Set in Seattle: John Okada’s NO-NO BOY a Must-Read on the Agonies of American Immigration and Assimilation

Image from the Zinn Education Project

by Michael N. McGregor

When Americans talk about immigration, they tend to have one of two groups in mind: either the crowds of Latin American refugees massing along our southern border today or the waves of Europeans who swept into the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Almost entirely forgotten are the Asian immigrants who settled mostly along the West Coast at roughly the same time Europeans were flooding in. Among them, the Chinese suffered the worst early experiences, subjected as they were to humiliations and killings and legislated exclusion from the country. But it was the Japanese, both foreign- and domestic-born, who, in 1942, at the direction of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, became the only Americans (other than enslaved Blacks) ever rounded up and incarcerated solely because of their ethnicity.

The basic story of Executive Order 9066–by which people of Japanese ancestry (whether American citizens or not) were deprived of their civil rights and forced to leave their homes, businesses, and farms to live in internment camps in desolate areas–is well-known today. Children often learn about it in school. What isn’t generally known or taught, however, is the devastating effect the internment experience and its aftermath had on the minds and lives of those forced to endure it.

Barracks and Water Tower (Minidoka internment camp), Kenjiro Nomura, Tacoma Art Museum

I’ve written about that dark period myself, both here and elsewhere, but my observations were those of an historian, my understanding that of an outsider–until this past month when I finally read a book I’d intended to read for years: John Okada’s No-No Boy.

Before I discuss the book’s content, let me state clearly that No-No Boy is not just a great book about the experiences of Japanese Americans; it’s a great book, period. Not only is it beautifully written, it’s also unflinchingly honest and fair and heartbreaking.

Published in 1957, No-No Boy tells the story of Ichiro, a young Japanese American man returning to his hometown of Seattle in 1946. Instead of returning from the war like others in the city’s Japanese community, he is returning from two years in prison, where he was sent for answering ‘no’ to two questions every young man of Japanese descent was asked: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States? Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the country? (His answers are the no-no of the book’s title.)

The first thing that happens to Ichiro when he reaches Seattle is a former acquaintance who did serve in the military spits on him. Worse is yet to come as he faces accusations of treason and betrayal as well as the doubts, regrets, and shame in his own mind.

While Ichiro is always central, part of what makes the book so good and devastating (as well as pertinent to discussions about immigrants today) is how well and fairly Okada renders not only Ichiro’s psychological state but those of everyone he encounters–from immigrants like his mother who remain devoted to Japan to the whites who have little idea what someone like Ichiro is going through.

Some in the book are kind and some are cruel, but no one is reduced to a type or a category. All have their reasons for all acting and speaking the way they do. And Okada gives them all their due, even those who seem most awful.

Okada wasn’t afraid to interrogate his own culture as well as the larger white culture around it, or to drill down into the various sicknesses and cruelties at the family and interpersonal levels.

Rendered in a voice that’s both distinctive and perfectly in tune with its time and characters, Okada’s willingness to look unflinchingly at how people truly think and treat each other makes No-No Boy one of those rare books—like Stoner or Revolutionary Road—that seem to hold the raw and bloody heart of life in their hands.

Image from fullerton.edu

Here, for example, is Ichiro thinking about his younger brother, Taro, who detests him for not serving in the military and plans to enter the post-war army himself:

Taro, my brother who is not my brother, you are no better than I. You are only more fortunate that the war years found you too young to carry a gun. You are fortunate like the thousands of others who, for various reasons of age and poor health and money and influence, did not happen to be called to serve in the army, for their answers might have been the same as mine. And you are fortunate because the weakness which was mine made the same weakness in you the strength to turn your back on Ma and Pa and make it so frighteningly urgent for you to get into uniform to prove you are not a part of me. I was born not soon enough or not late enough and for that I have been punished. It is not just, but it is true. I am not one of those who wait for the ship from Japan with baggage ready, yet the hundreds who do are freer and happier and fuller than I. I am not to blame but you blame me and for that I hate you and I will hate you more when you go into the army and come out and walk the streets of America as if you owned them always and forever.

Laid out in this book, in sometimes agonizing, sometimes breathtaking clarity, is the immigrant experience: the awful decisions and compromises and consequences America demands of those who seek only to be accepted, fully and respectfully, as fellow citizens.

John Okada in 1957, the year No-No Boy was published. Image from the University of Washington Magazine.

A few links:

  • John Okada’s personal story is as agonizing as that of the main character in his only novel. You can read about his difficult life and what became of his second book in “The Legacy of No-No Boy” by Vince Schleitwiler, published in the December 2019 issue of University of Washington Magazine.
  • Densho, a website whose mission is to “preserve and share history of the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans to promote equity and justice today.”

Note: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org, where your purchases support local bookstores. If you purchase a book through a click on this website, I will earn a small commission that helps defray the costs of maintaining WritingtheNorthwest.com.

Northwest Indigenous Artist Sky Hopinka Receives 2022 MacArthur “Genius Grant”

Sky Hopinka, Artist and Filmmaker, 2022 MacArthur Fellow, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY

by Michael N. McGregor

A few weeks ago, I received an email from one of my old colleagues at Portland State University telling me a former student, Sky Hopinka, had been awarded a 2022 MacArthur “Genius Grant.” When I looked him up, I was pleased to see that his art is centered in the experience of indigenous people, including some from the Northwest.

Hopinka not only earned his BA from PSU but was born in Ferndale, Washington. And while his work in film, photography, and poetry is wide-ranging, several of his videos focus on Northwest indigenous life.

His first feature-length film, “maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore” (2020), for example, is set entirely in the Northwest world of its two indigenous protagonists.

An image from “maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore

Here’s a brief description from a New York Times review by Beatrice Loayza:

The documentary, anchored in the Chinookan origin-of-death myth (a dialogue between a wolf and a coyote about the afterlife), separately follows two young parents — pregnant Sahme and Jordan Mercier, both friends of Hopinka’s — as they grapple with questions of legacy and identity.

Subtitles switch between English and Chinook jargon, yet the oral component (including Hopinka’s narration) occasionally fades into the backdrop with sound design that amplifies the crackling of a fire, the bubbling and thrashing of the ocean and waterfalls.

The natural world, with its never-ending tides and its cycles of life and death, provides a framework for the preservation of Indigenous culture, resilient despite its new forms and manifestations.

In reviewer Glenn Heath Jr. ‘s good (free) review for the Film Stage website, he calls “maɬni ” an “elegiac and at times mesmerizing feature debut.” His review gives a good description of the film’s content, including the ways Hopinka challenges traditional white use of ethnographic documentary to “exoticize non-Western communities.”

You can watch the entire film at The Criterion Collection, which offers a free 14-day trial.

For a shorter look at Hopinka’s vision of the Northwest, try “Anti-Objects, or Space Without Path or Boundary,” a 13-minute video available for free on his website.

Here’s how he describes this shorter work: “Images and representations of two structures in the Portland Metropolitan Area that have direct and complicated connections to the Chinookan people who inhabit(ed) the land are woven with audio tapes of one of the last speakers of chinuk wawa, the Chinookan creole, chinuk wawa.”

According to the bio on his website, Hopinka is from the Ho-Chunk Nation/Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, but during his days in Portland he both studied and taught chinuk wawa (Chinook jargon).

Hopinka’s work has appeared at numerous festivals, including Sundance, the Toronto International Film Festival, and the New York Film Festival. It has also been part of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, the 2018 FRONT Triennial, and Prospect.5 in 2021. It will be exciting to see what his MacArthur Fellowship allows him to do next.

In a conversation with Theo Anthony published in Filmmaker Magazine, he said this about his work:

“[E]mpathy is something I think a lot about. It’s also the relationship, as Adam Khalil put it, between knowledge and information around indigenous cultures. What does it mean to know something, and what does it mean to have facts about something or a culture or a community? And as I try to not explain things, I’m hoping that through context or the things that are nearby, an audience will be able to understand how I feel about them, or place themselves in a certain empathetic space where they may not know what’s going on, but they know how to feel about it.”

More links:

Sky Hopinka’s full bio

Interviews with Sky Hopinka and links to more reviews of his works

A full list of 2022’s MacArthur Fellowship recipients

Portland the Spinster

A three-week road trip through parts of the Midwest and Canada (including Chatham, Ontario, where the subject of my next biography–J. D. Ross–grew up) has kept me from posting anything for a while. But I’m back in the Northwest now and I just came across a May 19, 1917, article published in the national magazine Collier’s Weekly, entitled “Portland the Spinster.”

Intrigued? Me too. I always enjoy seeing how outsiders view the Northwest. This particular piece was written by a Californian named Wilbur Hall, who seems to have done little beyond this kind of magazine writing.

Hall begins with a wide-angle view of the lush Willamette Valley and its nearby mountains before zeroing on the people of Portland who, he says, “speak aggrievedly and as children disappointed when the peaks are veiled with clouds.” Having established a condescending tone, he quickly moves on to his main point: that Portland is like a reclusive, persnickety and somewhat risable woman–in his parlance, a “spinster.”

Image from Clipart Library.

Hall attributes the city’s spinster-ness to the continued, conservative control of the FFPs–the First Families of Portland, or, as he calls them again and again, “the Corbetts and the Failings and the Ladds and the Lewises and the Flanderses and the Hoyts and their kind.”

Waiting on the “approving nod of these families” he writes, are “questions of municipal harbor bonds, a mayor’s election, the Drama League, the repainting of the church, women’s smoking, the length of bathing costumes, and the absence of length in street skirts, prohibition, the location of the First National Bank, the conduct of our war against the I. W. W., pure-milk campaigns, the tango, the movie, the treatment to be accorded anarchists, strangers, holy men, fakers, new doctrines, new art, new thought, new life.”

According to Hall, the rest of Portland’s population “is built from two quite different classes, yet with many characteristics in common that would combine to give any community a flavor of provincialism.”

The first to arrive, he writes, were “powerful, slow, industrious, gentle, lovable people from the north of Europe–Swedes and Danes and Norwegians–drawn into this country of timber by the irresistible force of traditional vocation.”

The second were “families threatened by the maelstrom of the early days of the Rebellion–border-State folk without sympathy to attach them to the heroic flags of the South or conviction to carry them into the zealous ranks of the North. They were neither cowards nor shirkers, probably–just silent, unimaginative, unconcerned agriculturalists, for whom moving was cheaper and easier and safer than fighting or standing between those who fought.”

Image from Clipart Library.

In sum, the city was composed of fusty overlords and slow, unimaginative sheep.

Yet in Hall’s time, Portland had a very different reputation in some circles. It was known as the birth place of the Oregon System, which put political power in the hands of the people. How did he account for that?

Yes, Portland did hold the reins of power in the state, he allowed, and it was difficult to “square the [city’s] tendency toward reaction with the fact of progressivism.” But he had an answer for it:

“It happened that they had in their midst able leaders, ahead of their times. It happened also that there was a group of strong and consistent radicals among them–men of unusual ability, of high standing in the community, and of pronouncedly revolutionary schools. My notion is that the hidebound conservatives who dominate Portland when they exert themselves were caught napping in those early days when the direct-legislation triplets–initiative, referendum, and recall–were brought forth for the first time. Woman suffrage, prohibition, protective and regulatory measures of State socialization, came in in a rush. Before the conservatives woke up, Oregon was committed to an out-and-out progressive program. And now no one, not even the conservatives themselves, would be willing to go back to the older system.”

Image from the Oregon Secretary of State website.

In other words, Portland’s conservative FFPs were lazy and hoodwinked but simply said, “Oh, well” when they found themselves in a new system.

There is much to smile at in Hall’s depiction of a city he wants to dismiss as being unworthy of comparison to his own Los Angeles. But at least he comes close to getting Portland’s rain right:

“As nearly as I can get at it, Portland doesn’t have so much real rain–not in inches; it just seems to have. As I understand it, Portland’s rains are scattered more or less evenly through the year, sunshine and downpour being doled out in climactic layers. I was assured by Portlanders, not only that no one minds the rain, but that they don’t have a really wet rain.”

Image from Clipart Library.

More Than a Dozen Books About the Pacific Northwest Are Finalists for Today’s Washington State Book Awards

When the winners of the 2022 Washington State Book Awards are announced today, books set in or focused on the Pacific Northwest are sure to be among the winners.

The awards–given out by the Washington Center for the Book (an affiliate of the Library of Congress Center for the Book, administered by the Washington State Library)–are intended only to honor “outstanding books published by Washington authors in 2021,” whatever their subject matter. But, of course, many Washington authors choose to write about this fascinating and beautiful part of the world.

This year’s list of finalists includes more than a dozen books that touch in some way on the Northwest. (My count is based on what I could determine by reading each book’s description, so there may be more.)

While the awards are “based on the strength of the publication’s literary merit, lasting importance and overall quality,” the judges all come from Washington, so having your book set in the Northwest can’t hurt, right?

Here’s a list of the Northwest-related finalists, some of which I’ll be reviewing on the WNW site in the coming weeks (just click on the title for a description):

2022 WSBA FINALISTSBOOKS FOR ADULTS

Biography/Memoir

Creative Nonfiction

Fiction

General Nonfiction

Poetry

2022 WSBA FINALISTS–BOOKS FOR YOUTH

Picture Books

Books for Young Readers

For a full list of this year’s finalists and more about this year’s awards, including judges, click here.

Sept. 14 Postscript: Here’s the list of the winners, along with links for ordering them: Edmonds Bookshop.

Congratulations to all of these fine writers, both finalists and award winners!

“One of the Greatest Americans of Our Generation”–The Subject of My Next Biography: J. D. Ross

James Delmage (J. D.) Ross shortly after he arrived in Seattle.

by Michael N. McGregor

When James Delmage Ross died suddenly on March 14, 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt mourned his passing by telling the country it had lost “one of the greatest Americans of our generation,” a man whose “successful career and especially his long service in behalf of the public interest are worthy of study by every American boy.”

Yet “J. D.,” as he was called by everyone who knew him—from the president to senators to children in his neighborhood—is virtually unknown today. Even in Seattle, where he was once the city’s most powerful—and popular—figure, those who recognize his name know it only because a dam and lake on the Upper Skagit River were dedicated to him.

Map of Seattle City Light hydroelectric projects on the Skagit River, including the dam and lake named after J. D. Ross.

In the Depression years, however, as the nation suffered the aftermath of predatory practices by private companies, Ross became known across the land as a tireless advocate for publicly-owned electrical power. FDR held him in such high regard, he chose him to sit on the Securities and Exchange Commission, to keep tabs on the country’s private power companies, and then to serve as the first superintendent of the Bonneville Power Administration, one of the most important strategic positions in the years leading up to World War II.

By then, Ross had built Seattle City Light into one of the world’s model municipally-owned power systems and championed changes to both the production and distribution of electricity that reduced power rates to a fraction of what they had once been. He had also toured the country for years, making the case for public control over the nation’s electrical grid.

FDR quote on J. D. Ross’s tomb.

If the country had listened to him—or he had lived longer—there’s no doubt our power system would be in much better shape than it is today and people everywhere would understand FDR’s words of praise.

A self-taught electrical engineer who rose from humble beginnings to become the ideal civil servant and a close friend of the 20th century’s most powerful president, Ross is the kind of figure whose story—and example—we need today. Which is why I’m pleased to announce that I’m writing the first biography to ever be written of him.

A Seattle newspaper’s report on the tributes and crowds at Ross’s funeral

My work on Ross is being supported, in part, by the Oregon Historical Society’s 2022 Donald J. Sterling Senior Research Award in Pacific Northwest History. In the weeks ahead, I’ll be posting more about my finds in the months of research I’ve already done, as well as updates as the research and writing continue.

If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook–or go to my personal website, michaelnmcgregor.com–you’ll see images in the coming days from Ross’s hometown of Chatham, Ontario, once known as the Black Mecca because it served as a terminus for the Underground Railroad. His journey from Chatham to Seattle began in 1897 when he walked—walked!—from Edmonton, Alberta, to the Klondike gold fields after a doctor told him his lungs were failing and he needed more exercise.

Stay tuned for future updates!

Guest Post: The Pacific Northwest’s First (and Forgotten) National Literary Star–Ella Rhoads Higginson

by Dr. Laura Laffrado

Portrait by Edward Curtis (courtesy of The Ella Higginson Blog).

[Dr. Laura Laffrado is a Professor of English at Western Washington University. Her full bio can be found at the end of her essay.]

In the last decades of the 19th century, the Pacific Northwest, especially the far corner of northwestern Washington, was a remote place where it was hard to earn a living and difficult to find the leisure to write, even if you were literate. If someone did manage to write something, the region was so distant from Northeastern publishing centers, there was little chance the writing would be published and even less that it would achieve literary success.

Yet there was one writer there—a woman—who was not only being published but winning national awards for her work. The Chicago Tribune claimed she had “the hallmark of genius.” The San Francisco Chronicle said her characters were “as strong, as individual, as any created by Dickens or Thackeray.” Others compared her writings to those of Jane Austen, Sarah Orne Jewett, Jack London, and Leo Tolstoy.

1901 clipping from the Evening Report in Pennsylvania (courtesy of The Ella Higginson Blog).

She was, in fact, the first Northwest writer to be nationally—and even internationally—recognized, a woman who, according to the Kansas City Star “revealed the wildness and witchery of that northwestern corner where, watched by immemorial pines, Puget Sound lies sparkling in the clean air, and the horizon sweeps down to the great blue ocean.” For readers across the country, she put the Northwest on the literary map.

Yet today Ella Rhoads Higginson is almost completely unknown. 

When I first stumbled upon Higginson’s substantial holdings in the Washington State archives a few years ago, I was stunned, confused, excited, and nearly overwhelmed by unanswered questions. Who was this woman I’d never heard of? What kinds of things had she written? What could the twelve linear feet of her archive possibly contain? Why hadn’t I heard of her?

As I dove into researching her life and work, I learned that many people across the nation and around the world were first introduced to the Pacific Northwest when they read Higginson’s award-winning writing. Her descriptions of the majestic mountains, vast forests, and scenic waters made the distant and unfamiliar Northwest captivating. “Here comes a woman,” Philadelphia’s Globe Quarterly Review said, “all the way from Seattle, breathing the air of the Western mountains and seas.”

A few of Ella Higginson’s many books (courtesy of Laura Laffrado)

Remarkably, in her almost 80 years of life, Higginson (1862?-1940) authored over eight hundred works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and screenplays. She was published by the prestigious Macmillan Company in New York, earned best-story prizes from popular magazines such as Collier’s and McClure’s, and was Washington State’s first Poet Laureate. Popular composers set her poems to music and celebrated singers, including the great Enrico Caruso, performed and recorded them.

By the time Higginson died, however, both she and her work had been forgotten.

Higginson’s writings were especially notable in her day because they were set in Oregon and Washington, with infrequent forays into Alaska, British Columbia, and Idaho. At the time, the Northwest was not only remote and thinly populated but also largely male, and Eastern readers were captivated by it, especially as described by a woman.

Higginson’s first publication came in 1876, when an Oregon newspaper printed one of her poems. She was 14 years old. By then, her family had moved west from Kansas, where she was born. Although she attended public school, she was privately tutored and benefited from her parents’ substantial library. She might have become known exclusively as an Oregon writer if she hadn’t married Russell Carden Higginson (a distant cousin of New England author and editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson) in 1885 and moved with him to what is now Bellingham, Washington, where she lived the rest of her life.

It was a poem, too, that first earned Higginson a national reputation. When “Four-Leaf Clover” was published in 1890, it quickly became a nationwide—and then international—sensation. Appearing in periodicals and on postcards (see below), greeting cards, calendars, paper weights, and other ephemera, it was also set repeatedly to music. Even today, it is the one piece of writing her name is still connected to.

A postcard featuring Higginson’s most popular poem (courtesy of Laura Laffrado).

A savvy promoter of her own work, Higginson played on the popularity of her breakthrough poem every way she could. She named her dog Clover and her house Clover Hill. She wore four-leaf-clover jewelry and led an unsuccessful campaign for the wild clover to be named the official Washington State flower. She had four-leaf clovers imprinted on many of her books’ covers and used them on her bookplates. She even wrote a literary column for the Seattle Times called “Clover Leaves.”

But although “Four-Leaf Clover” was incredibly popular, it was only a tiny part of her body of work. Among her most important books are the short-story collections From the Land of the Snow Pearls (1897; originally published in 1896 as The Flower That Grew in the Sand) and A Forest Orchid (1897), the poetry collections When the Birds Go North Again (1898) and The Voice of April-Land (1903), and her one completed novel, Mariella, of Out-West (1902), which some reviewers called the best novel of the season.

Her last book, the literary travelogue Alaska, the Great Country (1908), was called essential reading for any intrepid traveler headed north to Alaska.

All of these books sold well, ran through multiple printings, and were positively reviewed nationally and internationally. However, like many once-popular women writers, Higginson’s literary star dimmed in the early 20th century. Her books went out of print and her fame faded. Near the end of her life, aggrieved at being forgotten, she wrote on a folder of saved correspondence, “Letters from famous folks; and from publishers, proving that I didn’t need to seek publishers—they sought me.” (Emphasis in original).

Higginson died at 78 on December 27, 1940, and is buried in Bayview Cemetery in Bellingham, beneath a self-designed granite marker featuring four-leaf clovers, quotations from her poetry, and the proud line, “Ella Higginson, Poet-Writer.” It seemed at the time that no one would know her name or her work again.

Fortunately, though, after decades of obscurity, Higginson and her work have been rediscovered, not only by me but by other scholars and readers. Her writings are even being taught in high school and college courses today. Much remains to be done, however, to return her to the prominent position she deserves, as the first of the Pacific Northwest’s literary stars.

A few links:

Dr. Laffrado’s book: Selected Writings of Ella Higginson: Inventing Pacific Northwest Literature

The Ella Higginson Blog–maintained by Dr. Laura Laffrado (lots of great stuff here, including lists of Higginson’s works and news of current writing about her.)

Dr. Laura Laffrado page at Western Washington University.

Ella Higginson site maintained by WWU.

Ella Rhoads Higginson bio at Oxford Bibliographies.

Ella Higginson entry in the Oregon Encyclopedia.

Ella Higginson books for sale! (Disclosure: WNW is an affiliate of Bookshop.org, where your purchases support local bookstores. If you purchase a book through a click on this website, we will earn a small commission that helps defray the costs of maintaining WritingtheNorthwest.com.)

~~~~~

Dr. Laura Laffrado is an award-winning Professor of English at Western Washington University. Among her books are Uncommon Women: Gender and Representation in Nineteenth-Century US Women’s Writing and her most recent book, Selected Writings of Ella Higginson: Inventing Pacific Northwest Literature, which received the Society for the Study of American Women Writers 2018 Edition Award. She is currently at work on a biography of Pacific Northwest writer Ella Rhoads Higginson.

Persistence and Adaptation: Asian American Identity and News in the Pacific Northwest

Image courtesy of @tirachardz

The awful rise in attacks on Asian Americans in recent months has reminded me how horribly Chinese immigrants were treated in the Pacific Northwest in the latter half of the 19th century, as well as how difficult it has been through the years for local Asian Americans to be heard on issues affecting them.

Things have improved in recent decades but Americans and Canadians of Asian descent—who make up 9% of the population in Washington, 5% in Oregon, and an impressive 25% in British Columbia—are still underrepresented in the governments and news outlets in their regions.

Fortunately, in addition to more narrowly targeted newspapers, the Northwest now has three daily publications dedicated specifically to news and issues affecting Asian American residents: Asian Journal in Vancouver (BC), Northwest Asian Weekly in Seattle, and the The Asian Reporter in Portland.

Chinese man, unknown date, Washington State, State Library Photograph Collection, 1851-1990, Washington State Archives, Digital Archives, http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov, accessed 7-6-22.

A Little History

Asians and Asian Americans have maintained a continual presence in the Pacific Northwest since the 1850s, when the first Chinese miners migrated north to Oregon and Washington from California. These miners were soon followed by others who worked in salmon canneries and logging camps as laborers or cooks, or ran small businesses.

When the railroads began to snake their way into the Northwest, Chinese workers helped to blast pathways and lay rails, earning a reputation for diligence, skill, and speed—as well as the enmity of white workers, who hated them for their willingness to do more for less and their skin color.

As the 19th century progressed, other Asian groups followed, arriving from Japan, the Philippines, Hawaii, and elsewhere. Virtually all of these early Asian residents were young men willing to work hard for whatever they could earn.

By 1870, there were over 4,000 Asian immigrants in Idaho—a third of the population—as well as over 3,000 in Oregon, most of them Chinese. While there were fewer than 400 in Washington at that time, by 1880 that number had grown to over 3,000 too .

Despite being subject to targeted restrictions (such as special taxes and laws against marrying whites or owning property) and, in the mid-1880s, attacks by mobs, many of these residents remained in the area or returned when conditions improved. In other words, they persisted.

Drawing of an anti-Chinese riot in Seattle, 1886, General Subjects Photograph Collection, 1845-2005, Washington State Archives, Digital Archives, http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov, accessed 7-6-22.

Even 1882’s vile Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigration into the U. S. for 10 years, didn’t shake the determination of those already in the country to stay and make their living wherever and however they could.

Northwest residents of Japanese extraction, of course, were subject to another cruel law in 1942, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which forced them to leave their homes, their farms, and their businesses to move to government-run internment camps. When World War II ended, many who went back to where they’d lived before the war had to start from scratch among neighbors who had greedily acquired the property they’d been forced to abandon.

While early Asian settlers in the Northwest sought both identity and protection in their own nation-of-origin-focused groups, a greater Asian American identification began to grow in the later part of the 20th century. In Seattle, for example, the former Chinatown was renamed the International District (over the objections of some Chinese leaders) to recognize the mingling of many Asian American groups in the area.

Image courtesy of RODNAE Productions

Newspapers

Although there have always been newspapers for Asian Americans from different groups (often published in languages other than English), it wasn’t until late in the 20th century that English-language papers focused on Asian Americans from all backgrounds began to appear in Northwest cities.

(For a fascinating look at the history of Asian-language newspapers in the United States, go to Kuei Chiu’s 2008 posting on the Chinese American Librarians Association website.)

Today, as the percentage of people in the Northwest who identify as Asian American continues to grow, the news sites dedicated to keeping them informed and representing their interests are good sources for all Northwesterners wanting to expand their understanding of their neighbors and their vision of the world.

Here are some useful links related to news and other writing by and about Asian Americans in the Northwest:

Northwest Asian Weekly, Seattle

The Asian Reporter, Portland

Asian Journal, Vancouver, BC

Ethnic and Special Interest Newspapers of the Pacific Northwest

Asian Language Newspapers in the United States: History Revisited” by Kuei Chiu

Chinese in Northwest America Research Committee website

AAPI Racial Justice Resources page, Seattle Rep (LOTS of good links here!)

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.

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