Today is the first day that the City of Portland is commemorating Indigenous Peoples’ Day as opposed to Columbus Day.
Last week the city council voted to make the change. A release from the city notes that Portland is home to the ninth largest Native American population in the United States, and its urban Native community is descended from over 200 tribes. The Oregonian quoted Portland Mayor Charlie Hales who said Portlanders have a responsibility to “remember and to learn” about the region’s history. “We can remember, we can repair, and we can respect,” he said.
From the City of Portland’s press release:
Indigenous Peoples’ Day was first proposed in 1977 by the delegation of Native Nations to the United Nations. It wasn’t until 2010 that the United States endorsed a United Nations declaration that recognized “indigenous peoples have suffered from historic injustices as a result of … their colonization and dispossession of their lands, territories and resources.”
Therefore, in the spirit of the new designation, I thought Indigenous Peoples’ Day might be a fun opportunity to share a bit about a body of work from the late 1800’s that I’m interested in, and that provides a unique insight on native tribes of the Washington Coast during that era.
When I was a kid, my step-dad worked for a time as a consultant for the Makah Tribe on Washington’s Pacific Coast. I grew up with their artwork adorning our home, and many weekends were spent exploring the Hoh Rainforest and surrounding areas. During family gatherings we’d bake salmon in the backyard over an open fire, an homage of sorts to a technique my step-dad learned from the tribe.
A couple years ago I happened upon the tale of a former Port Townsend resident named James Gilcrest Swan who lived in Oregon Territory/Washington State from the early 1850’s until his death in 1900. He was the subject of Ivan Doig’s critically acclaimed book “Winter Brothers” and several of Swan’s writings and illustrations were published posthumously, beginning in the 1970’s. There’s an excellent book of his illustrations and watercolors titled “James Swan, Chā-tic” that demonstrates Haida artwork, Quinault Villages and assorted native ceremonies. There’s also a collection of his journals titled, “The Northwest Coast.”
During his lifetime, Swan was hired by the American government to teach English to members of the Makah tribe. He kept a detailed journal of his experience and during his time on the Washington Coast he collected artifacts from the region and sent them to museums on the East Coast. It is because of Swan’s efforts that insights and clues to the lives of the tribes during the 1800’s exist today.
It’s true that Swan writes about Native tribes through the vantage of a biased Anglo-American. Swan was a man of many faults. He completely abandoned his wife and kids in Boston to venture to the West Coast, and died a notorious alcoholic. He’s judgmental on tribal customs and tramples on their culture in his role as English teacher in an effort to prepare them for the impending influx of white Europeans. A cynic might argue that he documented the fall of their communities and was an active participant in doing so. Conversely, it’s apparent in his writing that he has a compassion and respect for the native people of the region and is often disgusted by the cultural insensitivity demonstrated by other Euro-Americans. It’s apparent that he made many friends among the local Native populations and appears to be an anomaly for his era. For those reasons, I recommend checking out his journals and illustrations.
This blog is intended to acknowledge the indigenous peoples of our region on a day our city has commemorated to do so. While these books are written by an European-American, they do provide an interesting insight into Native tribes during an interesting period of history. That said, the books are no match for the beauty and wonder of the Northwest Coast.
I’d encourage anyone intrigued by this post to visit the Quinault, Hoh, Queets and Makah forests, rivers, museums and communities in the near future.