George Washington and the Indians

There are new revelations on every page in Ned Blackhawk’s ambitious The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History. In putting Indians back into the history of the country, rather than treating the trials and tribulations of Indian peoples as a separate discipline, he changes the way we understand the past. Indians, he says, had “agency,” were party to the actions and decisions that shaped the country. His is a different understanding of early founders Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and especially George Washington.Read Rich’s Post →

Catholics–and Providentialism

It would be easy now to pile on the Catholic Church—especially its hierarchy. The Vatican’s recent “repudiation” of the Doctrine of Discovery has been followed by the Maryland Attorney General’s announcement of “staggering sexual abuse” by church officials in his state. The Associated Press reported that “More than 150 Catholic priests and others associated with the Archdiocese of Baltimore sexually abused over 600 children and often escaped accountability.” The documented abuse occurred over a span of 80 years, and was accompanied by decades of coverups. More money was spent on treatment and rehabilitation of perpetrators than on that of victims. And the Attorney General said that similar studies were addressing abuse in other dioceses.Read Rich’s Post →

The Whitman Massacre—a Truer History

Some days I just want to shout at Alvin—Is this what you meant?
After a few years wrestling with his writing and remembered conversations, poking through the books and journals he left to the Josephy Library—the Oregon Historical Quarterlies are gold mines!—and reading “new” historians Crosby and Mann, I might be getting a grasp on what Alvin meant by “leaving the Indians out of American History.”
They are, Alvin said, always a “sideshow,” helpers and combatants in first European colonization of the “new” (to Europeans) world, allies and enemies in early confrontations with British settlers, obstacles to be overcome on the path to settling the North American Continent, and always, by some Euro-Americans, people to be looked after, cared for as children on their way to civilization as their own cultures naturally vanished. Indians have rarely been treated as primary actors in the historical narrative, agents on their own behalf and/or cooperators in five centuries of European settlement of the hemisphere.
One can pick up the thread of Alvin’s argument at many points on the historical grid, and the standard narrative changes, becomes richer, and, finally, helps explain the incredible resilience of tribal peoples. Here’s one. The Spring 1994 edition of the OHQfeatures a long article on “The Pacific Northwest Measles Epidemic of 1847-48” by anthropologist Robert Boyd. I’ll try to unravel briefly.
We know the story of the Whitman Massacre, how some Cayuse Indians, thinking that missionary Marcus Whitman was out to murder them and take their land, killed Marcus and Narcissa and eleven others. And we might remember that it was a measles epidemic that precipitated it all. Maybe remember that measles must have been carried to the Whitman Mission by Oregon Trail emigrants.
I’ll not distill Boyd’s entire article, but mention a few points to paint a broader historical picture of Walla Walla, the Cayuse and related Columbia Plateau tribes, and a more general view of white settlement and Indian-white relationships across the region.
First, Boyd provides background on white diseases in the now-Northwest. How smallpox arrived in the 1770s on the Coast and traveled into the interior precipitating a first big die-off of Indians. The pox probably arrived by Spanish ship, but might have come across the Rocky Mountains with Indians riding European horses –they got the horse about 1730. A second smallpox epidemic in 1801-02 definitely came via “Indian horsemen returning from the Great Plains.” There is discussion of other European diseases hitting the region, and of the peculiar habits of measles.
Measles were epidemic throughout much of Europe and North America in 1846-47. But Boyd argues that measles were not brought to the mission by white emigrants, but with Walla Walla and “Kye-use” Indians returning from a long sojourn in Northern California. The mobility provided by the horse had given tribal people the means to travel to the plains for buffalo, and to California for cattle!
And in 1847, just an incubation period ahead of the measles breakout at Walla Walla, a messenger at the head of some 200 Indians came back from California with sad news—documented by artist Paul Kane, of the failure of their mission and the terrible deaths of more than 30. The names of the dead were announced in a long ceremony at Fort Nez Perces (Walla Walla) and then messengers were sent in every direction to spread the sad news.
And, most likely, the disease. According to Boyd, at this point the white emigrants picked it up and carried it to the Willamette Valley, and from there traders and trappers and emigrants distributed measles all the way to Sitka, Alaska.
Back in Walla Walla, the Indians’ remedies—gathering together in sweats and drinking cold water—exacerbated the situation. Dr. Whitman’s medicines were “tested” by the Indians: two sick Indians and one who was not sick visited him for his treatment—and all died. Among the Cayuse, situated in three major bands but totaling only about 500 souls, over 200 are thought to have died with measles.
The test they had given Whitman—the Indian who was not sick having died, and the insistence of an insider, one Joe Lewis, that Whitman’s medicine was poison, led the Cayuse chiefs to order Whitman’s execution.
Further north, at the Hudson Bay’s Fort Colville, among Spokanes, Coeur d’Alenes, and some Nez Perce, the missionaries Elkanah and Mary Walker kept sick Indians dry and warm, and fed them cayenne pepper tea and Nitre. Although many died—especially children—more survived, and the Walkers were given some credit.
So now we have a much richer story, one that tells us more about Indians—tribal complexities, chiefs and bands–and horses, cattle, the fur trade and trade routes. We learn about religious views—Christian and Indian—on diseases, and their spread before theories of contagion were fully known. It’s as if the Whitman Massacre and its standard narrative have cheated us of our true history.
# # #

More on Missionaries–and on Catholic and Protestant “Ladders”

For whatever reason—maybe the wonderful cover photo—I have kept the Spring 1996 issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly by my bed, and pick it up from time to time to look at the fine drawings and paintings of Father Nicolas Point, and to follow those first Jesuits on their 1840 journey to Flathead country in Montana—and their departure in admitted failure just ten years later.
Elizabeth White writes of their early contact and early successes, which she attributes to the similarities between Catholicism and traditional Indian culture: oral liturgy, sacred wine and pipe, sweat lodge and church. The mission’s ultimate failure had to do with deeper life views—the Indian belief that man is part of nature and the Christian/European stories of/beliefs in serpents and other evils lurking in nature. The notion that Christian powers could not be added to traditional powers of nature and native spirit but must supplant them was also puzzling  to the Indians. Finally, the reverends’ attempt to bring the Blackfeet into their fold was too much for the Flatheads, and these first European missionaries gave up and moved on.
Catholic Ladder

Last night I read for the first time the last essay in the issue, a piece on “Catholic Ladders” by Kris White and Janice St. Laurent. These Ladders were teaching tools, originally of wood with four sides which could be carved or painted with symbols of Christianity. Sun, moon, stars, angels, the story of creation, Adam and Eve, the years of Christ and the decades of human history, the temple of Solomon, the Ten Commandments, were represented symbolically and figuratively in visual shorthand for the words and stories of the Bible. Eventually, the Ladders were put on paper in increasingly large layouts with more ornate depictions of the sources and lessons of Christianity.

This, it seems to me, was a brilliant strategy. The visual mnemonics of the ladders were a short step from the knotted ropes (called Quipuin some texts) that many tribal people used to keep track of seasons, time, and significant events in tribal life. They could be shown to a crowd, touched and moved easily from meeting to meeting, village to village.
Spalding “Protestant” Ladder

There is a picture of the only known “Protestant Ladder,” which was designed by Henry Spalding and drawn by his wife, Eliza. It was two feet wide and stretched six feet, and was colorfully painted. The Spaldings were of course the first missionaries to the Nez Perce. The note on Eliza’s drawing and remembering that Old Joseph’s daughter, the one who married white trapper Joseph Gale, took the Christian name Eliza caused me to look for more about one of the first two white women to travel the Oregon Trail (the other being Narcissa Whitman).

Eliza was as committed to the mission movement as was her husband, and she proved to be a natural teacher.  Her school at Lapwai was, I read, “different than many of the other missionary schools in the west.  She did not require her pupils to bathe, dress in ‘white’ clothing, or cut their hair.  In addition, she taught in both English and the Nez Perce language.” How common sense and practical; no wonder she was more popular with the Nez Perce than was her preacher husband!
Eliza becomes a more interesting character when we learn that she had some doubts about her faith after the massacre of the Whitmans. But she did go on to teach and administer other schools in the Willamette Valley. It makes one a little sad that she died young, at 44. Maybe her impact on mission schools would have been greater and their worst abuses diminished had she had another 20or 30 years to work on it.
That is speculation of course. But one piece of information from that Oregon Historical Quarterly is not. While one Catholic Ladder in the text prominently features the beginnings of the Church, Eliza’s (and Henry’s) Protestant Ladder depicts the pope tumbling off into the fires of hell. Whatever difficulties the Catholic and Protestant missionaries had among the Indians did not keep them from feuding with each other!
NOTE: for info on the Spalding Protestant Ladder, go to:
# # #