The Fancydancing Voice of Sherman Alexie

When I was in the MFA program at Columbia University in the mid-1990s, a poetry professor assigned a book called The Business of Fancydancing (Hanging Loose Press, 1992) by a writer from my home state I’d never heard of: Sherman Alexie. When I turned the book over, the black-and-white on the back showed an enviably-young man in a checkered shirt beside a listing of journals he’d published in. Below was a quote from a front-page review in the New York Times that called the book “wide-ranging, dexterous and consistently capable of raising your neck hair.”

I don’t know that the book raised the hair anywhere on my body, but it did raise my consciousness and my sense of what poetry and short stories and writing of any kind can do and be. A Spokane/Coeur D’Alene Indian who seemed to love basketball as much as I did, Alexie not only knew how to explode expectations but how to challenge those who felt they had a right to impose them, and how to wrestle the language his people were forced to speak into forms and lines and juxtapositions that made it seem entirely new.

Here, for example, is a poem from that book called “Evolution”:

Buffalo Bill opens a pawn shop on the reservation
right across the border from the liquor store
and he stays open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

and the Indians come running in with jewelry
television sets, a VCR, a full-length beaded buckskin outfit
it took Inez Muse 12 years to finish. Buffalo Bill

takes everything the Indians have to offer, keeps it
all catalogued and filed in a storage room. The Indians
pawn their hands, saving their thumbs for last, they pawn

their skeletons, falling endlessly from the skin
and when the last Indian has pawned everything
but his heart, Buffalo Bill takes that for twenty bucks

closes up the pawn shop, paints a new sign over the old
calls his venture THE MUSEUM OF NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURES
charges the Indians five bucks a head to enter.

Sherman Alexie was not the first Native American writer to break through the white wall, but over the next 25 years he was certainly one of the most successful. And he did more to shine a light on the real lives of Indians in the Pacific Northwest than anyone else.

One year after Fancydancing, which contains a mix of poems and short stories, Alexie published his first all-story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993). I didn’t need to see more than the title to know I’d love it and be challenged by it and feel uncomfortable reading it, all at once.

Sherman Alexie, author photo by the Wellpinit Watchdog, from The Business of Fancydancing.

Since that time, Alexie has published close to 20 books, including Ten Little Indians (a collection of stories set in and around Seattle; Grove Press, 2003), the young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (set in the NE part of Washington he grew up in; Little, Brown, 2007), and his latest, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me (Hachette, 2017), one of the most compelling and heartbreaking memoirs I’ve ever read. He’s also written and co-produced films from his work, including the hugely popular Smoke Signals (1998).

Until he stopped doing tours a few years ago, his readings were must-see events, with Alexie not only giving distinctive voices to individual characters but acting out his stories to both hilarious and poignant effect.

Unfortunately, not long after his memoir came out, several women stepped forth to say he had sexually harassed them. Since that time, he has remained quiet and a number of institutions have renamed or recalled awards associated with him or ended promotion of his books.

The question now is how we recognize or appreciate or contextualize one of the most important Native American voices in Pacific Northwest history. If we read his books, are we condoning his behavior? If we don’t read his books, are we denying ourselves and those who come after us an important perspective on our region, culture, and collective history? Is there a statute of limitations?

I don’t have any answers. All I can say is that back near the end of the 20th century a voice spoke to me in a language and form I’d never heard or seen before, and I will always be grateful for how it opened me up. How it challenged me. And how it changed me for the better.

The Powell’s List of 40 Books Set in the Pacific Northwest

Image from the Powell’s Books website

One of my goals for this site is to introduce readers to writing set in the Northwest that hasn’t reached a large audience, especially works by writers other than white men. To that end, I’m working on future reviews of exciting new literature as well as posts by myself and others about past writings that should be better known. But I don’t want to ignore iconic Northwest books.

So, to get a lot of great books onto the site quickly, here’s a link to a post the folks at Powell’s Books put together back in 2014 titled, “40 Books Set in the Pacific Northwest.” The list is a bit male-, white-, and Oregon-centric, but, to be fair, it was produced eight years ago and the intention seems to have been to alert people to some of the biggies. Maybe the Powell’s staff will produce a follow-up with more-current works soon!

Their 40 selections are:

FICTION

Mink River
by Brian Doyle

The Lathe of Heaven
by Ursula K. Le Guin

Night Dogs
by Kent Anderson

Heartsick
by Chelsea Cain

Trout Fishing in America
by Richard Brautigan

East of the Mountains
by David Guterson

Hard Rain Falling
by Don Carpenter

My Abandonment
by Peter Rock

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
by Sherman Alexie

Last Go Round: A Real Western
by Ken Kesey

Black Hole
by Charles Burns

Sometimes a Great Notion
by Ken Kesey

Glaciers
by Alexis M. Smith

The River Why
by David James Duncan

Boneshaker
by Cherie Priest

Permeable Borders
by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Geek Love
by Katherine Dunn

No One Belongs Here More Than You
by Miranda July

Ricochet River
by Robin Cody

The Motel Life
by Willy Vlautin

Who in Hell Is Wanda Fuca?
by G. M. Ford

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest
by Ken Kesey

Dies the Fire
by S. M. Stirling

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
by Sherman Alexie

Witchling
by Yasmine Galenorn

Ten
by Gretchen McNeil

Trask
by Don Berry

NONFICTION

This Boy’s Life: A Memoir
by Tobias Wolff

Fire at Eden’s Gate: Tom McCall and the Oregon Story
by Brent Walth

Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon
by Chuck Palahniuk

Hidden History of Portland, Oregon
by J. D. Chandler

Sky Time in Gray’s River: Living for Keeps in a Forgotten Place
by Robert Michael Pyle

Wildmen, Wobblies and Whistle Punks: Stewart Holbrook’s Lowbrow Northwest
by Stewart Holbrook

All God’s Children: Inside the Dark and Violent World of Street Families
by Rene Denfeld

Of Walking in Rain
by Matt Love

Out of the Woods: Book Review of rough house by Tina Ontiveros

At the heart of rough house—Tina Ontiveros’s difficult yet moving memoir about growing up poor in the damp forests of the Pacific Northwest and, when her family breaks apart, the brown dryness of The Dalles, Oregon—stand two people and a question.

One of the two is Ontiveros’s childhood self, revealed not only through her adult memories but also the stories her parents tell about her earliest years, some true, some exaggerated or made up altogether. The true stories come from her mother, the made-up ones from her father, Loyd, the second and more ambiguous of the book’s two main characters.

Loyd is an itinerant logger from a family of loggers at a time when Northwest logging is in decline. He drags his family from place to place, lodging them in various trailers and other inadequate shelters. Although he works hard, he falls off the wagon repeatedly, insists on controlling those around him, and strikes with his fists when he feels someone has crossed him, including the mother of his children. Loyd is the kind of person who squanders his life and drives away others, never able to stay on track for very long.

As Ontiveros writes at the end of her first chapter—a chapter in which we witness her father’s brutal way of teaching her to ride a bike—Loyd “left nothing much physical behind him on this earth. No poetry or paintings, no endowments or discoveries to share with humankind…Mostly his existence was primal flashes of intensity in different places, always a sense of adventure and danger. There was a sort of balance to his living, creativity and destruction in equal measure. Always harm. Always love.”

Image by Karen Arnold, publicdomainpictures.net

In many ways, Loyd is simply the product of the world he lives in, a world in which timber barons and corporations use and misuse a fungible and ultimately disposable cadre of rootless men to extract the riches of Northwest forests for personal gain. Like many men who make their living with their bodies, he tends to respond to the world in physical ways, particularly those that cause Ontiveros’s mother to leave him: “drinking, drugging, cheating, and hitting.”

But behind those physical responses lie deeper emotions often perverted by the way these men have grown up and lived and, as the last two words of the quote above suggest, those emotions can be expressed in positive ways, too. Which leads us to both the question at the book’s core—Why does Loyd’s daughter not only return to him again and again but choose to write a book about him?—as well as a possible answer.

“I lived in a small body then,” Ontiveros writes at the end of chapter three, “and when Loyd knelt down and talked to me, to show me the miracle of an unbroken sand dollar or a newly forming inlet, he looked like a man at prayer. What I mean to say is that he made me feel like I deserved to take up space. From his moments of careful attention, I learned to expect some small amount of worship from the world. From his violence, desperate apologies, and absences, I would discover that the same sparkling fires that fueled his creativity could burn out of control, leaving a landscape stripped of life. Loyd would hurt and fail me in a hundred ways, but first he taught me to wonder, gave me love without condition, and moments where I felt holy.”

Image by Michael N. McGregor

Ontiveros’s mother’s love for Loyd reaches a breaking point when he holds a gun to their adolescent son’s head. And Ontiveros reaches a similar point when he violates her trust in an especially vile manner. The violation and its aftermath are, in many ways, the book’s high point. After smoldering for half of the book’s 188-page length, Ontiveros’s writing suddenly catches fire as she finally faces the kind of man her father is. Out of that fire comes a deeper question: Can you continue to love a man who does a thing like that?

But something else is born in that fire too: The stronger woman Ontiveros will become, a woman who is not only able to see her father—and her mother—with clear eyes, but also to stand on her own, with her own strength; forge a life for herself out of tools her parents have inadvertently given her; and find a way to not only love but embrace the people she came from.

In the end, of course, the story doesn’t belong to Loyd, it belongs to his daughter, who has the choice to tell it in her own way. Although it is often a brutal story, it is told with love. And it is that love that allows Ontiveros to not only rise above the violence, misogyny, and suspicion often endemic to the world she came from, but also bring some acceptance to that world, helping us to understand it.

Contrary to popular belief, you can sometimes tell a lot about a book by its title. In addition to the double meaning of physical fun and difficult circumstances, it’s significant that rough house is printed in lower case. Ontiveros is shining a light on minor characters whose stories, though filled with poverty and violence, are worth telling—and worth reading—for what they reveal about the hardships many Americans face, as well as how those Americans—especially women, like Ontiveros—find a way forward despite the odds.

rough house

by Tina Ontiveros

Oregon State University Press

2020

$18.95

Buy your copy here.

Two other compelling books about Northwest women finding their way forward out of poverty, violence, and isolation (both set in Idaho):

Educated by Tara Westover (Random House, 2018)–National Book Critics Circle Award finalist–“Beautiful and propulsive . . . Despite the singularity of [Westover’s] childhood, the questions her book poses are universal: How much of ourselves should we give to those we love? And how much must we betray them to grow up?”—Vogue

In the Wilderness by Kim Barnes (Doubleday, 1996)–Pulitzer Prize finalist–“In the Wilderness is the story of this poet’s journey toward adulthood, set against an interior landscape every bit as awesome, as wondrous, and as fraught with hidden peril as the great Idaho forest itself.”–Amazon.com

When the River Ran Wild!–Excavating the Memories, Customs and Ways of the Mid-Columbia Tribes

Earlier this week, the winners of the 2022 Oregon Book Awards were announced. While the awards honor books by Oregon writers rather than books specifically about Oregon, a fair number of the award finalists are usually set in the state or explore some aspect of it.

Soon, I’ll be posting a review of one of this year’s finalist, rough house by Tina Ontiveros (this site’s first book review), but today I’m thinking of a wonderful and unique award winner I picked up at the ceremony a few years ago.

The book, written by George W. Aguilar, Sr., a descendant of Chinook Indians who lived, fished, and traded along the Columbia River for centuries, is called When the River Ran Wild!: Indian Traditions on the Mid-Columbia and the Warm Springs Reservation. The subtitle makes it sound like an academic text, but Aquilar’s book is so much more than that.

While he quotes from some academic sources–such as Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown’s classic look at the Columbia Chinook, The Chinook Indians: Traders of Lower Columbia (University of Oklahoma Press, 1976)–Aquilar’s main sources of information are other descendants of the Columbia tribes. And his intention isn’t to add to the historical record so much as give his people a sense of their own traditions, customs, and, yes, history.

“In a recent visit to Wolford Canyon, where I was brought up,” he writes, “there was only silence. The memories remain, but the echoes of the canyon are calm. No children play in the springwater pools. No sweathouse fires heat the rocks. No deer hides are soaking. No buckskin tanning. No gardens. No wheat or hay growing. The fields are now teeming with juniper trees where the golden heads of wheat once swayed to the whispers of the wind.”

To replace that silence, Aguilar excavates the memories of people he knows and others whose reminiscences have been recorded. Out of these and his own experiences, he weaves a kind of handbook for Chinook descendants like himself, especially the younger generations of the 21st century, who have no contact with anyone who lived by the old ways.

In the midst of chapters that explore the Chinooks’ traditional foods (both plants and animals), religions and beliefs, myths and legends, and warfare, Aguilar includes set pieces on practices such as the sweathouse, meat drying, the use of traditional nets, and something known as “butt slapping,” a way for native fishermen on platforms over the Columbia River to indicate which fish they’ve caught they want to keep for themselves.

The chapter on salmon fishing on the Columbia is worth the book’s cost alone. Not only does Aguilar evoke the heyday of Celilo Falls, he also talks about salmon runs, salmon festivals, fishing techniques, and customs that regulated how and where the salmon were fished for.

In other sections, he writes about the other species the Chinook relied on–Pacific lamprey, crayfish, sturgeon, smelt–and gives an exhaustive list of the plants they ate or used in other ways, as well as how they prepared them.

Beginning with his own experiences in forced boarding schools and government programs ,like one in the 1950s that attempted to get younger Indians to move off the reservation into cities, Aguilar takes us through the hardships his people have had to endure while also celebrating the endurance of a vibrant culture in danger of being completely lost.

One of the most important aspects of Aguilar’s project is his naming of individual tribal members, past and present–names that have been left out of the history books. He traces the lineage of individual names, tells us how names have been given, and looks at the meanings of those names. He is careful to name important local figures who are unknown to the general public and tell their stories too.

“The River People are the Northwest Klickitat and the Eastern-speaking Chinookan Kiksht,” Aguilar writes. “They are the Wascos, the Cascades, the Wishxams, the Clackamas, the Multnomahs, the Hood Rivers, the Skamanias, the Skilloots, and others who lived in villages on both sides of the Wilmaɬ, the Columbia River.”

By naming and writing for the descendants of these people–his people–Aquilar is trying to make sure they and their ways are not forgotten.

When the River Ran Wild!

Indian Traditions on the Mid-Columbia and the Warm Springs Reservation

by George W. Aguilar, Sr.

Published by Oregon Historical Press, in association with the University of Washington Press

2005

$24.95

Buy it here.

Northwest “Cowboys and Indians” Partnering to Protect the Environment

I spent some time away last week catching up on reading I’d missed, including Naomi Klein’s provocative exploration of the link between globalization and climate change, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Simon & Schuster, 2014). You can read about the arguments and evidence Klein presents in this important book here. What I want to focus on is what she says about those who are fighting for clean air and water in the Pacific Northwest.

Klein devotes a long section to Northwest activists in a chapter she calls “Blockadia” (her word for the spontaneous protests against fossil fuel extraction and transportation happening around the world). After praising a coalition of Northwest Indigenous and non-Native groups that prevented huge rigs from reaching the landscape-desecrating Alberta tar sands (a “Cowboys and Indians alliance,” one activist called it), she adds:

“Indeed, the oil and coal industries are no doubt cursing the day that they ever encountered the Pacific Northwest–Oregon, Washington State, and British Columbia. There the sector has had to confront a powerful combination of resurgent Indigenous Nations, farmers, and fishers whose livelihoods depend on clean water and soil, and a great many relative newcomers who have chosen to live in that part of the world because of its natural beauty. It is also, significantly, a region where the local environmental movement never fully succumbed to the temptations of the corporate partnership model, and where there is a long and radical history of land-based direct action to stop clear-cut logging and dirty mining.” (p. 319)

It’s good to see a writer recognizing not only the current work being done in the Northwest in regards to environmental and justice issues but also the past. Klein is careful to note the importance of Indigenous people in many of these battles. The Nez Perce took the lead in the fight to prevent the tar sands rigs from using a vital secondary roadway in Idaho and Montana. And the Lummi people led the effort to block a coal-exporting terminal near Bellingham, Washington, which, in 2017, ended the multi-year attempts of coal extractors to build a facility in the Northwest to export coal to Asia.

Much of the Northwest’s early history is a history of devastating extraction: the logging of old growth timber, the over-fishing and canning for export of tons and tons of salmon, the removal from the ground of everything from coal to copper to gold. But Northwest history is also full of stories of brave opposition to these activities: tree-sitters and salmon restoration advocates and protestors who have blocked the digging of new mines.

As Klein says about a coalition that worked to stop the building of a pipeline across British Columbia, Northwesterners are well aware of how fortunate we are to still have access to pristine natural environments. We’re also aware that we have lost too many of those environments already–and that those who put personal enrichment above preservation of the planet are always seeking to profit from (and pollute) those that are left.

For further reading:

To Think Like a Mountain: Environmental Challenges in the American West by Niels S. Nokkentved (Washington State University Press, 2019)

The Environmental Politics and Policy of Western Public Lands, edited by Erika Allen Wolters and Brent S. Steel (Oregon State University Press, 2020) The digital version of this book is free through OSU’s Open Educational Resources.

Seeking Refuge: Birds and Landscapes of the Pacific Flyway by Robert M. Wilson (University of Washington Press, 2012)

Unbuilt Environments: Tracing Postwar Development in Northwest British Columbia by Jonathan Peyton (University of British Columbia Press, 2017)

Stories with Trees in Them: Norman Maclean and the Real Northwest

A lot of my writing on this site so far has been focused on Washington and Oregon as the core states in what we call the Pacific Northwest, but the writer most associated with Northwest writing is probably a Montanan–Norman Maclean–in part because Maclean’s two books, A River Runs Through It and Young Men and Fire are consciously about Northwest life: traditional Northwest life, iconic Northwest life, what we might call real Northwest life, for there’s nothing more Northwestern than his main subjects: fishing and trees.

But Maclean wrote about more than fishing and trees, of course–more even than family and fire. As James R. Frakes, who reviewed Young Men and Fire for the New York Times, wrote:

You can learn a lot from this book: detail-crammed pages on the special qualities of logging boots, on the delicate differences between ‘general and specials’ and ‘counter flies,’ on fighting forest fires, on the lost art of horse- and mule-packing, on cribbage, on draw poker, on iambic pentameter, and on ‘walking whorehouses.’ Also a lot about Montana, where drinking beer doesn’t count as drinking, where they don’t care whether the whiskey is much good if they can get strawberry pop for a chaser, and where being acquitted of killing a sheepherder isn’t the same as being innocent.

One of Maclean’s most important contributions to the literary world is his deft blending of fiction, memoir, and narrative nonfiction into something that is far more compelling and profound than if he had stayed in his lane, so to speak, trying to write only one of the three, as most writers are cautioned to do today. The one other writer I can think of who does something similar, though in a very different way, is W. G. Sebold.

Of course, Sebold wrote about places that have a long and valued literary tradition whereas Maclean wrote about a place the literary gatekeepers in New York and elsewhere gave little credence to. (Even the Frakes paragraph quoted above can be read as somewhat condescending.) As he relates in his Acknowledgements in River, Maclean had difficulty finding a publisher for his stories not only because he finished his collection when he was already in his 70s but also because they “turned out to be Western stories–as one publisher said in returning them, ‘These stories have trees in them.'”

In the end, it was the University of Chicago, where Maclean had been a professor for decades–teaching classes, creating programs, and helping students instead of doing his own creative writing–that published both of his books. Although the second one, Young Men and Fire, which he hadn’t quite finished when he died at 87 in 1990, dealt even more completely with trees (and those who fight the fires that threaten them), it won a National Book Critics Circle Award–a sign not that New York had embraced the Northwest but that readers had (and some of the wiser critics listened to them).

It was Robert Redford’s 1992 movie version of A River Runs Through It that transformed its central story from one readers loved into one embraced by the larger American culture. It was the Redford movie that made Maclean a household name. And it was his movie that turned western Montana into a mythical flyfishing paradise, leading to influx of wannabe fishermen and the buying up of former ranches and other rural lands.

But Maclean’s real Northwest, his traditional Northwest, his truly iconic Northwest is only approximated in Redford’s film. To find it, understand it, savor it, you have to dive into his books.

Note: For a deeper look at Maclean’s life and the real-life stories behind those in A River Runs Through It, check out his son John Maclean’s beautifully evocative and highly informative 2021 memoir, Home Waters: A Chronicle of Family and a River

Here are some links:

The University of Chicago Press’s Norman Maclean bio

Norman Maclean’s obituary in The Chicago Tribune

A Timothy Egan column on Wallace Stegner’s battle for recognition beyond being just a “Western writer” (with a great quote on the same subject from Maclean)

A good review of John Maclean’s Home Waters (with interesting information on the effect of Redford’s movie on western Montana) by a Montana reviewer

Feeling Wild and Lyrical: Jack Kerouac Spends a Night in Seattle

Jack Kerouac by Tom Palumbo circa 1956
(image from Wikipedia)

In the summer of 1956, at the suggestion of Oregon-born poet Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac hitchhiked up the Pacific coast to Washington State to live in solitude as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the Mount Baker National Forest. He was hoping to detox from alcohol, women, drugs, and all of the other things that kept him from writing. In the end, he stayed only two months and the solitude almost drove him crazy.

Kerouac described the experience at length in his 1965 book Desolation Angels, but the excerpt here, about passing through Seattle on his way to the lookout, comes from The Dharma Bums, published seven years earlier. I like it not only for the freshness of his description of my hometown but also because the area around First Avenue was still very much the way he depicts it when I was was growing up there in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Gateway to Alaska and the Orient is Seattle,” 1950s, General Subjects Photograph Collection, 1845-2005, Washington State Archives, Digital Archives, http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov, accessed 3-16-22.

Kerouac on Seattle:

Then, while he sat in the main room, I went topdeck as the ferry pulled out in a cold drizzle to dig and enjoy Puget Sound. It was one hour sailing to the Port of Seattle and I found a half-pint of vodka stuck in the deck rail concealed under a Time magazine and just casually drank it and opened my rucksack and took out my warm sweater to go under my rain jacket and paced up and down all alone on the cold fog-swept deck feeling wild and lyrical. And suddenly I saw the Northwest was a great deal more than the little vision I had of it of Japhy in my mind. It was miles and miles of unbelievable mountains grooking on all horizons in the wild broken clouds, Mount Olympus and Mount Baker, a giant orange sash in the gloom over the Pacific-ward skies that led I knew toward the Hokkaido Siberian desolations of the world. I huddled against the bridgehouse hearing the Mark Twain talk of the skipper and the wheelman inside. In the deepened dusk fog ahead the big red neons saying: PORT OF SEATTLE. And suddenly everything Japhy had ever told me about Seattle began to seep into me like cold rain, I could feel it and see it now, and not just think it. It was exactly like he’d said: wet, immense, timbered, mountainous, cold, exhilarating, challenging. The ferry nosed in at the pier on Alaskan Way and immediately I saw the totem poles in old stores and the ancient 1880-style switch goat with sleepy firemen chug chugging up and down the waterfront spur like a scene from my old dreams, the old Casey Jones locomotive of America, the only one I ever saw that old outside of Western movies, but actually working and hauling boxcars in the smoky gloom of the magic city.

I immediately went to a good clean skid row hotel, the Hotel Stevens, got a room for the night for a dollar seventy-five and had a hot tub bath and a good long sleep and in the morning I shaved and walked out First Avenue and accidentally found all kinds of Goodwill stores with wonderful sweaters and red underwear for sale and I had a big breakfast with five-cent coffee in the crowded market morning with blue sky and clouds scudding overhead and waters of Puget Sound sparkling and dancing under old piers. It was real true Northwest. At noon I checked out of the hotel, with my new wool socks and bandanas and things all packed in gladly, and walked out to 99 a few miles out of town and got many short rides.

Now I was beginning to see the Cascades on the northwest horizon, unbelievable jags and twisted rock and snow-covered immensities, enough to make you gulp.

Mount Baker, 1940s, General Subjects Photograph Collection, 1845-2005, Washington State Archives, Digital Archives, http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov, accessed 3-16-22.

One year after Kerouac’s mountaintop experience, On the Road was published and his life was never the same again. Nor was his writing. Even The Dharma Bums, published just one year later, lacks the verve and swing of the book that made him famous. But even a lesser book can have its highlights–and Kerouac’s views of the Pacific Northwest when it was still considered the edge of nowhere are some of my favorite passages in all of his works.

How One Man Made Seattle by Selling It to the World

Erastus Brainerd (image from nps.gov)

It may be hard for Seattleites to swallow but their city didn’t count for much in anyone’s eyes but its own until the end of the 19th century. That’s when the city’s Chamber of Commerce hired a man named Erastus Brainerd to promote it–and the advertising campaign he concocted and carried out succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams.

From the time the first migrants moved west in the 1830s into what was then called the Oregon Country, Oregon’s Willamette Valley with its rich alluvial soil was the premier destination. And the town near the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers that came to called Portland was the locus of white gatherings and businesses and, eventually, mansions built by those who struck it rich in agriculture, logging or fishing.

In time, more and more immigrants ventured north of the Columbia River and established towns in what would eventually become Washington Territory. But despite the hopes of groups like the original settlers of Seattle–who, when they founded their town in 1851, envisioned it as a future New York of the West Coast–no one paid much attention to the Puget Sound region except as a source of timber and other raw materials for cities like San Francisco.

When the Northern Pacific finally connected the NW to the rest of the country by rail in the 1870s, its line ran through Portland. And, although Seattle offered “7,500 town lots, 3,000 acres, $50,000 in cash, $200,000 in bonds, and a 30-foot-wide strip along its waterfront,” the railroad chose little-developed Tacoma as its Washington terminus. Between 1880 and 1890, Seattle managed to grow from a population of 3,500 to over 42,000, but most of the growth came in the timber industry and, when the Panic of 1893 caused a depression across the country, the Puget Sound region was especially hard hit.

Image from nps.gov

But then came the opportunity that led to Erastus Brainerd’s advertising campaign and Seattle’s ascension to the pinnacle of NW city rankings: the Klondike Gold Rush. It lasted only a year, from 1897 to 1898, but while it was going on, an estimated 70,000 of the 100,000 people (mostly men) who traveled via Alaska to the Yukon Territory in northern Canada to seek their fortune passed through Seattle.

When the rush began, San Francisco was better equipped to outfit miners heading north, and Victoria and Vancouver in Canada were closer to the gold fields, but thanks to Brainerd’s promotion, Seattle became known worldwide as the place to start your Yukon adventure.

Image from nps.gov

Appointed by the Chamber of Commerce shortly after the steamship Portland arrived in Seattle on July 17, 1897, with the first wave of weary but ecstatic miners and what one creative newspaper writer called “a ton of gold,” Brainerd lost no time in starting his campaign. The first thing he did was place ads in newspapers across the U. S. promoting Seattle as the “Gateway to the Yukon” although there was little to justify that claim.

Here’s how writer Les McLaughlin describes what happened next:

[Brainerd] then convinced the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper to print a special edition focusing on this bogus claim. The newspaper printed more than 200,000 copies and mailed them to postmasters across the US for distribution at local post offices. Twenty thousand were sent to newspaper editors and business organizations in the United States and Europe. Ten thousand were mailed to mayors, town councils and librarians.

Next came a promotional pamphlet. Authorities in Europe were so impressed with the circular they reprinted and distributed it for free. And Brainerd kept the publicity machine running by writing letters to every governor and mayor in the U.S., requesting information on “how many men to expect in Seattle” for the gold rush. Included in the letters were maps and guides to the gold fields – through Seattle, of course.

San Francisco also staged a PR campaign, but in December 1897, a writer for a national magazine called their effort a “sluggish” affair that paled beside the spirit displayed by Seattle.

Vancouver and Victoria also promoted their advantages, but warned prospective miners about the dangers of the adventure, and the chance of finding no gold. Seattle also acknowledged the risks, but wisely urged travellers to guard against them by purchasing plenty of supplies – in Seattle!

Image from aype.com

A decade after the Klondike stampede not only lifted Seattle out of the depression but infused it with capital and labor and made it famous worldwide, the city hosted a world’s fair called the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. Running from June through October, the fair drew 3,700,000 to what, only a couple of decades before, had been a remote and mostly neglected corner of the United States.

The fair’s name was a nod to the success of Brainerd’s campaign and a signal that Seattle was setting its sights on something even bigger: being the gateway to the greater riches that lay across the Pacific.

How Writers Helped Shape the Myth of a New Eden

When choosing the name for this website, I considered calling it Writing About the Northwest, but I wanted the writing the site would explore to be more than that. It seemed to me writing related to a region like the NW doesn’t only describe it or explain it but also creates it, in the minds and hearts of its residents as well as outsiders. In effect, writers write a region into existence, delineating it characteristics, focusing its concerns, and forming its mythology.

While the core NW states of Oregon and Washington have much in common, they have many different characteristics, concerns, and even mythologies as well. If we go back to the 19th century, when the earliest stories of each were being told for those who didn’t live there yet, the defining vision for Oregon was of an Eden at the end of the Oregon Trail while for Washington–or at least its premier city–it was of a gateway to riches, those of the Klondike first and then of the Orient.

Neither of these visions, or the myths that grew up around them, developed organically or by accident. Before the middle of the 19th century, the NW was home only to indigenous tribes, trappers, soldiers at lonely outposts, and a few white missionaries far from the civilization they’d known. It wasn’t until the first group of migrants headed west from Missouri in the 1830s that Oregon was seen as a permanent destination for ordinary Americans. But once that migration began, the selling of Oregon did too.

Guidebooks about what was called the Oregon Country–similar to the one shown below for California–circulated not only in the Eastern parts of the United States but also in Europe. Outfitters and guides-for-hire advertised not only their supplies and services but also the wonders of the Pacific lands. Once immigrants had settled in the new region, they sent back letters praising their new homeland and encouraged others to move west.

One of the most popular books about the Oregon Trail was Frances Parkman’s The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life. The result of a two-month swing through several western states (although, ironically, not Oregon) when Parkman was 23, the book was serialized in Knickerbocker’s Magazine and then published as a book in 1949, when Eastern newspapers were full of stories about California gold. In his review of the book, Herman Melville praised it for its “true wild-game flavor” while excoriating the author for his “disdain and contempt” for the native people he traveled among.

The book launched Parkman’s career as a historian and storyteller while further popularizing the west as a place of excitement and adventure. Other, less-famous books (many of which did include descriptions of the Oregon Country) did the same, and soon what began as a trickle headed to the Willamette Valley became a flood.

Eventually, the British were driven out of what had been a disputed land and not only the Northwest territory but the entire United States had been transformed. Together with the miners and other settlers in California, the new farmers and ranchers in Oregon helped change the perception of America from a country with a tenuous hold in a new land to a place of endless progress and possibility that spanned an entire continent. And it was writers of works both truthful and fanciful who amplified that perception, turning it from speculation into destiny.

Note: In my next post, I’ll explore the very different vision that, a few years later, established Washington State’s place in the American–and world–consciousness.

The Long History and Continued Vitality of the Northwest’s Black Newspapers

(image from Wikipedia)

You don’t have to do more than scratch the surface of Pacific Northwest history to see how unwelcoming the area has been for African Americans. Oregon’s constitution, enacted on this date (February 14) in 1859, made it illegal for Blacks to even stay overnight in the state. As late as 1941, Portland–the only Oregon city with more than a handful of African Americans–had fewer than 2,000 in a population of 300,000.

And Seattle wasn’t much better. Despite being desperate for workers at the start of World War II, Boeing refused to hire even highly skilled African Americans. And most of the neighborhoods in Seattle’s north end (where I grew up) were formed with covenants forbidding house sales to people of color.

The Northwest’s midsize cities, smaller towns, and rural areas were no better. Even now, it’s rare to see a Black face anywhere outside the larger cities. According to the Census Bureau, in 2020 Washington State was only 4% Black, Oregon 2%, and Idaho 1%.

Given this history, it will come as no shock to hear that the area’s white-owned newspapers generally ignored its Black residents. The dearth of stories about people who looked like her became so painful to Portland resident Kathryn Hall Boyle (1906-2003) that in 1937 she arranged for a meeting with the Oregonian‘s city editor to show him the pitiful number of Black-oriented articles she’d found in his paper. His response was to ask her to write something herself.

And so she did. Eighty-five years ago today, her 2,000-word article, “An American Negro Speaks of Color,” became the first piece published by a major Northwest newspaper to describe what it was like to live as an African American in the region.

While Bogle’s article may have been a watershed moment for the area’s white press, it was far from the first piece to be written about African American life in the Northwest. The region has been home to Black-owned and Black-focused newspapers since at least the 1890s.

Washington’s first successful Black newspaper was the weekly Seattle Republican, one of seven Black newspapers to begin publishing in Seattle between 1891 and 1901. You can read several editions of this important paper here. Despite the Oregon constitution’s ban on African Americans, Portland entered the field in 1896 when a young man named Adolphus D. Griffin started publishing the short-lived but important weekly New Age.

One of the region’s most successful early Black papers was the Northwest Enterprise, published from 1920 through 1952. Although centered in Seattle, the Enterprise had a Portland bureau where several women from the Bogle family served as editors. In fact, the Enterprise was an early leader in hiring women as writers and editors. You’ll find facsimiles of several issues of the paper here.

Today, you’ll find Northwest news for and about the African American community in several newspapers, including:

The Skanner (Seattle and Portland)

Seattle Medium

The Portland Observer

For a full list of historical Black-owned newspapers, go to these Wikipedia pages:

List of African-American newspapers in Washington (state)

List of African-American newspapers in Oregon

And for a fascinating look at many issues of Portland’s older African American newspapers, visit the Portland State University library’s Historic Black Newspapers of Oregon site, where you can browse and download editions from the Rutherford Family Collection.