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.

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

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.

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.

Guest Post: Writer Stewart Holbrook Was the NW’s ‘Best-Known Personality’ But Never Received the Credit He Deserved

by Michael Schepps (you’ll find a full bio, including a link to Schepps’s new book, Split Aces, at the end of the article)

Throughout much of his life, the writer Stewart Holbrook (1893-1964) was considered “perhaps the Pacific Northwest’s best-known personality.” In seemingly endless articles that garnered a devoted local readership and were often excerpted in the national press, Holbrook captured and caricatured what he called the country’s “Far Corner” during its rapid mid-20th century modernization, painting an indelible portrait whose legacy lives on today. But Holbrook did more than just portray the Northwest. His stylistic innovations in the field of creative nonfiction are the equal of the more-celebrated Joseph Mitchell, but he has never received the credit he deserves.

One of Holbrook’s primary interests was timber. After years of working in Northwest logging camps (as well as sojourns in the theater world and on the battlefields of France), he took a position in Portland in 1923 as the associate editor of the 4-L Lumber News, the mouthpiece for a government-and-industry-backed labor union meant to be an alternative to the radical Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies. Seeking to supplement his income through freelancing, he found a home in the pages of The Oregonian. There, he regaled readers with histories, character studies, and reportage about whatever crossed his path, including his observations during drinking sessions with the grizzled waterfront tough Edward “Spider” Johnson.

Written with considerable brio while invoking a demi-realm of myth and history, these articles are much of the reason for Holbrook’s lasting influence. In particular, his vivid evocation of the Pantagruelian proportions of Augustus Erickson’s gargantuan bar and the sinister chthonic depths of the city’s Shanghai Tunnels helped create the popular perception of nineteenth-century Portland as an “anything-goes” fantasia.

In Holbrook’s depiction, a wild drinking session at the “longest bar in the world” might end with the drinker being drugged and trafficked (alongside dead men and cigar-store statues) through tunnels honeycombing the waterfront, only to wake up in chains (while facing a year’s harsh service) on a rotting clipper ship rounding the Horn.

Although Holbrook’s work appeared in national publications such as The New Yorker, The American Mercury, and Esquire at the same time his East Coast contemporary Joseph Mitchell was publishing the character sketches that would make him famous as a progenitor of what is called “new journalism,” he has never received adequate credit for his own innovations in prose. When literary historian Norman Sims named Joseph Mitchell a major influence on “new journalism” (or literary journalism) he pointed to Mitchell’s penchant for “merging fiction and nonfiction, the symbolic and the literal, biography and reportage, the real and the imagined landscapes of the city.” What is true for Mitchell is equally true for Holbrook.

Along with Mitchell, Holbrook wrote from a participant-observer perspective and often focused on “lowbrow” life, which are valuable tools today in any nonfiction writer’s toolkit. Of course, he shared some of Mitchell’s more questionable practices too, including the use of composite characters, invented dialogue, and hyperbole in the service of a larger truth (practices for which Mitchell has more recently suffered a dramatic reappraisal, with some even wondering if he was truly a journalist).

Read as imaginative literature or “literary journalism,” Holbrook’s work remains clean and compelling, the deeper truths beneath the varnish of embellishment and hyperbole shining through as bright as ever. But as serious history, it is greatly lacking. One historian has gone so far as to say that “repetition of a Holbrook fiction is a sure indication of lazy scholarship and gullibility.”

During his lifetime, Holbrook published over 30 books and countless articles. At its best, his work ties together strands of deep research and interviewing, a bright sense of place and character, and a singularly appealing voice. The East Coast transplant understood an essential truth about the region where he made his home and set his writing: it was a place of malleability and reinvention whose story had not yet been fully told—a place where the telling of its story could both define it and make it new.

Michael Schepps is a writer, editor and publisher in Portland. His exploration of authorial invention and identity continues in his debut noir novella Split Aces, available now from Korza Books, in both e-book and print. To read more of his work, visit MLSchepps.com.

Guest Post: Celebrating Ursula K. Le Guin’s Real and Imaginative Connections to a Place Called Portland

by David Naimon, co-author of Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing

[Editor’s note: The following is Naimon’s foreword to a new collection of writings by Portland writers called Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Susan DeFreitas and published by Portland-based Forest Avenue Press. In it, he discusses how Le Guin’s science fiction and other imaginative works reflect her experiences of living in the Pacific Northwest. You’ll find more information about Naimon and the book at the end of the post. This writing is copyrighted and used by permission of the author.]

Dispatches from Anarres is a tribute to the vision of Ursula K. Le Guin from writers who either live in or have a strong connection to Portland, Oregon, the city Le Guin called home for sixty of her eighty-eight years. The premise behind this book is not only that Portland shaped Le Guin’s writing but also that writers who live in Portland, who walk the same streets Le Guin once walked, in turn have been shaped by Le Guin, arguably Oregon’s greatest writer.

But are either of these notions, when examined, actually true? Yes, one of Le Guin’s canonical science fiction novels, The Lathe of Heaven, is set in a future Portland, but for the most part her science fiction and fantasy novels are set in imagined other worlds. Should we therefore consider Le Guin’s relationship to Portland in the same way we do Alice Munro’s to southwestern Ontario or Gwendolyn Brooks’s to Bronzeville, Chicago—places these writers’ work seemed to emerge from, be fed by, and grow out of? Le Guin often wrote about the importance of the imagination and put forth a philosophy that, interestingly, did not place the imagination in opposition to the real. Can a book be truly called “realistic” if it does not include the imaginative, given that our imaginative faculties are so central to what makes us human? Or as Ursula put it(more pithily than I ever could): “People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.” And: “Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren’t real. But they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books.” Le Guin was quick to point out that many of our foundational cultural texts, from Beowulf to Don Quixote, from The Odyssey to Hamlet, are in fact fantastical, imaginative works that are also true and real ones.

Outside of science fiction and fantasy, Le Guin did directly engage with “the real world.” Her poetry and nonfiction often explicitly spoke to the geography, culture, and ecology of Oregon and northern California. From a meditation on the street where she lived to poems written from her favorite cabin in the remote Steens Mountain region (where her family briefly homesteaded generations ago), these writings are rooted in the “here” of place. But when it came to her fiction, she said: “I seldom exploit experience directly. I do what the poet Gary Snyder calls ‘composting’—you let everything you do or think or read or feel sink down inside yourself and stay in the dark, and then (years later, maybe) something entirely new grows up out of that rich darkness. This takes patience.”

If everything Le Guin did or thought is part of this composting process—the process that led to the world of Earthsea and the planets of the Hainish cycle—then the metaphor of composting seems not a metaphor at all. Le Guin and the landscape she inhabited, literary and geographic, were inseparable. A founder of Oregon Institute of Literary Arts (the precursor to Portland’s most prominent literary organization, Literary Arts), she also taught writing workshops at Portland State University, at the Malheur Field Station in remote Harney County, Oregon, and at Fishtrap in the Wallowa Mountains. She was an enduring supporter of Portland’s KBOO community radio and of West Coast small presses, from the feminist sci-fi press Aqueduct in Seattle to Tin House in Portland to the anarchist AK Press in Chico, California. She explicitly credits the landscape of the Steens Mountain region of Oregon as an inspiration for The Tombs of Atuan, and that of northern California for Always Coming Home—and one could imagine, standing atop the high point of Orcas Island, Mount Constitution, in northern Washington, overlooking the watery wonderland of that island archipelago, that it too could’ve been a wellspring, if not the wellspring, for the world of Earthsea. Le Guin’s imagination arose from the Cascadia bioregion, and she continued to weave herself from it and back into it again. Her imaginative composting came from and returned to this land, this earth in particular. Taken in this light, Susan DeFreitas’s twinning of Portland and Anarres—not as a reductive one-to-one correspondence, but as a mysterious union of the real and the imaginative—makes sense.

In Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Anarres, the smaller planet in the double planetary system it shares with Urras, is considered lesser, not a planet at all, but rather a moon, a “rebel moon,” by its larger, wealthier, capitalistic, patriarchal neighbor. Long ago, in order to stop an anarchist rebellion, Urras agreed to allow the revolutionaries to live as they saw fit on Anarres, signing a noninterference pact to that effect. The anarchist society that arose on Anarres considered itself free and independent of the old world largely thanks to this pact.

For the longest time, Portland too was left alone, the forgotten big city on the West Coast. Without the immediately dramatic and stunning settings of San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver, Portland was a quiet inland port, one that lacked the scope of international commerce and cosmopolitan cultural influence of its outward-facing neighbor cities. And it was here, out of the spotlight, far from the hype, that artists and writers and dreamers, attracted by the cheap rent and affordable cost of living, were drawn to reinvent themselves. Whether it was the DIY ethos that developed here, the farm-to-table relationships that supported the local food movement, the family-like network of writers that emerged, or the radical acts of civil disobedience to protect the environment or protest the latest war (so prevalent that the first President Bush called Portland “Little Beirut”), the city emerged in many ways as a rebel moon.

Le Guin believed the notion of home was both imaginary and very real. “Home isn’t where they have to let you in. It’s not a place at all. Home is imaginary. Home, imagined, comes to be,” she said. “It is real, realer than any other place, but you can’t get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it—whoever your people are.” It is easy to imagine that these people—the tree sitters, the DIY artists, the community organizers—were not only inspired by Le Guin’s writing but also showed her how to imagine it. Le Guin was a listener, and a composter of what she heard. She advocated fellow feeling for the nonhuman “other,” for plants, animals, rocks, rivers, and even the tools we have fashioned from what the world has given us.

No wonder the stories of her fellow Portlanders, these dispatches from Anarres, include tales of women coming of age, women coming into their power, of tree-like networks in our brains, of tree-like networks as our brains, of the inquisitive and nostalgic remembrance of humans by ant collectives, and discussions of rebellion among bees. But there are tales that reveal the darker side of Portland as well. There is a reason Le Guin subtitled The Dispossessed “an ambiguous utopia.” Le Guin didn’t see the world through rose-colored glasses. Nor did she see Anarres or Portland this way.

As Jo Walton has pointed out, “Anarres could so easily be irritatingly perfect, but it isn’t. There are droughts and famines, petty bureaucrats and growing centralization of power.” And Portland’s self-regard, its self-mythologizing, its imagining itself into being as a place of self-reinvention, has often been fueled by historical and cultural amnesia. Founded on stolen indigenous land, built on the idea of racial exclusion, many Portlanders live here without a sense of the city’s history of redlining and displacement, of lash laws and internment. And as Portland has entered the spotlight, succumbing to a hype it had avoided for so long, housing prices have skyrocketed, the homeless population has exploded, communities of color have been pushed to its periphery, and Portland’s own utopic mythology has rightfully been called into question.

Samuel Delany suggests that the term “ambiguous utopia” is not meant to apply to Anarres in particular. That the peoples of Urras and Anarres both mistakenly believe they are living in a utopia. That Le Guin is questioning the notion of utopic visions altogether. “It’s only by problematizing the utopian notion,” Delany said, “by rendering its hard, hard perimeters somehow permeable, even undecidable, that you make it yield anything interesting.” This is what Le Guin has done. And under her spell, there are stories here that root the imaginative deeply in place, that suggest that there is no walking away from difficulty to create a happiness “over there.” Here we are, as in so many of Le Guin’s novels, in a place where people are imagining worlds into being that suggest both dystopic and utopic possible futures. Here we are with choices to make. About where to be, how to be, and what to imagine. Welcome to Dispatches from Anarres.

David Naimon is a writer and host of the literary podcast Between the Covers in Portland, Oregon.  He is also co-author, with Ursula K. Le Guin, of Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing (Tin House Books), winner of the 2019 Locus Award in nonfiction and a Hugo Award finalist.  His writing can be found in Orion, AGNI, Boulevard, Black Warrior Review and elsewhere.  It has received a Pushcart prize and been cited in Best American Essays, Best American Travel Writing and Best American Mystery & Suspense Stories.

~~~~~

Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Susan DeFreitas

Forest Avenue Press, Portland, Oregon

Published: November 2021

366 pages

$18

Contributors: TJ Acena, Kesha Ajọsẹ-Fisher, Stevan Allred, Jason Arias, Stewart C. Baker, Jonah Barrett, Curtis Chen, Tina Connolly, Mo Daviau, Rene Denfeld, Molly Gloss, Rachael K. Jones, Michelle Ruiz Keil, Juhea Kim, Jessie Kwak, Jason LaPier, Fonda Lee, David D. Levine, Gigi Little, Sonia Orin Lyris, Tracy Manaster, James Mapes, C.A. McDonald, David Naimon (foreword), Tim O’Leary, Ben Parzybok, Nicole Rosevear, Arwen Spicer, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Leni Zumas.

A Small NW Museum’s Presentation of a Japanese American’s Life and Art Raises the Question of What Might Have Been…

Sometimes you find the most interesting and informative visions of an area like the Pacific Northwest in out-of the-way places. After reading an article in the Seattle Times, my wife and I traveled out to Edmonds, WA, the other day to view the works of Kenjiro Nomura, an amazing and quintessentially NW artist who moved to Washington state from Gifu, Japan, in 1907 when he was 11.

Within a few years, Nomura was studying with the Dutch immigrant artist Fokko Tadama, who, according to the exhibit, “taught a plein air style of painting with loose brushwork that was similar to impressionism.” Like Nomura, many of Tadama’s students were of Japanese heritage and began to be recognized for the quality of their work while still students. That is to say, a group of talented young Japanese and Japanese American artists was thriving in the Seattle area as early as the 1910s.

Portrait, 1925, Kenjiro Nomura

Throughout the 20’s and 30’s, Nomura continued to grow as an artist, painting both urban scenes and landscapes in oils and watercolors. Somewhere around 1930, he moved beyond Tadama’s impressionist style and developed a more modernist style of his own: “a personalized approach that emphasized form, color, texture, and the atmospheric light unique to this region.” When the Seattle Art Museum opened in 1933, Nomura was the first local artist to have a solo exhibition there. Soon, his work was being exhibited across the country.

Yesler Way, 1934, Kenjiro Nomura

During the depths of the Depression in 1933-34, Nomura was part of the New Deal’s Public Works of Art Project, a program meant to help struggling artists. A year later, he became part of Seattle’s progressive Group of Twelve, a collection of leading local artists from many backgrounds. In other words, he was a full and integral part of a local American art scene with a growing national reputation…

…and then came Pearl Harbor and FDR’s Executive Order 9066, ordering the incarceration of almost 120,000 Japanese Americans, 2/3 of them American citizens.

Nomura was interned, with his wife and son, at a collection camp called Harmony, where the Puyallup Fairgrounds stand today. From there, they were sent to the Minidoka Relocation Center in a wasteland in south-central Idaho, where they remained until the end of WWII. (“The first thing that impressed me was the bareness of the land,” said camp resident Shozo Kaneko in a 1943 interview. “There wasn’t a tree in sight, not even a blade of green grass. Coming from the northwest where there was a lot of green fields and forest, the sights staggered most of us who had never seen anything like that before.”)

Here’s what one of the exhibit signs says about the effect on Nomura of his time at Minidoka: “The same government who paid for his artistic services less than ten years earlier had now created a devastating personal situation that would affect the rest of his life. He and his wife and son returned to Seattle in 1945 only to have his wife commit suicide the following year.”

Barracks and Water Tower, 1943, Kenjiro Nomura
George, Fumiko & Kenjiro Nomura, circa 1945

When Nomura reluctantly resumed painting after his wife’s death, he turned to abstraction and soon his work was popular again. The height of his success came in 1955 when his paintings were part of a major exhibition of NW artists in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and a show called Eight Washington Painters at the Portland Art Museum. A year later, his work was included in an exhibition titled Pacific Coast Art that traveled to top museums around the country. But that June, at only 59 years of age, Nomura died from complications from surgery.

Harbor, 1953, Kenjiro Nomura

What I find most intriguing, saddening, and infuriating about Nomura’s story is the promise his talent, associations and success represent–a promise cut short for so many Americans and hardworking immigrants in the NW by prejudice and fear of “the other.” In the days before he was sent to Minidoka, Nomura said about his art:

“My desire in painting is to avoid the conventional art rules, so that I can be free to paint and approach Nature creatively. I have gradually and almost unconsciously been influenced by the work of early Japanese painters. Now realizing this influence, I am consciously trying to utilize those qualities that I want, such as color, line and simplicity of conception, in my own style of painting. Due to the great difference between the Western style of painting and the Japanese, the problem is a very difficult one, but I am devoting every effort to achieve this.”

What other fine integrations of East and West–what advantageous hybrids and creative leaps–did we lose when a vital population was uprooted; deprived of their homes, businesses and artistic pursuits; and sent to live in concentration camps because of a deep-seated racism in this country?

I’m grateful to Cascadia Art Museum curator David F. Martin, who put the Nomura exhibit together, not only for introducing me to some of the most moving and impressive art I’ve seen in a long time but also for telling Nomura’s story: for writing the Northwest in this too-rare and much-needed way.

Kenjiro Nomura, American Modernist: An Issei Artist’s Journey runs through February 20, 2022, at the Cascadia Art Museum at 190 Sunset Ave. S., #E in Edmonds, WA.

Exhibit hours are:

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thurs.-Sun.

Ticket prices are:

Adults: $10
Seniors: $7
Youth (0-18): Free
Students: Free

To learn more about the exhibit, go to the Cascade Art Museum’s website.

For an in-depth look at Nomura’s life and art, consider purchasing art historian Barbara Johns’ Kenjiro Nomura, American Modernist, available for $39.95 on the CAM site.

2022 Donald J. Sterling, Jr., Senior Research Fellowship in Pacific Northwest History

I learned this week that I’ve been awarded the 2022 Donald J. Sterling, Jr., Senior Research Fellowship in Pacific Northwest History…which means, I guess, that my position as the curator of this website is a bit more legitimate now.

The Oregon Historical Society gives out two Sterling fellowships each year, one to a graduate student and one to a senior researcher. The award funds research in the OHS archives, with each recipient in residence at the archives for four weeks at some point during the award year. (I haven’t learned yet who this year’s graduate student recipient is.)

I’ll be using my archive time for research related to a new biography and preparation for writing an article or two for the Oregon Historical Quarterly.

According to the OHS website, the fellowships are funded “through an endowment, made possible by the family of Donald J. Sterling, Jr., to encourage original, scholarly, interpretive research in the Oregon Historical Society Research Library.

The catalog description for the Donald J. Sterling, Jr., Papers at OHS gives this brief bio:

Donald J. Sterling, Jr. (1927-2000) was the last editor of the Oregon Journal, serving from 1972 to 1992. He attended Princeton University and worked as a reporter for the Denver Post from 1948 to 1952. He joined the Oregon Journal when his father, Donald J. Sterling, retired, and in the early 1980s he helped to consolidate the newspaper with its former rival, the Oregonian. He was active in civic organizations including the City Club of Portland, the Housing Authority of Portland, and the Oregon Historical Society.”

Receiving this award and learning about Donald J. Sterling, Jr., has me thinking about the importance of newspapers in writing about the Northwest or any other place. As the saying goes, “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.” For historians and biographers, newspapers are a vital primary source of information. But what happens when, as with the Oregon Journal, newspapers consolidate or simply disappear? Can we trust a single paper in a major market like Portland or Seattle to give us the kind of accurate and non-biased information good history and biography rely on?

I’ll explore these questions and related ones in my next post.

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Lewis & Clark Revisited: The First Americans to “Write the Northwest”

Receipt for Wine and Kegs Purchased by Meriwether Lewis for the Expedition to the West; 6/1/1803; Lewis and Clark Expedition; Consolidated Correspondence Files, 1794 – 1890; Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, Record Group 92; National Archives Building, Washington, DC. [Online Version, https://www.docsteach.org/documents/document/receipt-wine-kegs, November 15, 2021]

The first Americans generally credited with “writing the Northwest” were Captain Meriwether Lewis and 2nd Lieutenant William Clark, who reached the Pacific Ocean on this date 216 years ago. The journals covering their approximately-two-and-a-half-year journey, written by them and four of the three dozen men in their Corps of Discovery, stretch to over a million words. Not all of them are about the Pacific Northwest, of course, but a fair number are.

The entry for November 16, 1805, their first full day in view of the Pacific, for example, contains these lines:

“We are now in plain view of the Pacific Ocean .    the waves rolling, & the surf roaring very loud.    on the opposite shore to us we discovered, the Tops of trees which we supposed to be on an Island laying a very great distance in the Ocean. [10]    We are now of opinion that we cannot go any further with our Canoes, [11] & think that we are at an end of our Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, and as soon as discoveries necessary are made, that we shall return a short distance up the River & provide our Selves with Winter Quarters, & We suppose that we shall find a considerable Quantity of Game low down on the River.”

It also says: “A Number of Indians staid with us all day.”

The entry was made near the mouth of the Columbia River, almost exactly one year and six months after the Corps left St. Louis. Historians tend to agree that the explorers would never have made it that far if not for the help of many individuals in the estimated 100 Indian tribes whose lands they crossed on their long voyage. The most famous, of course, is Sacagawea, a young Shoshone woman who grew up among several tribes and served the Corps as guide, interpreter and promoter of friendly relations with those whose lands they traveled through. But there were others too.

For example, a recent article by journalist Will Phinney on the website Underscore News mentions that “[a] Nez Perce woman named Watkuweis helped guide the expedition over the Bitterroot Mountains in Montana, persuading her people to befriend rather than kill the weak and starving strangers from the east.” And five Nez Perce teenagers “helped the men cross the mountains and make camp at Lolo Hot Springs.”

Phinney goes on to talk about tribes in the Columbia plateau providing the expedition with dogs for food; Indians near the Columbia and the Pacific supplying elk and deer, as well as blubber and oil from a beached whale; and indigenous people everywhere offering maps and directions and other essential help. Among the NW tribes the article mentions are the Umatilla, Cayuse, Yakama, Wasco, Wishrams, Wanapum, Walla Walla, Cowlitz, Multnomah, Chinooks, Clatsop, Skilloots, Tillamook, Kathlamets, and Wahkiakums.

Phinney’s article, titled “The Lewis and Clark Expedition from an Indian Country Perspective,” is about a reinterpretation of the Lewis & Clark expedition currently being undertaken through a partnership between the National Park Service and the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA), an indigenous tourism group.

According to Phinney, the two groups are collaborating “to develop online itineraries to promote the tribes that intersected with Lewis and Clark on their way across what became the United States.” In addition to information on tribal events and sites, the online guides will provide stories that “reflect the expedition from an Indigenous perspective, as told by the descendants of those who encountered the explorers as they made their way west.” To find out more, go to the websites LewisAndClark.travel and NativeAmerica.travel.

You can read all of the Lewis & Clark writings online at the “Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition” website, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Center for Great Plains Studies, the University of Nebraska Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, and University of Nebraska Press.

You can buy them all too, in 13 volumes, or opt for the 467-page abridged edition. If you’d prefer to have someone else interpret them for you instead of wading through them yourself, there are any number of sites and books ready to do just that. American Heritage, for example, has a handy list of the “The Ten Best Books” about Lewis and Clark. And Amazon offers dozens and dozens more, including many children’s books and at least one book about Captain Lewis’s dog, Seaman.

Nowhere in all of these books, however, do the indigenous people of the Northwest speak for themselves. Some writers have attempted to approximate the Indian perspective–mostly notably (and perhaps regrettably) in fictionalized first-person accounts by Sacagawea in novelist Brian Hall ‘s I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company: A Novel of Lewis and Clark and Scott O’Dell’s children’s book Streams to the River, Rivers to the Sea: A Novel of Sacagawea–but these attempts have tended to be awkward or arrogant or merely speculative. Often, all three.

Sadly, we will never be able to read the actual writings of indigenous people from pre-contact times in what has come to be called the Pacific Northwest. We will always be forced to try to intuit their thinking from writings written by others, often for exploitative purposes. But perhaps the project Phinney has written about will help us imagine what their perspective might have been and provide a necessary corrective to the traditional American narrative, in which outsiders like Lewis and Clark are inevitably portrayed as the heroes.

You can learn more about L & C’s brief stay near the Pacific Ocean in this HistoryLink.org entry: Lewis and Clark Expedition reaches the Pacific Ocean on November 15, 1805.

List of Indian Presents Purchased by Meriwether Lewis in Preparation for the Expedition to the West; 1803; Lewis and Clark Expedition; Consolidated Correspondence Files, 1794 – 1890; Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, Record Group 92; National Archives Building, Washington, DC. [Online Version, https://www.docsteach.org/documents/document/indian-presents, November 15, 2021]

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