An elder passes

In my understanding of how things work in Indian country, names of elders who have recently passed are often not said aloud for some time–or only carefully. But I think in this case it is important to use a name, because Mary Schlick was known to many in Northwest Indian country for decades, but she has been largely silent for some time, and  her recent death, at 94, at the end of a long and important life, should be noted. Her name will bring a smile to many Indian face, and to soyapu faces as well.

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This is not the year!

2016 will not be the year that the population of the United States of America tilts from white—the year when adding up all the browns and blacks and anyone the U.S. Census counts as not-white becomes a bigger number than the number of those who check a box or are in one way or another counted as “white.” In fact, a quick Google search tells me that this cataclysmic change in demographics is about 30 years away, and if you count Hispanics as white, more than that!

Distribution of U.S. Population by Race/Ethnicity, 2010 and 2050

You wouldn’t know it by the talk of it. It permeates, is everywhere in politics and the media. The talk sets up the fear of it on the one side, and the reasoning of it on the other. Donald Trump stands and harps about Mexicans and Moslems and anyone else not white and (at least in a recent Iowa talk) not evangelical. More broadly, fear of it seems to fuel speeches and votes advocating bigger walls and tighter immigration procedures in state and national legislatures, and even city halls.

On the other side of it, academics, novelists, filmmakers, and people of more liberal persuasion (one has to be careful, as lines are not always clear and congruent on this and other liberal-conservative issues) are producing analyses. How did we come to this turn? If we had handled things—slavery, Indian treaty making, exclusionary laws—differently earlier in our history, would things be different now? And of course, how are things now?

The Warmth of Other Suns tells the story of the Great Migration of African Americans north and west, out of the South from 1910-1970. The “movement” Black Lives Matter focuses on police-black citizen relations today, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ award winning Between the World and Me examines American history and the black of it.

It seems that Indian immigrants—east Indians—are the new kids on the American literary block. The Inscrutable Americans by Anurag Mathur is a “must read” on a list of books by Indian authors, many of whom, with great wit and candor, describe the cultural gaps between two very different worlds. And there are of course Iranian-American, Vietnamese-American, Nigerian-American, Latino-American and other hyphenated American writers seeking to do the same. Luis Urrea, my favorite author of the southern border, follows history and families from the heart of Mexico into the American heartland in non-fiction (The Devil’s Highway) and fiction (Hummingbird’s Daughter; Into the Beautiful North).

And then there are the Indians, the indigenous people who had lived in the Americas for 30,000 or maybe 50,000 years, and were suddenly invaded by Europeans a little over 500 years ago, and then watched and watch still later invasions by other Europeans, and Africans and Asians—many not of their own free will—over the course of that 500 years and continuing to this day.

Booksellers’ shelves teem with books on the subject. The most ambitious might be William T. Vollman’s “Seven Dreams” series of novels about the “collisions between Native Americans and European colonizers.” The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce War, is the Fifth Dream in the series, which is not being written sequentially. It is over 1350 pages with footnotes! It stares at me unread from my desk—I will read it this year.

And if I make it through that tome, I might try another in the series—Maybe Fathers and Crows, about the Jesuits in Canada. And then I’ll read more of Peter Bowen’s Gabriel Du Pré Montana mystery novels featuring Du Pre the Metis—the mixed bloods melded of several Indian tribes, French fur traders and a few Scotsmen into a distinct people and culture. Or maybe I will go south and read The Son, Philipp Meyer’s acclaimed novel about a multigenerational—and sometimes mixed blood—family that weaves in and out of Commanche lands.

I will actually read Warmth of Other Sons, and if I have the stomach for it, I’ll watch “The Revenant,” the fictional movie account of mountain man Hugh Glass and his experiences in Plains Indian Country in the early 1800s.

And I’ll keep on poking away at Alvin Josephy, who gets smarter every day as I think about his descriptions of the displacement and marginalization of, and on occasion the genocidal movements against, American Indians. Much of it was written and thought over a half-century ago, but Alvin was always out front. I can hear him now, lambasting the historians who thought and wrote into the 1980s that the Americas were “empty of civilization” before the Europeans arrived. He’d have something pithy to say about this tilt from white–like what about the tilts and jolts that reduced the percentage of Indians, among the 2 percent of “others” in 2010, from 100 percent in 1491!

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Another Nez Perce Book

William Vollman’s new novel, The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce War, is getting rave reviews. I have it, have glanced at the first few pages and looked at the extended notes and acknowledgements—and hoisted the 1350 page and what must be five-pound volume—but have not begun reading it. I am waiting for a five or six hour piece of time to take the plunge—seeing it and reading reviews having convinced me that I cannot do it justice or give myself an honest go at it in bedtime snatches.

But I have been thinking about it, and thinking about how the Nez Perce story captured Alvin Josephy 65 years ago and continues to capture writers and readers 138 years after the Nez Perce War put it on the front pages of New York newspapers. So this is a quick—pre-Vollman book-read—meditation on the enduring and captivating nature of the Nez Perce Story.

1. The Nez Perce came to national consciousness with Lewis and Clark, an iconic event in American history. And, according to accounts, they saved the Corps of Discovery—from wrong routes across the mountains and starvation—and impressed the Captains with intelligence, physical appearance and stature. According to the explorers, the Nez Perce also impressed with their horsemanship—European-Americans could not match the Indians with gelding technique and selective breeding.

2. Many of the Nez Perce did convert to Christianity, and they did not turn on their missionaries as the Cayuse and others turned on the Whitmans. (I credit this to chance: the Nez Perce got Eliza Spalding, the only one of the first four missionaries who invited Indians into her home and bothered to learn their language. Her husband, Henry Spalding had a temper in the name of the Lord, and the Whitmans, in my reading, were distant and mean. And of course measles visited the Whitmans and the Cayuse and not the Spaldings and their Nez Perce hosts.)

3. This conversion gave one band of Indians—what would become the lead non-treaty band—a Christian name, “Joseph.” It was a name the public could pronounce and relate to; it was not “foreign” like Toohoolhoolzote, and not an unlikely name translation like White Bird or Looking Glass. It was your brother’s or father’s name.

4. The Nez Perce were strong and smart. A lawyer friend says that a careful reading of the 1855 treaty, a treaty that resulted in only one tribe getting its own reservation, shows skilled negotiators. And Looking Glass’s arrival at the Walla Walla treaty site from buffalo country, which occurred after the other chiefs and tribes were assembled and is commemorated in the Gustav Sohon drawing, must have been palpable in its demonstration of power and dignity.

5. The Nez Perce War is recent; some call it the “last” Indian war. As Joseph discovered after the War in North Dakota, by 1877 trains and telegraphs moved people and messages across the land, and photographers documented events. The Nez Perce War was covered by the eastern press. And when Joseph passed away in 1904, New York newspapers announced the death of America’s “most famous Indian.”

6. Nez Perce Country. The lands of the Nez Perce, from the Wallowas north and east, across the Grand Ronde and Snake River canyons, are rugged and, in comparison to most traditional Indian lands, unchanged from the eons of Indian occupation. One can approximate the 1200-mile Nez Perce fighting retreat in a car, but foot or horseback one can make it—and some do, even today, across the same landscape with most of the 1877 landmarks.

7. The Euro-American ambivalence towards Indians: From the first meetings in Jamestown and New England, new settlers’ attitudes towards Indians were confused and confusing. Settlers depended on tribes for survival, did not understand or want to understand different cultures, feared what was different, admired what was different, but in any case wanted the land, the beaver pelts, the tobacco, fish and the whales. Indians were paraded in front of European courts. There were white women who were captured by Indians, and, in some cases, did not want to return to their own; and white men—think of the fur traders, who happily married Indian women and in many ways became natives; and there were also Indians who demonstrated that they could learn white ways. When the Nez Perce evaded American armies, Joseph—who, as historians have labored to show was not a war chief—was depicted as the “Red Napoleon.” Our advanced armies could not have fallen victim to uneducated savages! He must be brilliant. The Nez Perce gained supporters in the Eastern Press.

I’ll stop at 7—the number of drummers at a traditional ceremony.  And this one, number 8 it would be, is primarily a white issue, because most importantly, the Nez Perce War came near the end of 200 years of growing white dominance of the continent, and has raised and continues to raise feelings of guilt for injustices done the Nez Perce people—and to all Indians. The guilt is accompanied by admiration for Indian courage in the face of mistreatment, and astonishment that Indians have survived.

Now I think I am ready to start reading Vollman.

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