone must have been home to over 100 tribes and bands.

For the moment, as evidenced by the Oregon exhibit, Indians and Indian culture enjoy more favorable attitudes from the general population. Indians are allowed to dance and drum openly—things once legally outlawed in attempts at assimilation and Christianization—and we go to see them. We applaud their efforts in bringing the salmon back to the rivers.

Locally, we welcome Indians at Chief Joseph Days, and at the Homeland Project in Wallowa and its annual powwow and Nez Perce Art in the Wallowa show. Although Nez Perce Tribal government is headquartered in Idaho, (and the exiled Nez Perce are governmentally part of the “confederated” tribes at Colville, Washington), the tribe owns land in Wallowa County, and, possibly of more importance, its Fisheries and Wildlife departments work IN Oregon under federal recognition of “usual and accustomed” places acknowledged in the 1855 treaty and in subsequent negotiations.

And, in fact, a 1999 Oregon Legislative Assembly joint resolution offers an apology for the Nez Perce removal, and says that “The people of the State of Oregon welcome the Nez Perce Nation in their return to stewardship in the Wallowa Mountains.”

We are Indian country too.