It’s holiday time, Thanksgiving and I am in Oregon City at my son’s place, reading the morning news on my computer. The house is quiet with people sleeping off yesterday’s meal and working from home on their computers. I got up early and read for an hour in a book that hurts while I read it, The Oppermanns, a novel by a refugee German Jew published in 1934. The New York Times suggested in its review at the time that the world should be reading this fictional account of what happened in Germany in the years 1930-33. “Wake up! The barbarians are upon us.”Read Rich’s Post →
Several people forwarded me a link to “Salmon People: A tribe’s decades-long fight to take down the Lower Snake River dams and restore a way of life,” a fine article on the lower Snake River dams by Linda Mapes, published in the Seattle Times on Sunday, November 29. Nez Perce Tribal Chair Shannon Wheeler and Cultural Resources head Nakia Williamson are quoted extensively, and good photos, maps, and accounts of historic uses of fish and lamprey, treaties, and the devastation of fish runs by the dams on the main stem and tributaries of the Columbia River background a rich story of current tribal efforts to reinvigorate fish runs and remove dams. Read Rich’s Post →
Of course “Black Lives Matter”! And bringing attention to the large numbers of deaths by police and the cases and deaths by COVID-19 among African-Americans is the right thing to do. The press has gone some way towards reporting the heavy impact of the disease on the Latinx population as well. In both cases, reporting has brought out the disproportionate number of black and brown people working as house cleaners, health care aides, and in food processing plants, public transportation, and other occupations that put them at greater risk of contagion. Poor neighborhoods, poor water, and crowded living conditions have also been examined.
But what about the Indians?
The New York Times has had a few pieces on the Navajo Nation, and they are now a separate item on worldometers continuing graphic updates (https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/us/). With a population of just 173,667, the Nation has 6,611 confirmed cases and 311 deaths attributed to the virus as of June 16. That is more than 3,650 cases per 100,000 people — a higher per-capita rate than anywhere in the U.S. For comparison, New York is at 2,082 cases per 100,000 people. Put another way, at that rate Oregon would have over 160,000 COVID cases and 7,500 deaths.
But coverage of the Navajo Nation is sporadic, and I can find almost no coverage of other tribal situations. I know from following Idaho news that the Nez Perce Reservation had a recent spike, and I know from a friend that the Yakama Reservation in Washington also had a surge. It seems to me that NPR interviewed an Indian from South Dakota, or was it North Dakota?
I do know that epidemic diseases killed more indigenous people in the Americas at the start of European colonialism than all the Indian wars. Measles, smallpox, and tuberculosis devastated the misnamed Indians from the 16th century fishermen along the Atlantic coast to the near extirpation of the Cayuse in the 1840s, and they continued to be damaging among tribes through the twentieth century. Charles Mann argues strongly in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, that diseases attacks on Indians had a genetic component. And, according to Indian friends, there are strong tribal memories of the 1918 flu—and that generational memory has some living in fear today.
Alvin Josephy said that when we are not lying about Indian history and Indians in American history we are omitting them. It’s been a long hard road that Euro-Americans have traveled over and around Indians. Most of it has had to do with land. They had it and we wanted it. Disease killed off Squanto’s people and the Puritans arrived to caches of food and an empty landscape. From King Philip’s War to the Nez Perce War, combat with superior firearms took more land. And when war didn’t work, treaties—and a continued rewriting of or abandoning them—took more land.
After disease and war and treaty-making, there was government policy: the Indian Removal Act of 1830 sent tribes to “unsettled” lands across the Mississippi; The Dawes Allotment Act of 1887 tried to divide remaining Indian lands into parcels for individual Indians to farm, selling the “surplus” un-allotted lands to settlers; and the Termination Act of 1953 tried finally to do away with all treaty and contractual relations and obligations with the federal government—freeing up more land to be purchased by Weyerhaeuser Timber and white farmers and ranchers.
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There are complex histories of the relationships among today’s Latinx and Native Americans, and among African Americans and American Indians—stories too long, and ones I don’t know well enough to trace in short paragraphs. But Indians are still here, still invisible to many, but still here.
And Indian lives matter; Indians matter. Any true tellings of today’s pandemic and past ones, of our country’s history and vision of our future, must include the original—still misnamed—Indians.
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On Monday night, on NPR’s coronavirus question and answer show, a listener asked whether there might be something in African Americans’ unique vulnerability to sickle cell anemia that related to their high rates of infection—and death—with COVID-19. The medical person answering questions thought it an interesting observation that deserved study—she knew of none. The host then turned the conversation immediately to related environmental issues: jobs, neighborhoods, stress, diabetes, etc.Read Rich’s Post →
Years ago, when I was the Director of an organization called Fishtrap, we had a conference at Wallowa Lake on “Fire.” Stephen J. Pyne, the McArthur Fellow who wrote the books on fire in America, was the featured speaker. Forest Service and BLM firefighters from across the Northwest come to hear Pyne and talk with each other. But one strong memory of that conference had nothing to do with fire directly; it had to do with ethnicity and digestion.Read Rich’s Post →
Chuck Sams is the incident commander for coronavirus response on the Umatilla Reservation. He recently told Oregon Public Radio’s “Think Out Loud” that
“The tribes [Umatilla, Cayuse, Walla Walla] have faced pandemic before; our last one ended in around 1860, but that cost us nearly 90% of our tribal membership — lost to the measles between 1780 and 1860. That memory still lives on in many of us.”Read Rich’s Post →
Maybe it is. The lines on charts showing the new daily incidents of COVID-19 infection are still spiking up. Only China has leveled off, an interesting fact given the huge population, but how much to attribute to the authoritarian culture? There is too much randomness, too much chaos, too much short-term hedonism and self-interest, and too much honest open discussion of the problem in most of the world for the China model to hold strong promise.Read Rich’s Post →