Native American History

Hopewell Mound, Ohio

The Hopewell Cultural National Historic Park in central Ohio showcases one of the country’s greatest collections of mound building. Native Americans from Mississippi, to Illinois, to Ohio, to Alabama, left a lasting legacy still visible today in the form of burial mounds. The Hopewell mound builders of central Ohio built their mounds almost 2,000 years ago. According to archaeologists, Hopewellian people gathered at mounds for feasts, funerals, and rites of passage.  The greatest collection of Hopewellian mounds can found be near Chillacothe, Ohio. (Click on the photos to see larger pictures on a separate page.)

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Two sides of a historic coin and wrestling with the past

The debates over the public and state-sanctioned display of the flag of the slave-holding Confederacy point to the United States’ not-so recent past. No country is pure, and the United States’ evolution is marked by great accomplishments, great divisions, and also some historic acts that leave a painful legacy. Our history of conflict in the 1800s stretches the entire century, from the War of 1812, through the Mexican-American War, dozens of conflicts with Native American bands across the continent, overseas expansion and trade wars (the Opium War), and the Spanish-American War.

in 1902, Portland area residents and war veterans erected a statue honoring the nation’s war veterans at the city’s historic Lone Fir Cemetery in Southeast Portland. The cemetery is filled with graves of many white, Christian early settlers from the 1800s, and latter-day residents of all persuasions. I stumbled on the cemetery accidentally at a staging of Macbeth last weekend.

Close up of memorial honoring soldiers who fought for the United States against Native Americans.

Close up of memorial honoring soldiers who fought for the United States against Native Americans.

I looked up and saw this statue of a Civil War soldier, with memorials plaques honoring veterans of Spanish-American War of 1898, the Civil War, the Mexican-American War, and the American Indian Wars from 1846 to 1856, which saw most of Oregon and Washington occupied and appropriated as U.S. territory from many native tribes.

There were conflicts, but many of the original inhabitants were perishing en masse due to diseases like smallpox that accompanied the arrival of new settlers. Even after land was ceded by treaties and tribes were resettled on reservations, hostility was pronounced. Eleven years before this statue was erected, in 1891, the Oregon Legislature was passing resolutions with language that characterized the state’s Native residents as “a wild man.”

State lawmakers signed their names to a measure that stated: “… it would only be a fact of evolution to call him a wild animal on his way to be a man, provided the proper environments were furnished him. While the instincts and perceptions are acute, the ethical part of him is undeveloped, and his exhibitions of a moral nature are whimsical and without motive. Brought into contact with white men. whether of the lowest or of the highest, he is always at a disadvantage which is irritating, and subject to temptations which are dangerous.”

Today, what are we to do with such legacies to this time when these attitudes prevailed, and good people erected monuments to their fellow soldiers who fought for their country, and many doing so believing they were in the right and doing it for the best of intentions?

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Meeker and the Utes’ last gasp

The story of Meeker, Colorado, where a white agent working as a missionary and Indian agent and 10 white men were killed by the Utes in 1879, is captured in Dee Brown’s epic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Ultimately U.S. cavalry forces defeated one of the last remaining bands of unconquered Native Americans in the central west, leading to their expulsion from their homeland to the barren, hot scrub of eastern Utah, where they remain today on a mostly impoverished reservation. When I stopped here two years ago, during the Memorial Day weekend in 2013, I found an older historic marker referencing the “massacre” and a newer interpretive sign noting the expulsion of the Utes from their ancestral land. The story of the West and its settlement remains constantly in flux.

Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.

Grave of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce

The story behind this photograph is a long one. It involves ownership and secrets, legacies and histories. Who has the right to tell this story? Who has the right to publish this photograph? Is Chief Joseph‘s legacy only safeguarded by his people, or a larger circle who care about his people’s story of leadership, exile, pain, loss, and conquest? I do not have the answer.

Chief Joseph was born in what today is the Wallowa Valley of Oregon. He and other Nez Perce warriors led his band of just 700 men, women, and children on a 1,400-mile march that even received taciturn praise from their military pursuers seeking to place them in reservations. The group held off more than  2,000 U.S. soldiers and Indian auxiliaries in four battles and numerous skirmishes, before surrendering in 1877. His speech at his band’s surrender is among the most famous of all made by Native American leaders in response to their subjugation by the young United States and its people:

I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say, “Yes” or “No.” He who led the young men [Olikut] is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are — perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.

The Nez Perce were relocated and broken. Half, including Joseph, were taken to a non-Nez Perce reservation in central Washington, becoming one of the bands of the Confederated Colville Tribes. Today the area is known as the Colville Reservation, where I shot this photograph in August 2014 when passing through. I found his final resting grounds to be a serene place.

Grave of a Nez Perce warrior, Yellow Wolf

I passed through the Colville Reservation this summer, which encompasses a huge swath of land in the north central part of Washington State. On the way, I stopped at the Nez Perce Cemetery. The Nez Perce are among the 12 confederated tribes who make up the reservation. This is one of the graves in the cemetery. The gravestone reads: “Yellow Wolf / Patriot Warrior of the Nez Perce ‘lost cause’ 1877 / Marker placed by white friends”

The persecution of the Nez Perce led to one of the more sorrowful chapters of the conquest of the American West. In 1877, multiple U.S. Cavalry commanders chased more than 750 Nez Perce men, women, and families for more than 1,000 miles starting in Oregon all the way to the current border with Canada, though not in the lands managed by the Colville Reservation. This event and trail is now recognized as the Nez Perce Trail, commemorated by the U.S. Congress in 1968. In the words of one Nez Perce descendant, Frank B. Andrews: “We the surviving Nez Perces, want to leave our hearts, memories, hallowed presence as a never-ending revelation to the story of the event of 1877.”

(Click on the photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)