Small pieces of history

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.

But other people come along. And we don’t know when what kind of writer will pick up the story pieces that we have assembled and turn them into narrative histories, novels, and even poems. I think often of Alvin finding the Sohon drawings of the 1855 treaty talks in the Washington Historical Society archives—did others know they were there and just not accord them importance? Were they reprinted in books before Alvin came along? I don’t know, but I do know they are common now, and Alvin brought them to that state.

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.

My last post was about the archivists who came to town and started us working on Grace Bartlett’s papers. Grace was the first curator of the Wallowa County Museum, and wrote journal articles and a couple of small books of her own. She, her husband Harry Bartlett, and Alvin worked together on straightening out the Appaloosa story. Two local women are now cataloging her papers, and they are continually flush with new discovery. There’s a Masters thesis from 1901 with an interview with Chief Joseph, and stories from Harry, her Nez Perce husband. The books Grace did not write are waiting for others to come along and sew—with quilt pieces from Mike Page and maybe you and me—into their own stories and poems of the West.

Or maybe you are the quilter.

Learning to be a librarian

Learning to be a librarian

When Alvin Josephy started talking about leaving his books to Fishtrap all those years ago, I nodded and envisioned a nice addition to the Fishtrap house with shelves of books, a file cabinet or two, study carrels, and a stream of poets and historians pulling books off the shelves and making new poems and stories with their help. Over time, in conversations with Fishtrap friends and with a small grant from the Lamb Foundation, the vision gained an artist’s rendering (see top of the blog page) and an architect’s plans.

And then the real world and a recession hit, money from foundations that had seemed “ready” became impossible, and, eventually, I settled in to try to make sense of Library holdings, mission, and possibilities. I started learning to be a librarian, and envisioning the eventual physical home receded into some far off mist.

So now I wrestle with whether we finish cataloging books—or concentrate on papers and ephemera. And how do we make the information we have available? How important is a complete bibliography of Alvin’s work? And, most importantly, never mind the books—what do I do with Alvin Josephy’s legacy as historian and activist on behalf of American Indians? “Alvin, I thought you were leaving me a bunch of books, but all this?” I say to myself as he watches over my shoulder.

I talk about these things with writers, historians and library friends all the time. And just last week, had a nice meeting at Lewis and Clark College with Special Collections librarian Doug Erickson and friend Kim Stafford.

Doug’s office desk sits in a corner of the room that houses the William Stafford Collection. In the opposite corner there is an odd-shaped Plexiglas enclosure with a seat in it and wires running out of it to a stool-full of electronic gear. It was some kind of medical deal that Doug picked up on EBay for $150 and turned into a mini recording studio. Among other things, he records poets for his “Oregon Poetic Voices” project. I know a bit about that, because Fishtrap was an original partner, and you can go right to that site and hear Ursula LeGuin read poetry in 1990 at Summer Fishtrap. Try it:

But the big aha moment for me in the talk with Doug and Kim is that libraries and archives are not just collections of old dusty stuff. They are things you work with now. And Doug says that Mitt Romney was right—rich folks get their words and ideas recorded all the time. Doug wants the poems your grandma wrote—or the ones you write.

Which takes me back to Alvin looking over my shoulder. He determined to write the Nez Perce book AFTER he found the Indian voices collected by an oddball Washington rancher named Lucullus McWhorter and published by another oddball, an old fashioned freedom of the press publisher from England who found his way to, of all places, Caldwell, Idaho, and founded Caxton Press. And published Yellow Wolf and Hear Me My Chiefs.

In the twelve years it took to research and write The Nez Perce and the Opening of the Northwest, Alvin also found three remaining veterans of the Nez Perce War he could talk to, the Sohon drawings from the 1855 Walla Walla treaties, which were hidden away at the Washington State Historical Society, and other obscure stuff—revealed in the footnotes of the book (their omission the reason he always hated the abridged version of same)

So my next library project is to bring a real live archivist to town to train me and other volunteers in the ways of preserving these other voices against the time the next Alvin comes along.