“If Navajo Nation were its own state, it would have the highest per-capita rate of confirmed positive coronavirus cases in the country, behind only New York.” (PBS News Hour) As of today—May 14, 2020, at 2:45 p.m. Pacific Time, 3,392 of its 356,890 citizens have tested positive; 119 have died.Read Rich’s Post →
I apologize for the long blog silence—and shame myself for it. These posts are a way of putting something new I have learned or deciphered into memory. They’re recordings of my own life lessons. And I’ve been lazy for weeks.
Enough of philosophy: an article in Wednesday’s New York Times—and a book I am reading—are, together, responsible for returning me to the blogs. The Times piece was about a Mohawk WW 2 veteran:
“Louis Levi Oakes, the last of the Mohawk code talkers, who helped American soldiers triumph in the Pacific Theater during World War II, along with code talkers from other tribes, died on May 28 at a care facility near his home on the Akwesasne Mohawk Reservation in Quebec. He was 94.”
The book I’m reading is David Treuer’s The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. Treuer’s contention is that American historians and the American public have, for the most part, stopped Indian history at 1891, at Wounded Knee. Our popular perceptions and written accounts of American Indians today follow the lead of historians and assimilationists at the turn of the last century. With the help of allotment and religion, the “Codes of Indian Offences” of the 1880s, boarding schools and “Termination,” Indians would, it was assumed, disappear. They would “become white,” and their languages, regalia, religions, dances, songs, and entire cultures would be left in museums and the photos of Edward Sheriff Curtis.
They were called the “Vanishing Indian,” and their story—Indian history—stopped as they vanished, with Wounded Knee in 1891.
Over the years there have been cracks in this narrative, stories of Indians that remind us of their continued presence on indigenous lands; occasional stories that are actually chapters of the nation’s history. Some of those cracks show pain: boarding school stories that have emerged in documentaries and, in our region, in a powerful play called “Ghosts of Celilo,” that played in Portland and should have played across the country; and the awful stories of today of Indian women raped and murdered in outrageous numbers in Canada and America.
Other stories show resilience, pride, and contribution to the American story. Indian art is collected; The National Museum of the American Indian is visited by thousands from across the country and the world; a powwow circuit brings Indians and non-Indian Americans together in celebration; salmon runs are saved and revived by Indian fisheries programs.
But no story says more about Indians’ continuing presence and important participation in the American story than that of the code talkers. The Navajo code talkers of World War II were known—if not widely—before war records were released in 1968 and books and movies appeared. When Chester Nez, the last of the original Navajo code talkers, died in 2014, I read and wrote about it.
In the obituary of Louis Oakes, we learn about code talkers from other tribes, including the Hopi, Comanche and Mohawk. We learn that some 30 indigenous languages were used in battle in that war. And that there were Choctaw code talkers in World War I!
When Chester Nez, a U. S. Marine who served in the Pacific, died, the obituary noted that the language he used to help his country—our country—in World War II had been washed from his mouth with soap in a boarding school. There is something emblematic of the continuing relationship of majority America—even as it has grown and changed over centuries—in this story of an Indian child who is asked to erase his language and culture, and then, years later, given a Congressional Gold Medal for his use of it as a warrior in our country’s defense.
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The name came to Edward S. Curtis from Indians, who were the subject of his life work—a twenty volume study in words and pictures of The North American Indian. The title of Tim Egan’s fascinating new biography is Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: the Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.
The northern Europeans, coming out of the little ice age, started to get well on American potatoes, and the ones who made it to “New England” shores, still often scrawny and unfit, found corn and squash and beans and big strong looking Indians—the Indians who had escaped the diseases which had decimated the coast before the arrival of actual settlers.
Alvin J said many times in many ways that, from the beginning, white relationships with Indians took three basic roads—all evident in my sketchy history above: 1. Indians should be killed and their lands and resources taken over by superior Europeans; 2. Indians should be converted and assimilated, should be made white. Most who espoused this view were good people who saw Indians as children in need of white parenting, and believed they could catch up with whites if properly cared for.
I think this vision is buried somehow in the collective American genome. In this view, we conquered the Indians and their lands, and are now treating them well—as “equals” really. So we grant them a noble past. They were, among other things, hard adversaries, sometimes ruthless, but in any case tough. (How else could they have defeated Custer!) We don’t want to recount the actual relationships of Indians and whites in our textbooks—scholars and amateur historians can play in that field—but we can still name things after Indian heroes and put statues of them in public places. (Indian writer James Welch told me that the Battle at the Little Big Horn is one of the top two or three American historical subjects in books and films; following the history of these histories is another way of tracking Indian-white relations.) The “Trail of Tears” is a phrase that has entered the vocabulary, though I doubt very many of us can trace its actual history. Indians are still mostly absent from our history textbooks. And the fact that Indians and tribes are still with us and are doing things other than casinos—things like restoring lands and fish and game populations, fighting diabetes and poverty, trying to integrate old ways and new ways—is not part of the current American conversation.
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I’m again reading a book I read years ago—and again finding new meaning. Caroline Wasson Thomason was born in 1887 somewhere else, but grew up “Between the Sheeps” in Wallowa County. She married a teacher and lived for years in New York, where she wrote children’s plays and stories. And she wrote a couple of novels, one that dealt with American blacks and civil rights, and one historical novel: In the Wallowas.
My recollection was of a syrupy story involving settlers and their teenage children, but with accurate accounts of Chief Joseph’s last visit to the Wallowas and a famous runaway horse incident. I also vaguely remembered a love story that crossed racial lines, and the purple prose. I was right on that: “’My princess! My beautiful flower!’ Imna knelt beside the bed and took her in his arms. A spasm of pain flushed her lovely face, and he held her more closely.”
The “morg” at the Wallowa County Chieftain had the 1899 papers, which meshed with the novel’s account. Joseph came with a promise of Washington D.C. money in hand to purchase property, but the proposition was not treated seriously. The newspapers treated it with disdain and even some contempt—the Asotin paper wanted to extend the ban to keep Indians from coming back to hunt and gather.
The other important thing that I noticed this time around was the publication date, 1954. This is the Eisenhower administration and “termination” time. Termination, by whatever name it has been called over the years—e.g. The Dawes Act—has always had curious mixed sponsorship: those who hated Indians, wanted their land, or just scoffed at their old superstitions and thought they should join the majority culture (Alvin said that Henry Luce at Time Magazine thought them “phonies” and just wanted them to get on with it), and those who sympathized with Indians but thought that the only way they could survive was to join the dominant culture. Alvin called this the “vanishing Indian” view of Edward Sheriff Curtis and others. The old Indians and their ways were to be put in museums and admired for their grandeur and maybe a little for previous contributions—maize and potatoes? –but they had to become assimilated, become white.
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Small world—and invisible Indians
Winona LaDuke was at Winter Fishtrap this weekend. She is an enrolled member of the Mississippi Band of Anishinaabeg on the White Earth Reservation in Northern Minnesota and a global activist on behalf of Indian rights and sustainable natural resource use.
Winona is not bitter or self-pitying, but straight forward, proud, realistic, rational, and spiritual all-together. Seven of the eight million dollars spent on food on her reservation go immediately off-reservation, she said. Some huge percentage of electrical energy is spent in the mining and transportation of fuels and the transmission across far distances. On her reservation they will grow and produce more of their own food; they will build wind turbines and develop wind energy.
People hovered after her talk. I approached slowly and introduced myself as having been born and partially raised in Fosston, Minnesota, at the edge of the White Earth Reservation. “My father was born in Fosston, in 1929,” she said. (He later went to California where he was an Indian in the movies—“an extra $25 if you fell off your horse”—and where Winona was born.). I said that an uncle had a small fishing resort called the “Hideout” on Island Lake right after the War. “That would have been off county road #4,” she said.
There were no Indian kids in school—my guess was that they went to small country schools on the reservation. “Probably until eighth grade,” she thought, as that was as far as her father had gone. Only now I think that some of the Indian kids must have been hustled off to boarding schools in other places. I didn’t think to ask her about boarding schools.
Indians were invisible to us. We didn’t know any Indians. On county road #4 we saw a few shacks and big cars. We thought that when Indians got money they bought Cadillacs and got drunk. We didn’t know about the kids, though our parents pitied them.
Then I remembered trips to Itasca State Park, the headwaters of the Mississippi River—“that’s on the Reservation,” Winona chimed—and that for a quarter I had my picture taken sitting on an Indian chief’s lap (why do I remember the quarter?). I don’t know what happened to the picture, but I remember that the Indian had a large feathered headdress and wore buckskin. “That was probably my grandfather,” said Winona.
This is all sixty years ago, and it pains me to write it. I’ve gone to good schools and traveled far, lived for 40 years in Nez Perce country in Oregon—land the Indians were driven from with broken treaties and threats of war. I spend some of my time now going through the books and articles written by the late Alvin Josephy, my mentor still.
Americans have always tried to do away with Indians, Alvin said. We killed them first with diseases, wars, and broken treaties. And for the last hundred years have worked hard at killing “Indianness,” the Indian in them. This has been called assimilation, integration, termination.
Oh, we love them too—love what they were or we imagined them to have been. Alvin called these ideas “Nobel Savage” and “Vanishing Indian.” Indians were idealized by Rousseau and other European intellectuals, and captured in ethnographic studies of language and culture as the same languages, dances, and songs were outlawed on the reservations. They were photographed, most famously by Edward Sheriff Curtis, in regalia they no longer wore. He would pay them a few dollars for changing from regular clothes—often rags—into regalia.
Most importantly, Alvin said, they have often been “omitted” from history. The many languages—over 2000 mutually unintelligible at time of European contact, diverse cultures, arts and artifacts that display skills in engineering, math, and trade, Indian contributions to world agriculture from potato to tomato, and the very way they strove—and strive still—for harmony within the natural world have for the most part been absent from histories and textbooks.
Maybe the books are better now, but I wonder how far we have really come from the days of Winona’s father and grandfather and me in northern Minnesota, when Indians were Tonto on the radio, a photo chief at a state park, and invisible where they lived….